Join, or Die: A Case for Unity

America today has become increasingly divided. Republicans. Democrats. Libertarians. Christians. New Atheists. Muslims. Mormons. Traditionalists. Hipsters. Black. White. Hispanic. Asian. Immigrant. Documented Worker. Upper, middle, lower class. Chick-Fil-A. Duck Dynasty.

(I can’t believe I actually included those last two.)

We settle ourselves into the divides. Each of these divides has divides.

For myself, I’m a white Evangelical, Southern Baptist Christian who is conservative in politics, middle class in social status, and could easily provide to you any number of more narrow social identifiers for myself. Social stratification is our language.

Growing up, I was taught that diversity was a good thing. I was taught that it is through the free market of ideas and dialogue that we grow as individuals and as a society. As I matured, I learned to appreciate opposing viewpoints and to see the value of spirited debate between equals.

But that’s going away. Perhaps, even, it’s gone.

The other day a conservative friend heard me say I subscribe to the New York Times and disdainfully said, “You liberal.”

Recently, a liberal buddy asked about my views on sexual morality and accused me of being hateful and oppressive.

I was told within the past few weeks multiple times that if I believe in God, I can’t possibly hope to be respected in the public sphere.

It’s a weekly affair that I’m told that I’m ignorant or miseducated because I hold a position contrary to my interlocutor.

I listened in last week as “friend A” tried earnestly to convince “friend B” that ‘B’ actually agreed with him on a given issue. He said, “Given all the fact, you can’t possibly disagree with conclusion ‘A’.”

These past few weeks I have watched a local candidate for political office argue that another candidate of the same party who agrees with him on 99.8% of all political issues of being bad for the party and the state.

That’s become pretty much par for the course.

Join or Die


This famous “Join, or Die” cartoon, created by Benjamin Franklin, encouraged the British colonies in America to join together for their own sake against the French and Indians. Join together, it claimed, or be overrun. Of course, they did join together and managed to win that war.

Since then, however, the “Join, or Die” cartoon has come to take on a broader meaning. For two centuries, the logo came to stand for the unity of the American people in a larger, more abstract way. This sentiment was perhaps best captured by Abraham Lincoln, who said (borrowing from the words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew), “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

“Join, or Die” had come to mean something more. It was an understanding among the American people that we can only survive together, or not at all. We can only flourish together, or not at all. We can only live together, or not at all.

No longer.

“Join, or die” has come to mean something very sad. “Join, or Die,” in some abstract way, is an ideal that has come to define varying sects of American culture. It has become the banner of forced conformity to a certain way.

Political lobbies spend millions ostracizing those who don’t celebrate their sexually liberated ideals. Republicans attempt to purge from their ranks the ‘RINOs’ (Republican In Name Only), which is really just another name for Republicans who don’t hold to an extreme view of small (not just limited) government, which is historically a minority position in the Republican Party. Absolute strangers harass one other over the views of a chicken sandwich restaurant owner. Schools are threatened with losing their accreditation if they don’t ‘get with the program’ on whatever the latest social innovation is. On and on it goes.

In my own field, young aspiring ministers would rather plant churches than go to older churches who are more averse to change. Let them die out, they say. Then maybe we can get their building. This is arrogant foolishness.

It’s the comma that makes all the difference. The comma in “Join, Or Die” is the difference between a necessity for society and an ultimatum to conform. Unity in this country was never supposed to mean conformity. It was supposed to mean toleration and respect for one’s opponent.

Join, Or Die

The comma has to stay. The comma says, “We must join together or we shall certainly die.” Franklin’s disjointed serpent included states who disagreed on nearly every single political issue. You would be hard-pressed to find anything they all agreed on. Likewise today, the nation that Franklin and the founding fathers of America brought forth, is deeply divided.

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that any hope of intellectual, religious, or moral uniformity is lost. There will be times that we must conform to certain ideals. I think we can all now agree, for example, that slavery should never again be a part of America. On most issues, however, we can function well if we learn to talk to one other without the threat of being ostracized or publicly scorned, without being labeled an oppressor or a persecutor.

I find myself deeply discouraged by the demand for conformity on every little thing that permeates every part of America. We have settled into idealogical ghettos and even there we are purging our ranks. In more or less words the ultimatum sounds forth: “Join [us] or die”. We can not continue to set ourselves up as the lone standards of inclusion and try to root out everyone who disagrees with us even slightly.

Ironically, it’s the entities that behave in such a manner that will die. You can’t function that way. There is a universal principle at work when the Apostle Paul writes, “If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”

It is likely that one day America will fall. When it does, my guess is that it will not come by explosion or invasion, but by implosion. We can’t keep going this way. We must learn to respect one another. We must learn to listen to one another and disagree in a way that is both civil and charitable. We must learn to love our neighbors.

I once heard a story of a philosophy professor who went to interview for a position at a prestigious school. When he got to the interview, he discovered that the department head (a fellow philosopher) was a solipsist. As a solipsist, he believed that he was the only thing that exists. Everyone else and everything else is merely a projection of his own mind. Of course you can imagine that the entire conversation then was incredibly awkward for the interviewee. After the interview, he stopped to speak to the department’s secretary about the odd professor. He told her of the odd view and how he had felt so objectified. The secretary replied, “Yes, he’s an odd fellow, but we do try to take care of him. After all, if he goes, we all go.”

Funny as it may be, that final sentiment is a mindset we all ought to cultivate. Despite our differences, no matter how odd they may be or how uncomfortable they make our interactions, we need one another. It is together that we will flourish as communities, churches, parties, and as a society.

We must join, or die.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for commenting on Franklin’s use of the comma in JOIN, or DIE. Another observation is that the wording, except for the word or, is in ALL CAPS as if shouting!. And the period provides for a sense of finality.



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