THOSE WITH POWER OFTEN DEMAND MORE. HOW can liberty be preserved? That fundamental concern and question bugged many patriots during the Revolutionary period. They emphasized the need for eternal vigilance: As John Dickinson wrote in 1768 in his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, free men needed to develop "a perpetual jealousy respecting liberty." James Madison similarly wrote in 1785, "It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of citizens."
The best structural way to defend liberty, Madison and other fathers of the Constitution believed, was to maintain political and social pluralism. The Federalist Papers happily forecast that American society "will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens that the rights of individuals or of the minority will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority."
Theological pluralism was a different matter. Almost all signers of the Constitution expressed a belief in Christianity. Only a few may have envisioned an America in which biblical faith would be shunned by a significant minority and nominal among most of the "Christian" majority. The first Congress, which met in New York City, would have been astonished by New York City public schools allowing crescent and menorah symbols but banning all Christian symbols except Christmas trees (p. 25).
And yet, like it or not, America over the past two centuries has become pluralistic by God's providence, as tired and poor immigrants from all over the world have come to our shores, often bearing religious beliefs far different from those of 18th-century America. Moreover, the descendants of the founding generation have often been the worst offenders, treating the Christianity that animated their ancestors as a vestigial organ.
At many points along the way that slowly increasing pluralism could have been stopped. The Founders could have created a religious test for public office, but they chose not to. George Washington, instead of urging equal treatment of Jewish citizens, could have pushed for a "Christians Only" plank. Thomas Jefferson welcomed back to our shores the atheist Thomas Paine. Irish Catholics in the 1840s could have been told, "Go home and starve." Immigrants at Ellis Island a century ago could have been checked for not only tuberculosis but spiritual problems.
I'm glad that inspectors allowed in non-Christians. Others may feel differently. In any event, the trend has escalated in recent years. Immigration reform in the 1960s opened the doors to more Buddhists and Hindus. More importantly, many children of Christians have fallen away, and some evangelicals have not taught about God's grace by showing mercy to others. As Michael Simpson notes in Permission Evangelism (Cook Communications, 2003), news media have promoted and many people "have bought into the stories of extreme, unloving acts by people that claim to be Christians." The result: Christians face a "social climate of distrust, fear, anger, and misunderstanding."
We could say a lot more about the immigration debate. When others want to come here to enjoy the essentials of what made America so attractive in the first place, fine; God calls us to welcome them. But if they are coming with the intent of changing those essentials, isn't it wise to steer and shape such movement? The big example, of course, is the language issue. A common language has historically been a great strength of America. Multilingualism may help destroy what has made America attractive.
But that is one problem, and my main point is that, like it or not, today we have pluralism by providence, an abundance of factions religious and temporal. Some of us might wish that we lived in a different time, but that is coveting a situation different from that in which God has placed us. Christianity (in terms of more than nominal identification) is a minority religion in America, a faction powerless to dominate others, even if we wanted it to. That realization should lead us to work alongside other groups to oppose the truly aggressive force of our age, secular liberalism.
Francis Schaeffer had much to teach Christians on this political question, as on many others. Toward the end of his life he emphasized the importance of falling neither into separatism nor into easy alliance. Instead, he urged us to think through co-belligerency, working in coalition with other groups against a common enemy, while retaining independence. We'll discuss this more in future columns.