Unity in Diversity?: Babylon in Early America

Kristofer Stinson

Image of a meme that says As historians, we often don’t talk enough about where our ideas for articles, books, and other projects come from. Did we find an interesting piece in the archives? Did a new book frustrate us enough that we simply had to respond? Or, as a reoccurring meme puts it, was it revealed to you in a dream?

For my recent article, “American Babel,” the idea originated in the place where many of my projects do: my nuclear family. To say that my family and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many things is perhaps an understatement (and if any of them are reading this I hope it elicits at least a mild chuckle of agreement). But even though we rarely agree, we talk often. It was during one of these talks that I had the original idea for this article. For me, the context of this idea underscores the ways in which our historical work is done to help explain the present—of where certain ideas and beliefs came from, how they have evolved or remained consistent, and how they fit in our contemporary context.

During a holiday visit, my family and I argued over nationalism and the pros and cons of the nation–state. At some point a family member, in their adamant defense of the idea of the nation–state, made the case that God made the whole concept of nations after the fall of the tower of Babel, and who are we to argue with God and God’s creations? For the rest of the discussion there was a tacit assumption that nations were created by God and thus good, fixed, and even necessary. They simply had to exist since they always had been, and within the inherent, homogenous divisions that God had drawn after Babel. Nations were, and are, part of creation, so they must be “Godly.”

Image of Athanasius Kircher's Turris Babel from 1679, which is an engraving of the Tower of Babel.

Athanasius Kircher, Turris Babel, 1679. Courtesy General Research Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections. Kircher’s depiction of the Tower of Babel went on to influence the way people imaged the biblical monument for the next several centuries. Indeed, by the early nineteenth century, Kircher’s rendition would be included in family Bibles and Biblical Dictionaries. Even now, in the twenty-first century, his illustration is still used and recognized by many who think about the story of Babel.

I was struck by that argument. I never considered that to be one of the takeaways of the story from the biblical book of Genesis. I was raised in an intensely evangelical subculture one degree removed from the Assemblies of God. As a result, I was told the story of Babel and Babylon countless times since I was a young child. But from what I recalled of those flannelgraph lessons, the story was inherently negative. I thought for sure one wasn’t supposed to take it as a model or as license? I needed to know more. Was this a common idea? Had other American Christians besides my family made such an argument? Were “nations” actually created by God? Such was the origin story of this article—a personal search for an explanation of how Americans used the story and history of Babel and Babylon.

It turned out that early Americans were incredibly interested in Babel and Babylon; the directions I could have gone with the piece seemed endlessly varied and I found more than I could adequately cover. Yet early on in my research, it was liberty and uniformity that came out as one of the main tensions in the memory of Babel and Babylon. Indeed, this was the very tension that we seemed to be wrestling with in the family conversation that led to this project and is the main piece I hope will be brought out in classrooms. The difficult question my family kept circling around is how to imagine an ideal community, nation, or empire that is diverse? How is there supposed to be unity when we are all so different?

One answer is to say that it is impossible: You can’t have unity and diversity. This answer argues that you need a pervasive sameness that attaches you to others in your community if you ever hope to be unified. This is the approach that sees Babel and Babylon as a tale calling for uniformity and, as a result, sees difference as inherently threatening if not to unity then certainly to stability. Historians are all too familiar with the dark trajectory of this story that we see in the colonization movement, Indian removal, and the efforts of a Protestant establishment to squeeze out any experience that is deemed “other.”

The other response centers liberty over uniformity and suggests that individual diversity is not antithetical to unity. Yet at some point it seems that there must be shared values or interests that link people together. The question then becomes what are those values or interests? If things like language, religion, and background don’t make us truly unified, what does? These are the questions that I hope students will begin to wrestle with. How do they think about the concept of a “union,” or “unity” in general? What does unity not despite of but amidst diversity even look like? It is admittedly hard for me to articulate what that looks like, even after this article. So I hope that as we prompt students to begin to imagine what unity in diversity means, the sooner I myself will have a better vision of a union that is both needed and necessary.

Going back to my family, perhaps unity in diversity means that we commit to keep talking with each other even when we will never agree. At the very least we agree that as a family we can’t just ignore each other. With each eye roll, sarcastic remark, and disagreement, surprising historical questions come up.

27 June 2022

About the Author

Kristofer Stinson is a PhD candidate at George Mason University.

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