Constructing an honest, inclusive,
and forward-looking story of America

A national discourse about the story of America has emerged in recent years, prompted in part by efforts to reckon with the ongoing legacies of colonialism and racism. As we approach the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, this discourse is sure to become more  prominent, and to raise fundamental questions about the nature, the scope, and the protagonists of this story. To what extent, for example, is it the story of a modern state, the United States of  America? And to what extent is it the story of the lands that comprise this country and all those who have ever lived here? Can we learn to tell a story that encompasses both? 

Many thoughtful voices are striving to articulate honest, inclusive, and constructive narratives that enable us to move toward a new horizon, a horizon of justice and shared prosperity in which every individual and social group can flourish. The materials that follow engage this growing  discourse by incorporating insights distilled from an expanding series of conversations among  participants from diverse backgrounds.  

You are invited to join these conversations by discussing this evolving document with others and offering comments and reflections that can advance a collective learning process. The U.S. Baháʼí Office of Public Affairs is capturing insights generated by this process and periodically updating the document. Yet the document is, in a sense, “open source.” It is developing through the contributions of people from all walks of life. All are welcome to use it in their own circles,  in collaboration with us, or by drawing on the language and ideas it contains. If you decide to share these materials with others, we would greatly appreciate hearing how the conversations go, who participated, and what some salient insights were, so the broader project can benefit from your efforts. Please send notes, comments and photos to

To advance this process of collective learning, participants have found the following  considerations helpful. Reading each section aloud with the group before pausing to discuss it gives the conversation a shared focus. A posture of learning characterized by humility, encouragement and grace enables diverse voices to contribute in a candid and mutually  illuminating manner. This has implications for formulating ideas with thoughtfulness, listening  with curiosity and generosity, and being mindful in making space for every voice. Further, while  participants are encouraged to share what they hear and learn, they are asked not to attribute statements to individuals. This fosters candor and frees us from feeling the need to represent any  organization or community we are part of, so we can bring our full humanity to the conversation. Finally, it helps to recognize that our history and our social reality are complex, multifaceted, and in need of interpretation. Seemingly contradictory ideas and interpretations can prove to be complementary, but it can take time to work out, and learn to express clearly, the relationships between them. Such work can best advance in a spirit of appreciative inquiry characterized by  mutual compassion and a search for shared understanding.  

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Narratives provide us with interpretive frames for understanding the world. They give meaning to our lives. They help us perceive more clearly our purpose, our identities, and our aspirations. They offer or preclude hope and possibilities for the future. 

There are a multitude of narratives that make up the life and history of this country, like a braid woven from different strands. They include stories of the many peoples that compose this country, from the continent’s Indigenous inhabitants to early European settlers and colonizers, to Africans brought here and enslaved, to myriad immigrants from every corner of the globe. Our stories include remarkable accomplishments alongside violence and oppression. Our stories  include interdependencies and hybridizations. Geography and ecology have shaped our stories:  nations and ways of life adapted over millennia to the landscape suffered displacement while  native food crops became staples far away; urban and rural communities and economies grew  and declined. Stories of our economic life encompass the extraction of natural resources and human labor, invention, industrialization, capitalism, world trade, the American dream, inequality and more. Our stories include the building of a federated republic that became a world power based on ideals we have never fully lived up to, but never given up on. Our stories include the arts and sciences, religious communities, civil society, social movements, and so much more. 

Participants in this discourse on America are adding nuance and complexity to our understanding of the aspirations and achievements of this nation by recognizing forms of oppression, expressions of agency and resilience, and contributions that have long gone unacknowledged. But it has been a challenge to integrate all these aspects of the story into a coherent whole.  

Ultimately, all narratives are socially constructed. They can be appreciative or critical, they can  provide a sense of belonging or stoke fear of the other, or both. They can, deliberately or not,  entrench injustice and sanction self-interested ambition or inspire sacrifice in the struggle for  justice. They can obscure or manipulate. Or they can strive to embody profound truths—including moral or spiritual truths—in ways that enable diverse peoples to thrive together.  

Faced with so many urgent practical and political problems, one can well ask whether we can afford to invest in the somewhat abstract exercise of thinking about and articulating narratives. But what if many of the problems we face are caused, in part, by the circulation of narratives that constrain our ability to solve problems together? What if, for example, our sense of polarization is itself part of a narrative that obscures the extent to which a majority of thoughtful and caring  Americans share common interests, concerns, goodwill, and agency? Articulating narratives that are unifying, ennobling, and empowering is essential if we are to advance together, in all our diversity, toward conditions in which every individual and social group can flourish.  

What narratives are you seeing, or would you like to see, that enable us to understand one another as protagonists in the project of building a more just and prosperous society? What narratives help us repair past injustices, overcome collective traumas, build mutual trust, and  develop shared purpose? 

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The thoughtful work being done on the many strands of the American story raises the question of how these strands can be braided together in a way that helps us move forward as a society. What principles need to inform or guide the telling of this larger story—this metanarrative? How can this larger story be spacious enough for all? What broader arc must it trace for its many composite narratives to fulfill their aspirations? How might it be enriched by our diversity while  fostering a sense of shared identity and purpose? How might it be honest about the most troubling aspects of our history, while recognizing what has been built and revealing our  potential as a nation? How might it dignify and elevate the latent capacity of every individual and social group? 

In conversations about these possibilities, metaphors are often invoked. Metaphors, like narratives, are central to human understanding and meaning making. Should we think about our story using metaphors of healing and growth? Healing implies a past healthy state we are seeking to restore, while growth implies moving forward toward a more mature state. Should we think about our story using developmental metaphors, such as that of a seed only gradually maturing  into a fruitful tree? Developmental metaphors such as this may not capture the pathologies of our past and present. At the same time, we can recognize that the seed has to sacrifice its initial form for the tree to grow and yield its fruit.  

The metaphor of birth emphasizes the arrival of something new, but only through a painful  transition. The metaphor of building raises the question of the extent to which structures can be fixed if they originated according to partially faulty plans, or whether entirely new structures  sometimes need to be built.  

Stories of the modern American state are often told with reference to the moral and philosophical ideals articulated by the country’s “founding fathers” in documents such as the Declaration of  Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. We have not yet fully lived up to many of these ideals, in ways that are increasingly attracting the awareness of the public. This raises difficult questions such as how to reconcile critique with a recognition of what has been accomplished and upon which we can build, or how to move past notions of exceptionalism without avoiding our responsibilities to the worldwide community of nations.  

The “promissory note” that Rev. Dr. King refers to can be understood in a way that dignifies the founding ideals of this country as an unfinished project, instead of emphasizing their hypocrisy, by finding in those ideals an inherent aspiration that may have been beyond the vision even of  those who first formulated them. 

We must also ask, however, whether America’s founding moral and philosophical ideals, as laudable as many of them are, adequately meet the needs of a diverse nation like ours or provide full scope for realizing our potential. What if America has latent potentialities for justice and  shared prosperity that do not derive solely from the ideals of Western liberalism articulated by  the founding fathers? After all, the original inhabitants of this land, and those who were enslaved  to work it even before the country was formed, did not come from the tradition of Western liberalism, and the ideals of their descendants have never been adequately incorporated into the American story. The same is true of the many immigrants to these lands. 

And beyond the ideals of diverse social groups within this country, what if our potential as a nation derives, at least in part, from other factors entirely, including our historical experiences of  injustice and collective trauma, our rich diversity, and our ongoing collective discovery of deeper  moral or spiritual truths that must shape how we navigate our path forward, despite our  challenges as a nation accepting these truths? How could narratives of America incorporate such  factors in order to render the American experience in a manner that is meaningful, inclusive and  forward-looking? What other values or principles, beyond the founding ideals of this country,  might be at the center of a more inclusive and forward-looking story of America? 

Another metaphor for understanding our story is the American experiment. A just, peaceful, diverse, composite and lasting democracy is still an unproven concept in humanity’s history—a  social experiment in the broadest sense. Of course, this metaphor is complicated by the fact that  not everyone consented to participate in this experiment, nor has everyone participated as an equal. But given where history has delivered us, is it now possible to advance a more inclusive  process of social learning in which all voices can contribute, mistakes can steadily be corrected, and the knowledge being generated can increasingly be applied for the betterment of all?  

We can think of history as a confluence of many elements, both beautiful and painful. Learning can offer a redeeming alchemy, if it allows us to make of these elements a hopeful future. What  is the story, in this regard, that learning could open up to us? What powers of the human spirit bring this alchemy within reach? What have we learned so far, and what do we still need to learn? What capacities do we need to develop in order to learn together in all our diversity? What conditions need to be created for shared learning?

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A meaningful, inclusive and forward-looking story of America cannot exist in a vacuum. America’s destiny is inextricably bound up with the global community of nations, all of whom  now face unprecedented existential threats arising from inherited patterns of social existence.  The twenty-first century can be understood as a test—an age of fundamental transition—which humanity as whole must pass through if it is to learn how to live together on this planet. Our country has become a microcosm of our interdependent world, even as we contend with injustices at a world historical level. If we, and other societies with similarly fraught histories and similar diversity, can advance toward peace, justice and shared prosperity, it will serve as a  source of hope that humanity as a whole can do the same. 

What can this global perspective bring to the narrative-building project? What are the potentialities that our diversity offers to our future and our world?