In a recent interview on Fox News, commentator Bill O’Reilly asked Sarah Palin what she would tell an America that “has, as they say in California, evolved” to become a “much more secular nation than we were back in 1776.”
Palin responded that we “should kind of keep this clean, keep it simple, go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant. They’re quite clear that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments. It’s pretty simple.”
Much has been written about the extent to which religion, especially Christianity, influenced the founding fathers and the documents they created. But the even larger debate on the relation of the Many and the One—the Pluribus and the Unum—of America is more in the province of philosophers. What do they tell us?
Palin cited the national motto—In God We Trust—as an indication of how strongly “we do base our lives, our values, on the God of the Bible.” She would be perfectly comfortable on the Texas State Board of Education, where social conservatives have likewise emphasized the importance of In God We Trust and promoted a tilt toward the “One” in E Pluribus Unum: Latin for “Out of the Many, One.” There is no doubt that their One is the biblical God.
One of the best-known American philosophers is William James, author of Pragmatism, Varieties of Religious Experience, and A Pluralistic Universe, among others. Because of his work (and that of Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey), pragmatism is the philosophy most often associated with America.
In Pragmatism, James wrote that to some people, ideas are true whenever they conform to “what God means we ought to think.” As Palin made (more or less) clear, the God whose ideas “we ought to think”—the God in whom we should trust, to use the more familiar phrasing—is the God described in the Bible.
James wrote that for such people “…truth means essentially an inert static relation. When you’ve got your true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter.”
But is the One, the Unum, the God set forth in the Bible and the Ten Commandments? Or is the One the aggregation of American experience—religious, political, good, bad, ambiguous—to which we as individuals (the Many) stand in relation?
Recall that James wrote of “an inert static relation.” It was no accident that he did so, for the pragmatists, other pluralists, and process philosophers all tell us that the One is not literally monistic, but rather is all that has come before, all that is our past, and we are connected to it by dynamic relation.
For the pragmatists, what is “true” from that aggregation of experience is that which “works,” and is useful when set against our present, helping us to make sense of our lives as we move into the future. It remains true so long as it works. There is arguably nothing more American—not religious impulse, not political principle—than our belief in what works in our actual lives.
This commitment to history or, more accurately, to experience, is not necessarily antithetical to theistic beliefs, Christian or otherwise. Influenced to some extent by William James, but more systematic and precise in his philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead (most notably in Process and Reality) conceived of a God who is part product-of-all-actual-experience and part repository-for-all-possible-experience. This God stands in relation to individuals, the Many, who in “drops of experience” (a term used by both James and Whitehead) interact with the One in the present.
The essential element in this relation is that God, the One, in its contingent sense, is a participant in these drops of experience, and, more profoundly, is changed by them in a continual process. Therefore, the One relies on a communion with the Many for its own definition, and ultimately, for its own completion.
In the case of Palin and the God of the social conservatives, this means that their attempts to promote a static One and expect that the Many will or should accede to it are not only contrary to reality but also in some ways un-American, given that most Americans embrace what actually works in the changing world of experience.