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Pluralism is basis of democratic state

For the first time, people across America are learning the true meaning of their homeland's motto, 'E Pluribus Unum' Ñ out of many, one.

From diners in Woodburn to policy meetings in Washington, Americans are intently watching how their government brings Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis together under the unitary civic creed of participatory self-government. From the United States' classrooms to its capital, people are closely observing the nearly insurmountable task of building a singular democracy out of a diverse and fragmented society.

But as we watch pluralism flourish (or fail) in Iraq, we must not forget the importance of this principle as the foundation of our own democracy.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige told an interviewer for the Baptist Press, 'All things being equal, I'd prefer to have a child in a school where there's a strong appreciation for values, the kinds of values that I think are associated with the Christian community.' As President Bush's education chief, Paige's remarks fly in the face of the administration's claims to promote democratic principles worldwide.

The reconstruction of Iraq reminds us that mutual respect and celebration of diversity are the foundations of a strong democratic society. But in our own country, the Bush administration continues to insist that Christianity Ñ at the exclusion of other faiths and secular traditions Ñ is the answer to our problems.

This trend doesn't stop with Paige. The Bush administration has enthusiastically supported 'faith-based' initiatives Ñ from programs promoting fundamentalist Christianity in prisons to church initiatives that address poverty. Of course, in many of these programs, along with a free meal comes a lesson in the 'one truth' Ñ as fundamentalist Christians see it.

But just as the new Iraqi government, if it is to succeed, can't promote the 'one truth' of its majority, our government also must not turn to Christianity just because a majority of Americans are Christians. We must not fall into the trap of believing that pluralism is to blame for America's problems.

On the contrary, pluralism is democratic; pluralism is American.

At some level, I agree with Paige. All things being equal, I too would prefer to have a child in a school where there is a strong appreciation for values. The values I would want that school to promote, however, are civic awareness and participation, critical thought, responsibility and most importantly, respect. I would leave it to that child's parents Ñ rather than the government Ñ to promote the values embedded in any particular religion.

One of my professors told me that there is nothing more instructive than teaching. As we teach Iraq about the beauty of our democratic tradition, let us continue to learn about our need, today as much as ever before, to embrace the diversity within our own society.

Let us not forget that the cornerstone of America's democratic tradition is pluralism.

'E Pluribus Unum' Ñ out of many, one.

Misha Isaak, 20, is a junior at Reed College and served as the first student member of the Portland school board. He lives in Southeast Portland.