In 1634, Anne Hutchinson and her husband migrated from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, following the religious dissident Reverend John Cotton. They believed their beliefs would be more accepted in the new world. 4
Anne was a forty-three-year-old housewife with no formal education, but she was also a ferocious reader and thinker. And soon after they arrived in Massachusetts, Anne started holding meetings with women in the area to discuss Reverend Cotton’s sermons. She, like Cotton, argued against the Puritan belief that good works were the path to salvation. Instead, she insisted that God’s grace alone was sufficient. Her meetings grew in popularity; men, some of them prominent, began to join. And religious authorities felt threatened—both by her beliefs and, more important, because she was a woman who defied authority.
Just four years after arriving in America, Hutchinson was tried for heresy, betrayed by her mentor Reverend Cotton, and excommunicated from Massachusetts. Hutchinson, her family, and around seventy of her followers fled to Rhode Island, thinking they would find safe harbor in Roger Williams’s more religiously tolerant settlement. But when the Massachusetts Puritans threatened to take over Rhode Island, too, she moved once again, this time to the Dutch colony of New Netherland, later called New York, where she could finally live in peace—and lead her people. 5
Three generations later, her great-great-grandson returned to Massachusetts and became its governor. Her other descendants include three presidents, two governors, and a Supreme Court justice. 6 Today, if you drive north of New York City, you’ll likely take the Hutchinson River Parkway—and look out on the river that also bears her name.
Freedom of belief: An early tension
Hutchinson’s story shows us that freedom of belief, the second of President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, was one of the very earliest ideals that drew Europeans to the Americas. It also reveals and reminds that the people of this place have always struggled to accept differences in belief—despite our ideals.
Indeed, in the days before the American Revolution, when our American experiment was scarcely a germ of an idea, the freedom of belief wasn’t just present; it was necessary to bring our quarreling, disparate nation together.
Remember, Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers. Maryland was founded by Catholics. New York and New England were home to Shakers and evangelicals. Jewish families settled in Rhode Island. 7
And beyond religious differences, there was ethnic, economic, and social diversity as well. There were rich elites and indentured servants, city merchants and country farmers. Hundreds of thousands of Africans arrived here as slaves—stolen from their families and homes and sold into bondage. Before they were evicted from their lands, untold numbers of indigenous peoples remained part of North America’s seventeenth and eighteenth century social fabric.
In its early days, America needed a way to bring all these diverse threads together. At least, that was what Thomas Jefferson argued.
Our complicated history
Thirteen years before the First Amendment was added to the Constitution, Britain’s North American colonies had to fight for their freedom. Just six months after writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson held a meeting to discuss what he called the Virginia Statute. He believed that religious tolerance wasn’t just a nice or moral idea, but a necessary tool. To have even a fighting chance at defeating the world’s most powerful empire, the Baptists, the Presbyterians, and the Methodists would have to come together. A soldier was a soldier, and they needed every soldier they could get. 8
Of course, not everyone was on board with Jefferson’s new law. Critics argued in letters to the Virginia Gazette that such an inclusive, wide-reaching statute would allow heathens like atheists, Jews, and even Muslims to hold office. According to the historian John Ragosta, the evangelicals’ response was, quite simply, “That’s right.” 9
Virginia’s legislature ratified the statute. And Jefferson was so proud of this accomplishment that in a document laying out instructions for his tombstone, he wrote:
. . . on the faces of the Obelisk the following
inscription, & not a word more:
Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia 10
Note that being our nation’s third president didn’t make the cut.
This is our history. It’s one that should inspire awe and pride. The arguments were unprecedented, and the results uplifting.
But it is not a complete recounting of our history.
For while fifty-six men signed a declaration in 1776 that “all men are created equal,” they built a country in which all people were not. Our forebears’ capacity to enslave our fellow human beings should stir shame and sobriety. Women would not be allowed to participate in the political process for nearly another 150 years. Early settlers—many of them immigrants, one might add—attacked, tortured, and pillaged the lands of innocent indigenous people. Even white men who didn’t own land were seen as beneath, and were barred from the political process.
And as a country, we have never reckoned with these original sins, either. America has made no reparations to its black citizens—the “forty acres and a mule” that were promised never came. We have not reconciled with the subjugation of women, or even begun to deal with the sustained economic inequality that has persisted throughout our nation’s past to our present day.
Other countries, like Germany and South Africa, have taken clear steps to at least acknowledge the atrocities of their ancestors. But America has never convened its version of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Instead, we remain trapped by the shackles of history.
The premise of our American experiment was, and remains, both a radical idea and a contradiction. Our founding generation teed up profound questions that we are still resolving: Can we form a great nation with people from different backgrounds, beliefs, and geographies who share only an aspiration of freedom? Can we become a nation where, despite our differences, we truly believe all people are created equal?
Over the past two centuries, more people from more places have been captivated by these questions and inspired by this ideal, and have joined in this American endeavor.
Through the service and sacrifice of each successive generation, the circle of freedom has grown wider and wider, to include Irish and Italians and Jews, East Asians and West Africans, South Asians and South and Central Americans.
That promise has grown and evolved to the point where no matter your color or creed, your sexual orientation or country of origin, your accent or ability or age—you should be accepted here. The mix of beliefs and experiences represented in this country is more diverse than the founders could ever have imagined. Today, white Christians are a minority in this country. 11 And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, by midcentury, white people will be a minority outright. 12
Nevertheless, it perhaps goes without saying that the work of building our pluralistic democracy has not been easy. Nor is it finished.
How our differences divide: Our current crises
We need not look far to understand how the American aspiration for freedom of belief—the freedom to be yourself—still falls short. To this day, we are continually tempted to mobilize around otherness rather than around our common humanity. We are still fighting against basic human tendencies and biases, against the reflexive push toward exclusion rather than inclusion. As a society, we still struggle against racism and sexism, homophobia, ableism, Islamophobia, and transphobia. The list goes on.
Sometimes it feels as though we are winning that fight and advancing in the struggle toward equality. Right now, frankly, it does not. And the numbers show that it’s more than a bad feeling.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 2015 and again in 2016, the number of hate groups operating in this country actually grew. The amount of anti-Muslim hate groups nearly tripled. 13 And these hate groups aren’t just spewing hate. They are taking terrible action. The FBI’s data shows that hate crimes against Muslims were up by 67 percent in 2015 from the year before. 14
Meanwhile, women working full-time jobs still get paid, on average, $10,470 less than men per year. 15 Or consider one of the most grotesque statistics of all: one in every five undergraduate women are sexually assaulted in college. 16 So many more are harassed or worse on a daily basis, as the #MeToo movement has highlighted. 17
Similarly, people of color are continually discriminated against when applying to jobs—a résumé showing a stereotypically white name is 50 percent more likely to get called back compared with an identical résumé with a stereotypically black name. 18 The same kind of blatant discrimination has been demonstrated in scenarios as diverse as doctor’s offices and eBay auctions, law firms and state legislatures, Craigslist ads and research labs. 19
Perhaps even more shocking are the prison statistics. In eleven states, at least one in every twenty adult black men are behind bars. It’s not a coincidence that in state prisons, black men are incarcerated at an average rate of more than five times that of white men. 20
Although LGBT rights have gained ground, we still have a long way to go. In at least eight states, laws prevent schools from discussing LGBT topics, keep students from learning about their health and their rights, and discourage teachers from offering support or stopping bullying. 21 In thirty-two states, there are no laws on the books that clearly defend transgender people against discrimination. 22 According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a dismaying 90 percent of respondents reported “experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job or took actions like hiding who they are to avoid it.” 23
Rising inequality makes discrimination along certain lines even easier to exert—be it based on class or race or other ways of experiencing the world. So it is understandable that many see our future as bleak. After all, we are a nation of immigrants, with a statue in New York harbor calling out to poor, huddled masses around the world, but we’re also a nation that, as I write this, is considering putting up walls on our borders and deporting innocent young people who have known no other country as home.
Not all of these failures are directly a result of our differences in beliefs, but they are often reinforced by groups formed around a shared belief—by the “echo chambers” in which we seek affirmation. In each instance, this fracturing of our society makes it much harder to engage with one another, to establish our shared freedom, and to enlarge it and extend it to one another.
Accepting our differences: A false contradiction
This runs us into a seeming contradiction. If our different beliefs are driving us apart, how will our shared beliefs bring us together? How can we accept one another if some of us do not believe in acceptance at all?
But this supposed contradiction is actually just a misrepresentation. For when we talk about the responsibility to accept that comes with our freedom of belief, we are saying something very specific.
We have to accept that we have different beliefs. This is decidedly different from accepting the beliefs themselves. Our task is narrower, though perhaps more difficult: we just need to accept that the differences are real—and a source of strength, not weakness.
What does that look like?
It means appreciating the perspectives of immigrants and indigenous peoples, and respecting the grievances of poor people regardless of their color. It means understanding the effects of inequality on our society, the pain and anger of people who feel vulnerable—or who feel as though the world has left them behind. But it also means putting in the time to understand people who see the world through different eyes, whether that means they grew up Christian or Muslim, Republican or Democrat, in a big city or a tiny town.
It also means never shutting anyone out or shutting them down. That is a form of giving up, or giving in to the idea that America can’t succeed. If we rejected people every time we disagreed, our democracy would not—and could not—sustain itself.
Again, let me be clear: accepting others doesn’t mean denying our differences. It actually means the opposite. We know it is never solely our differences that are the problem. As one of my sheroes, the poet Audre Lorde, once wrote:
Certainly, there are very real differences between us, of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions that result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation. 24
Recognizing the difference: Demanding the impossible
We need to accept that difference has always been a part of our American experiment—for better and for worse. We must make an effort to accept and understand that difference, not ignore it.
Sometimes this work comes naturally. Sometimes it is hard. Sometimes we feel that we are learning and moving in the right direction. Sometimes it is tough to stomach that people can believe something so hateful—that they can seriously wish to divide us based on difference.
But if our nation’s history includes chapters when we have mobilized against each other, it also includes chapters when we mobilized with each other and for each other. For as Dr. King reminds us in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”25
I believe Dr. King’s words—in part because of all the progress I’ve seen in my lifetime. I grew up black and gay in small, working-class towns in the American South. I’ve known the sting of racism, the indignity of classism, the hatred of homophobia.
But I’ve also seen the impact of social movements, and the courageous women and men who have fought not just for the freedom of belief, but the right to vote and the right to marry—who have fought to be seen and heard.
No doubt, our history—and our present moment—is replete with ideas that fracture and fragment. But it contains just as many, if not more, ideas that bring us together.
From Anne Hutchinson’s era to today, Americans have maintained the world’s longest-lasting liberal, pluralistic democracy. And over the long arc of history, we have grown more accepting, more open, more loving, and more just. We have begun to recognize, embrace, and even celebrate difference. The freedom of belief is enjoyed by more people than our founders ever could have dreamed.
We are endowed with this freedom of belief, but we must work to make sure that we accept one another; to empathize with others without normalizing the act of “othering”; to protect the dignity of all, including and especially the people we disagree with; to walk in one another’s shoes; and to be part of an American story that binds us together rather than breaks us apart.
As the iconic author James Baldwin—another of my heroes—wrote, “I know what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least one can demand.” 26
This is what we should demand of each other: making the impossible, the possible; making the imperfect, more perfect. After all, our democracy depends on it.