“The left’s war on police, faith, history and American values is tearing our country apart, which is what they want,” President Trump told reporters on Aug. 31, 2020, after criticizing two Democratic National Convention caucus meetings for omitting “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. “We’re not taking the word God out of anything.”
The very next day, a committee reporting to Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser recommended removing, relocating or contextualizing monuments to historical figures that participated in “slavery, systemic racism, mistreatment of, or actions that suppressed equality for, persons of color, women and LGBTQ communities and violation of the DC Human Rights Act.” They identified four dozen D.C. sites, including the Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial and Benjamin Franklin Statue.
Understanding history is not about applying modern standards or modern law retroactively to historical figures. Doing so is cultural Marxism, especially because many on this committee’s list contributed to America’s founding principles of freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly that apply today to all Americans. The fact that this committee has the freedom to express their views stems from the accomplishments of the very historical figures they seek to remove.
To develop a healthier perspective of our past, we must first understand how past Americans viewed their lives, what circumstances they faced and how they changed. Instead of trying to impose our diversity on the past, we should ask questions such as: How did our nation’s Founders define diversity? What injustices did they face? Here’s a hint. They didn’t view themselves as united “under God.”
“The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people, a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations,” founder John Adams, America’s second, president reflected. “This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affection of the people, was the real American Revolution.”
In earlier centuries, both Protestants and Catholics were persecuted and killed in England, depending on the monarch’s preference. Jews were persecuted throughout Europe. Many came to America for religious freedom as a result. Puritans came to Massachusetts while Catholics established Maryland. More than half of the 13 colonies were formed under the Anglican Church. Quakers in Pennsylvania welcomed all, which made Philadelphia a rare safe haven for Jews.
“The colonies had grown up under constitutions of government, so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners and habits had so little resemblance,” Adams wrote of European Americans’ diversity.
“Their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action was certainly a very difficult enterprise.”
One difficulty the Continental Congress faced was which minister should open their proceedings “because we were so divided in religious sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians and some Congregationalists, so that we could not join in the same act of worship,” Adams explained.
How did Congress solve this division? “Mr. (Samuel) Adams arose and said he was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his country.”
Religious bigotry was sometimes abusive, especially on the anti-Catholic holiday that celebrated the capture of Guy Fawkes, a Catholic, who tried and failed to blow up a Protestant king and Parliament. Gangs paraded the pope in effigy in Boston, set off rockets, abused inhabitants and broke windows.
Likewise mob attacks and the imprisonment of five Baptists ministers in Virginia in 1774 for preaching without an Anglican license led James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to call for the free exercise of religion. Adams concluded that “if Parliament could tax us, they could establish the Church of England … and prohibit all other churches.”
Despite these religious injustices, which I explain in my new book, “Resilience on Parade: Short Stories of Suffragists and Women’s Battle for the Vote,” our Founders united Americans into one nation. Seeking to protect their God-given rights, they enshrined freedom of worship in the U.S. Constitution. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and others deserve to be honored today, not removed, for upholding freedom of religion, as well as freedom of speech, press and assembly and other accomplishments that apply today to all Americans regardless of skin color or sex.
Reflecting on America’s first diversity struggle gives fresh meaning to “Under God” in the flag’s pledge. Without prescribing a specific religion, “Under God” unites American Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others today of all ethnicities in a shared belief in freedom of religion. “Under God” is both a diversity statement and a statement of unity.
President Trump has identified a solution. “The only path to unity is to rebuild a shared national identity focused on common American values and virtues of which we have plenty. This includes restoring patriotic education in our nation’s schools.”
Rebuilding our national identity requires a better, wider, deeper and more tolerant understanding of our history, not removing God from the pledge or monuments from Washington, D.C.
• Jane Hampton Cook is a presidential historian and author of 10 books, including her most recent, “Resilience on Parade: Short Stories of Suffragists & Women’s Battle for the Vote.” She is a former White House staffer. Janecook.com
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