Every few years I return to a truly remarkable paper that Mona Charen wrote for the Center of the American Experiment a long time ago now: “Morality in a Pluralistic Society.” She presented it at an event 23 years ago this month as part of a year-long series on religious expression in public squares. I had asked her to come to the Twin Cities after she wrote a superb syndicated column on the topic, not just about the (obvious) importance of tolerance and sensitivity on the part of religious majorities towards religious minorities, but also the reverse. What about, she asked, the (less frequently acknowledged) importance of tolerance and sensitivity on the part of religious minorities when it comes to public expressions of spiritual belief by those of the majority?
The most immediate reason for rereading Mona’s brilliant essay the other day is that it spoke to the current controversy in St. Louis Park over whether city-council meetings should open with the Pledge of Allegiance. Council members and others who oppose the practice argue it’s insufficiently inclusive in a city with an increasing minority population.
Whatever one thinks of this argument — and I’m not a fan — I’m happy to grant it’s largely driven by a wish to be respectful of those who might feel, at the very least, uncomfortable if just about everyone nearby rose to recite the pledge and they preferred not to. Please keep this framing in mind as you read the following excerpts from Mona’s paper:
We know that under our constitutional and moral system, the majority has an obligation to respect the conscience and the inherent rights of minorities. What do minorities owe majorities? . . .
I am Jewish and can well recall being a little discomforted by being asked to sing Christmas carols in school. On the one hand, I loved Christmas carols. I still do. And I still sing along with all of them when I’m in a department store at Christmas time — though I’m sure I get a lot of the words wrong. But while I really enjoyed Christmas carols, I was an earnest little kid, and very attached to my identity as Jewish, so when it came to lyrics in certain carols like “Christ is the Lord,” I squirmed.
But believe it or not, I didn’t sue the school district! I simply didn’t sing those words. In a choir of 30 or 40 kids, one voice falling silent for a few second is not noticeable. I felt true to my beliefs, and a constitutional crisis was averted. . . .
Minorities owe themselves and the majority a sense of proportion. It is certainly reasonable to ask the majority to be respectful of minority viewpoints. It is unreasonable to demand that the majority stop being what they are. I think that’s what these holiday [ACLU-type] cases amount to — a demand that Christian stop acting Christian because they might offend Jews, atheists, Buddhists, or whatever. It is fair to say, “make room”; it’s not fair to say, “make yourselves over.”
Back to St. Louis Park and the rest of Minnesota and the nation.
We have a societal obligation to be welcoming and alert to ever-increasing diversity in various situations and quarters. But that’s not to say we have an obligation to make ourselves over as a people. If standing and reciting the pledge at council meetings is who and what St. Louis Park residents have been, they should continue doing so if their elected representatives respectfully so choose.