PW: Why did you write The American Creed?
FC: The book was forged in the crucible of September 11. I worked on an instant book after 9/11 for Walker (Restoring Faith), which was a collection of 24 sermons delivered the week after the terrorist attacks. That was, in and of itself, an intense project, combined with my ministry here in New York to a large congregation [All Souls Unitarian Church] in a shattered city. What I found missing in the rhetoric emerging after 9/11 was a recognition that this struggle was fated to be endlessly tragic so long as it was a struggle between faith and freedom. I turned to our own founding Scripture, the Declaration of Independence, and discovered in it a redemptive script. So I began poring through our history and found myself writing a biography of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. I tell its prenatal history from 1620, devote a chapter to its birth in 1776, give special attention to its major life crisis in the Civil War, and then follow its maturity through history.
PW: What, in effect, is the "American Creed"?
FC: It's a union of faith and freedom, in which faith elevates freedom and freedom tempers faith. The United States is established on a foundation of belief, not of skepticism. Essential to that is a belief in the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being. Liberty and equality are grounded in nature, not just ordained by law. American ideals are always in tension with American practice, so that is an ongoing struggle and challenge.
PW: How can religious pluralism best flourish in the United States?
FC: The secret to religious pluralism is mutual respect. If we disagree with another person on first principles, there are four possible approaches. We can seek to convert them, we can ignore them, we can destroy them or we can respect them. Secular modernism emphasizes ignoring the other, but sometimes destroys—witness the gulags and crematoria. Fundamentalism seeks to convert, but sometimes destroys—witness 9/11. The American vision is based upon the fourth alternative—mutual respect, e pluribus unum. The problem is that unum apart from pluribus is tyrannical, and pluribus apart from unum is pure relativism or anarchy.
PW: What, on the anniversary of September 11, are you hoping Americans take away from this book?
FC: I'm hoping that we will have a more appreciative understanding of the genius of our founders, and the profoundly faithful way in which they established our free nation. Also, I would hope that in our reverence to them, we would be equally reverent to the protection of civil liberties, which are an essential part of the American creed. The narrow line we have to walk is that church and state are separated in this nation, for the benefit of both. This is explicitly not a Christian nation. On the other hand, religion and politics are united throughout our nation's history, often to the benefit of both, and ours is decidedly not an irreligious nation. The high points in our history are moral triumphs in which faith and freedom are united.
PW: Which leaders do you think have successfully united faith and freedom?
FC: The most perfect model is offered by Abraham Lincoln, whose entire civic or political code was based upon the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. I also look at other great leaders: the Roosevelts, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Jefferson. There are ambiguities in every case, but the ideals that these leaders hold in common are inspired by the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.
PW: How have you found time to publish three books this year?
FC: Well, this is an unusual year, and for many people I think the circumstances have inspired efforts that are out of the ordinary.
PW: What's next for you?
FC: I'm right now working on a children's book—or really, a parents' book. It's called If God Made the Rose, Who Made the Thorns? Answering Your Child's Biggest Questions.