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United States of Diversity: The Founders and Dobbs

Michael Barone on

DEI -- "diversity, equity and inclusion." University administrators, corporate human resources facilitators and politicians of a liberal stripe all assure us that America is now, suddenly, for the first time in history, a nation of diversity, equity and inclusion .

We are no longer, in this view, a white bread nation where just about everyone looks the same, believes the same things, grows up in the same kind of family and eats the same bland, boring food.

There's a grain of truth -- but only that -- to this view. For baby boomers, born and raised in what I call the "Midcentury Moment" between the beginning of World War II and the urban riots and anti-war demonstrations of the late 1960s, America looked like a land of cultural uniformity.

Uniformity came naturally where, in a country of 131 million, 16 million men served in a uniformed, crew-cut military. It seemed natural in an era when technology and regulation produced, temporarily, universal media -- radio, movies, television -- appealing to just about everybody.

But the Midcentury Moment was just that: a moment. It was a moment when many overlooked the one-tenth of people who were black, when few realized that the 1920s immigration laws would lead 50 years later to the nation's lowest foreign-born percentage in its history.

Over the longer run of American history, diversity -- religious, ethnic, racial -- has been the rule rather than the exception. And the nation has moved generally, albeit sometimes haltingly or temporarily in reverse, toward greater equity and inclusion. DEI is not new; it was around at the time of the Founding Fathers.

 

Those founders were steeped in the history of 17th-century religious wars. They were very much aware of the religious diversity of the 13 colonies that had united to form their new nation. Virginia was founded by Anglicans, Massachusetts by Calvinists, Maryland by Catholics, New York by Dutch Reformers and Pennsylvania by Quakers.

They didn't have historian David Hackett Fischer's 1989 book "Albion's Seed" to describe how settlers from different British Isles brought different folkways -- religious, political, sexual -- to different colonies. But they saw those differences firsthand.

Benjamin Franklin saw how they frustrated his Albany Plan of Union in 1755; George Washington saw how he needed different tactics to discipline Virginian and New England troops; James Madison and Alexander Hamilton saw how the Constitutional Convention they set in motion had to deal gingerly with the issues raised by slavery.

That's why their Constitution provided that there be "no religious test" for office -- in contrast to England's Test Acts, which until 1829 required officials to be Anglicans. That's why the First Amendment provided that Congress could "make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

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