The God in Whom We Should Trust


John Willingham is a former election official in Texas. He now writes about history, culture, and election issues. He holds an MA in American history from the University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Willingham can be reached at john.texport.willingham@gmail.com.

At last, after a contentious series of meetings over many months, the Texas State Board of Education is set to take a final vote on social studies standards when it reconvenes in
Austin on May 18-20.  The Board’s actions have been controversial, defying the views of professional historians in favor of a narrow version of the American experience that restricts the contributions of women, minority groups, and activists outside the mainstream.

Social conservatives on the Board have emphasized the importance of the official national motto—“In God We Trust”—and promoted a tilt toward the “One” in E Pluribus Unum, Latin for “Out of the Many, One.”  There is little doubt that the Board’s conservatives believe that God, as understood by them, is the “One” under which the “Many” should be subsumed. One section of the proposed curriculum requires study of E Pluribus Unum and “In God We Trust” in sequence in order to understand their “meaning and historical significance.”

The strong tilt toward the One was most striking when, in an emotional meeting of the Board in January, conservative member Barbara Cargill crisply informed African American member Mavis Knight that “One of our goals is to emphasize the unity achieved as a result of the melting pot effect, so bringing attention to group distinctions is not necessary.”

Ms.Knight gathered herself and replied, “People have overcome as we have strived to become a unified America…We are not unified even now.”  She continued, “ …until we mature more, we’re going to look at where we have been and what obstacles we have overcome so that we won’t continue to repeat some of the bad habits that we had in the past.”

Ms. Knight’s historical view is in sync with the intellectual history of the never-ending attempt to define the relationship between the Many and the One. 

The best-known, and to this day among the most-read American philosophers is William James, author of many books, including Pragmatism, Varieties of Religious Experience, and A Pluralistic Universe.  Because of his work, and that of Charles Peirce and John Dewey, pragmatism is the philosophy most often associated with America.  In his book Pragmatism, James wrote that ideas to some people are true whenever they conform to “what God means we ought to think.”  For conservatives on the Texas Board, the God whose ideas “we ought to think” -- the God in whom we should trust -- 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.”  For the majority of the Texas Board, the Many should accept that they belong to the true One—a Christian America founded on written, eternal Biblical principles that have for too long been subordinated in an increasingly secular nation.

But is the One, the Unum, of America a God whom people are under, the God set forth in the Bible?  Or is the One the aggregation of all 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,”(emphasis added).  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 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.  Alfred North Whitehead, who was influenced to some extent by William James but was more systematic and precise in his philosophy, most notably in Process and Reality, conceived a God who is in part a product of all actual experience and in part a 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. 

A creative relational world, as described by both the pragmatic William James and the theistic Alfred North Whitehead, raises pluralism, the Many, to a level of equilibrium with the One.  In the case of the Texas State Board of Education, 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 a way un-American, given that most Americans embrace what actually works in the changing world of experience.

It is natural to sympathize with one aspect of the Board’s approach to history.  The Board’s conservative majority fears relativism.  They want things to be absolutely true, lasting, right.  The ineluctable pluralism accepted by James, Whitehead, and many other philosophers is of no comfort; it is in fact threatening to religious beliefs and traditions that seem—on pragmatic grounds, even—to “work” insofar as they appear to maintain stability.  That process thought and pluralism are compatible with the theory of biological evolution may also be disturbing to conservatives.

What some Board members fail to recognize is the greater threat of an absolute, ordained One that acquires a coercive power over individuals and their freedom of action and thought (The only such threat that they see is an active United States government, and actual repressive governments around the world).  No philosopher has addressed this threat more effectively than the late Isaiah Berlin.

In what must be one of the best memorial essays ever written, Leon Wieseltier, an editor at The New Republic, said of Berlin in 1997 that the philosopher “prized the shadows of the Many over the darkness of the One; for it is darkness, not light, that the One generally vouchsafes.”

Extremely conscious of the totalitarian lethality that marked his century, Berlin rejected uniform explanations or systems, writing in Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, that “In the house of history, there are many mansions.”  Nor did he resign himself to relativism.  Instead he was a proponent of “objective pluralism,” sometimes called “value pluralism.”  By this he meant that human experience is most often characterized by values that are commensurate in their apparent worth, making the choice of one over the other a risk, typically involving conflicts that are difficult or impossible to resolve.   

Likewise, he did not adopt the existential view that we must create our lives out of nothing.  “He did not require people to create themselves and their meanings,” Wieseltier wrote.  “Identities are not only invented, they are inherited; and they are invented out of what is inherited.”  And this process is our history.

HNN Special: Scholars Assess the Proposed Texas Social Studies Standards

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Arnold Shcherban - 5/24/2010

Let's face it: in intellectual and cultural sense this country is slowly but surely moving backwards.

John Willingham - 5/10/2010

Yes, the curriculum as a whole is inflated, and much of the inflation is due to what the board calls "balance," which is generally the addition of something traditional, religious, or economically conservative to whatever item they see as overly progressive.

Mike Schoenberg - 5/10/2010

I beleive it is in her book "The History of God" the Ms. Armstrong raises the fact that it wasn't till the late 19th century thanks to Ralph Mooody, that Americans started to believe the Bible blindly word for word.
On another note-excuse my spelling but Lord McCaully once wrote a piece for the Edinburgh Review in which he compared prize poems to prize sheep. The poet would use lots of unecessary words to inflate his poem while the sheepherder would stuff his sheep with so much useless food to make the animal look exceptional. In the end all the sheep was good for was to make tallow for candles while all the poems was good for was to light it. The same seems to hold true for the textbooks that are being proposed.