On the official seal of The United States of America there stands a Latin phrase that also appears on the official seals of the President, Vice President, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court. It is simple and yet profound: e pluribus unum. Originally meant to demonstrate the unity of several states as one nation, it increasingly reminds us that this one nation is comprised of people from many different races, religions, countries, and ancestral history. In fact, this grand idea, that differences could be overcome in favor of a shared and noble purpose, lies at the very heart of the American experiment.
President Abraham Lincoln, in his famous address at Gettysburg, made the serious point that the war in which our nation was then engaged raised the question as to whether “that nation, or any nation so conceived” could last. He realized that a democracy of the people, by the people, and for the people could only endure if America was united around a common purpose and set of values. The maintenance of unity in the very midst of great diversity demands a mutual commitment to live for something greater than selfishness, as well as a radical determination to honor those with whom we disagree.
I believe that, were Lincoln alive today, he very well might suggest that the divisiveness so apparent in our land is testing our union even more than his war. While it has always been the case that political dialogue and disagreement have been robust in our country, they have consistently been carried out with the understanding that all involved were honestly trying to preserve and protect our nation’s best interests. Honor and duty were considered to trump self-centered desire, and at the end of the day, our union was preserved through our unity. Regardless of our views, we all held to the same basic principles at the end of the day.
But increasingly we are seeing that allegiance to these principles is deteriorating. We are losing the moral core out of which both civility and unity grows.
Whoever would have considered that one day our nation would legalize the destruction of a child in the womb? Who among our founders would have considered that their progeny would have to defend marriage as between one man and one woman? Which of the framers of the Constitution could foresee that the government would one day curtail the ability of citizens to own firearms? Who among them would countenance the notion that the government would consistently spend more than it took in? And which of them would have suggested that the government could penalize opposing groups for their views, or secretly spy on representatives of the media charged to hold that government responsible for their actions? Fundamentally, a lack of consistent ethical belief lies at the foundation of unethical action.
While our citizenry continues to debate these issues, the real issue is ethical. The reason our nation is sliding down the slippery slope of pragmatism is that we’ve largely severed ourselves from any authority other than the desire for personal happiness. As individuals we are so addicted to our own significance and happiness that we’ve lost sight of the fact that our shared mission is larger than any of us. “We, the people” has been replace by “Me, the priority” and the danger of this monumental shift is being played out almost everywhere we look.
There is one place, however, where the virtue called self-sacrifice still lifts its head occasionally. We see it when tragedy strikes. In the aftermath of Sandy, Newtown, Boston, and now Parkland, our screens were filled with ordinary people forsaking comfort to find and assist strangers in trouble. For a few days the nation forgot its struggles and strife, and came together to do something noble. We experienced e pluribus unum.
So, why do we wait until tragedy strikes? Why can’t we learn now what tragedy makes clear? Why can’t we agree fundamentally that life is precious, and people matter more than policies or programs? And why can’t we hold on to the deep truth that giving and serving and loving and forgiving are what make a life worthwhile? And why don’t we realize that our lives only have meaning if there is truth to the statement “In God We Trust?”
I believe we should attempt to push back the advance of “me first” thinking. Ultimately, it is self-destructive, and already it is draining the reservoir of American morality. And while we can’t do everything, we can do something. And what we can do, we should do. And what we should do, “with a firm reliance upon the protection of divine Providence”, we will do. May God bless America.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. “Ethically Speaking” runs Saturdays in The Signal.