Religious Diversity: Stew or Ambrosia?

RAF ALCONBURY, England -- The metaphor of the 'Great Melting Pot' has been used to describe U.S. culture since the early twentieth century. The idea is that people from diverse countries, languages, and religious traditions all blend together to form a new identity - Americans. Sort of like a well-cooked stew where everything is boiled-down to the point where there's no way of knowing what the original ingredients were. The individual items added at the start of the process have cooked to the point of uniformity until every bite tastes the same as the last. However, I'd like to offer a different metaphor for U.S. culture, one that recognizes that the strength of diversity is not found in uniformity, but rather through unity.

As a young child I always looked forward to picnics and potlucks. It was always a great opportunity to try out new dishes and desserts that I had never tasted before. One of my favorites was the ubiquitous ambrosia. Now if you don't know what ambrosia is, not to worry - I grew-up calling it "fruit salad" (until I was enlightened by someone with more culinary sensibility than me). Regardless of what name it goes by, the joy of taking a bite of ambrosia is that you never know exactly what you were going to get. It might be a juicy chunk of orange or a crunchy piece of sour apple or better yet one of each with a nice, sweet green grape and all of it covered-up in glorious, sweet whipping cream.

For me, ambrosia is a much better illustration of the strength of our great American society. Not that we have all been boiled-down in a melting pot until we look, think, talk, and act just like everyone else but instead that we are all so different and retain our distinctiveness! From our diversity springs our untamable ingenuity; from our plurality arises an inexhaustible number of new ways to create and think and work. Whether it's finding a better way to build a car or submarine, flying the first airplane or the first spaceship to the moon, inventing the internet or creating the first cell phone, America's ingenuity has been and will continue to be fueled by our diversity.

As a chaplain, I'm privileged to work almost daily within the rich mosaic of religious diversity that is so vibrantly displayed in our beloved Air Force culture. However, over the years I've discovered that blending this vast array of beliefs works best when we collectively agree to disagree agreeably. This concept, to revert to my earlier metaphor of ambrosia, is the whipping cream that holds the whole dish together--agreeing to disagree agreeably. Evelyn Beatrice Hall, biographer of the famous French philosopher and noted atheist Voltaire, excellently summarized his thinking on this topic when she wrote, "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." What a perfect illustration of agreeing to disagree agreeably.

The right to ensure our government would never be able to force uniformity of religion is enshrined in our nation's founding documents. The First Amendment of the Constitution clearly allows for a plethora of religious beliefs and ideas within the free market place of American society, even those ideas and beliefs which may offend us. But more than simply allowing or protecting this diversity of faiths, the Founding Father's actually recognized this diversity as a source of strength for the new republic.  As our second President, John Adams wisely noted, "plurality of private religion in the community provides the best safeguard against religious persecution."

How boring our country would be if not for our rich variety. Can you imagine trying to weave a tapestry with only one color of thread? No, the vibrant hues of our multiple backgrounds, cultures, and religious traditions have come together making the most brilliant master-piece of democracy ever created on earth. What gives America her strength is not uniformity; what gives us our strength is diversity with unity. So out with the stew and in with the ambrosia (but don't forget the whipping cream!)