E PLURIBUS UNUM is the traditional motto of America familiar to anyone who looks closely at our coins, currency or passport covers. These Latin words, meaning “Out of Many, One,” referred to the unity of our 13 diverse colonies as they fought for independence. In 1795, E PLURIBUS UNUM first appeared on U.S. coins. Since then, as our population grew even more diverse, America has exploited, tolerated, and even celebrated its cultural and religious diversity. Unfortunately, it has been slow to engage in pluralism and create a truly diverse, civil society, as our founding motto implies.

To distinguish America from an atheist Russian state during the Cold War, in 1954 Congress added, “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1956 approved a new motto, “In God We Trust,” to be printed on our coins. These relatively recent references to God have reinforced a belief that America’s founders desired a homogenous Christian nation as opposed to a religiously diverse, yet unified country.   

As Harvard University’s Pluralism Project notes in its paper, From Diversity to Pluralism, “…the terms ‘exclusion,’ ‘assimilation,’ and ‘pluralism’ suggest three different ways Americans have approached our widening cultural and religious diversity.” The exclusionist response has seen a resurgence of late, breeding fear and uncertainty about any newcomers arriving in our country, whether or not they are here legally. Suspending even legal immigration would be a classic exclusionist tactic.

The current immigration debate often confuses legal refugees – who face persecution or death back home and thus seek asylum – with both legal and illegal economic migrants who are seeking a better life for their families. Unfortunately, our current Congress seems incapable of accelerating asylum status for those who are most deserving and stalling needed immigration reform in the face of racial or religious prejudice.  Republicans appear to have lost their way on the importance of welcoming the stranger to our country, and they cannot seem to decouple the issue from the upcoming Presidential election.

Those who continue to characterize America as a “melting pot” may still wish to assimilate immigrants even with distinctly different faiths and customs. However, the belief that people should set aside their rich family, religious or Tribal heritage and conform to an Anglo-Protestant culture should no longer be acceptable in 21st Century America. As indigenous people can attest, assimilation has been more damaging than helpful over the past 250 years. 

True pluralists recognize the importance of bridge building in our country, and many interfaith efforts have proven successful in healing the fractures in communities where there has been vandalism and even physical violence against immigrants. Even former President George W. Bush has written (and illustrated) a book on the subject – entitled Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants – highlighting how new arrivals have contributed mightily to the country’s well-being.

Pluralism requires both knowledge and an appreciation of America’s diverse cultures plus a commitment to civil dialogue to advance a better society.  E PLURIBUS UNUM is the pathway even 250 years later.

Jan Brown is a retired nonprofit executive who is State Committeewoman for the Bonneville County Democrats and Region 7 Representative on the Idaho Democratic Party Executive Committee.