November 7th, 2012
01:26 PM ET
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
Some believe that the United States is held together by a common creed. What marries our “pluribus” to our “unum,” they argue, is a common commitment to a shared "American idea."
I am not so sure. Americans may agree on certain values such as “liberty” and “equality” but we disagree fiercely about what these keywords mean and how to weigh one against the other.
What holds us together are rituals.
As I observed in my book "The American Bible," Americans come together - like rabbis in the Talmud - to argue about our core texts, trying to divine what Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” might have to tell us about affirmative action or what King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” might have to say about the separation of church and state. And as long as that argument is civil and informed, it serves to unite the nation.
Another rite of our republic is the election itself, where we put our arguments on the table and let the voters decide. But this ritual is only unifying if both sides accept the outcome and manage to be gracious in both victory and defeat.
Last night we saw a lot of gloating from ebullient Democrats. We also saw an ungracious loser, in Donald Trump, who as the scales were falling from the eyes of Romney supporters tweeted: "We can't let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!"
But in the key players in this election — President Obama and Gov. Romney — we saw something else. We saw men who, for the moment at least, put country above party.
Especially in recent years, it is easy to see the United States as a house divided, a nation of culture warriors denouncing their political opponents as enemies of the state. But woven throughout U.S. history is a great tradition of conciliation that has sought to calm what George Washington referred to as the “mischiefs of the spirit of party.”
In an era in which many citizens referred to their respective colonies as their “countries,” Patrick Henry rose before the First Continental Congress in 1774 and declared, “I am not a Virginian — I am an American.”
After his victory in the bitterly fought election of 1800, an electoral college tie broken only after 35 ballots in the House, Thomas Jefferson struck a note of bipartisanship in his first inaugural address. “We are all Republicans,” he said. “We are all Federalists.”
In 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, Lincoln concluded his first inaugural address with: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”
Closer to our own time, there is Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, pledging his allegiance not to blue states or red states but to the United States. And there is George W. Bush, after the closest and most contentious presidential election since 1800, saying in 2000, “Our nation must rise above a house divided. ... Republicans want the best for our nation. And so do Democrats.”
Early Wednesday morning morning, we saw the unifying spirit of this great tradition of conciliation in the words of Romney and Obama.
“At a time like this," Romney said in his gracious concession speech, "we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.”
He added that he was looking to Democrats and Republicans alike “to put the people before the politics.”
In his acceptance speech, which he addressed to his “American family,” Obama referred to the United States as “one nation” and “one people,” a country where “it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight.”
But he also lauded our political diversity, referring to the arguments we have not as a mark of our division but as “a mark of our liberty.”
Obama thanked those who worked for his re-election and those who worked to elect his opponent. Then, returning to the signature theme of what many still see as his signature public utterance (his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech), he concluded: "We remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.”
A few years ago, an Indian economist wrote a book called "The Argumentative Indian." You might imagine that this book would be a lamentation on how the tremendous diversity in India is driving that nation apart. Instead it is a celebration of a political tradition that not only exhibits intellectual diversity but embraces its argumentative nature as a strength.
I see the United States in a similar light. Our arguments and our elections bring us together, but only if those arguments are civil and the winners and losers on Election Day remember that the reason we vote is not to coronate one party but to govern an increasingly diverse country.
I am not naive. I know that things are going to get nasty again, probably sooner rather than later. Republicans are already arguing that this election was not a mandate, and Democrats are already insisting that it was.
But when we find ourselves back in the muck and mire of petty partisanship, when our politicians once again mistake anger for strength, it is good to remember these brief, shining moments when, as John F. Kennedy once put it, "civility is not a sign of weakness" and our common life seems more important than the "mischiefs" of our parties.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
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