Right Identity

The sixth path to wisdom then is that of right identity. The civil rights movement opened the door a crack to blacks wanting a place at the American table. In response to the movement, Congress finally became more sensitive to implications of racism and nativism and in 1965 passed the Immigration Act, which lifted earlier quotas on newcomers to the United States. The result has been a level of religious and cultural diversity unprecedented in earlier stages of American history. It is indeed a radical pluralism, including both greater raw numbers of newcomers, higher levels of diversity, and more significant theological and ideological deviations from what had historically been viewed as the Protestant “norms.” Skyrocketing immigration and the multicultural impulse have conspired to create concerns, even among erstwhile liberals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., about “the disuniting of America.” Concerns about diversity of race, culture, religion, and language began to swirl, leading many began to ask, “In the face of growing diversity, what will American identity become?” A more foreboding version of the question was, “Who are the real Americans?”
Bill Ong Hing, an attorney specializing in immigration law, notes that the nation’s immigration policy is the realm where Americans wrestle with ethnicity and the limits of tolerable pluralism. This policy has reflected tensions in the American psyche regarding the place of “foreigners” in the country. Not at all a recent problem, this issue split even the nation’s Founders. Whereas Benjamin Franklin had raised alarms about incorporating German immigrants (whom he regarded as stupid) into the “holy experiment” in Pennsylvania, George Washington took a more welcoming view: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; and they shall be welcomed to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct as they appear to merit the enjoyment.”
As many have pointed out, these conflicting mind-sets can both be found on the base of the Statue of Liberty, in the famous verses of Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” has the Washingtonian sound of welcome; “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” reflects Franklin’s concern about unassimilable newcomers. Hing argues that the nation consistently has been of two minds regarding the immigrant, and the issue of “who is an American?” has been defined and redefined throughout its history. In periods of open immigration policy, the restrictionist mind-set narrows the definition of what traits constitute true Americanness. Such concerns about immigration’s threat to American identity bring us back to the realm where civil religions do their work. If civil religions really do exist in twenty-first-century America, they will be obligated to speak usefully to the issue of immigration and the questions of American identity that it raises.
Similarly, the rise of radical pluralism also raises important questions regarding civil religion. Can civil religion survive radical pluralism? Is the United States condemned to fighting culture wars where opposing civil religions compete for adherents like political parties or candidates vie for voters? Is civility among Americans forever to be replaced by polarization? Or might it be possible for a consensus to develop around a more inclusive vision of America?
Answers to these questions remain to be developed. What is certain at present is that the polarization is real and continuing. In a real sense, the civil religious conflict of the civil rights era has remained a part of the American landscape and broadened into more than an argument about white America’s acceptance of African American equality. Other issues like abortion, capital punishment, stem cell research, immigration, the role of religion in public life, and the “war on terror- ism” have divided Americans into opposing camps. Many scholars have described and attempted to name these competing perspectives. Perhaps the most celebrated of these attempts was by sociologist James Davison Hunter. In his original argument regarding the culture wars, Hunter sketched two moral worldviews, which he named progressivism and traditionalism. Robert Wuthnow judged these to be liberal and conservative civil religions.
Social commentator Michael Lind, nervous about what he considers the over- involvement of religion in American public life, avoids attaching the label “civil religion” to the two perspectives he sees clashing in contemporary America. The two kinds of nationalism he describes nonetheless function the way civil religions do. His nativist nationalism corresponds to Wuthnow’s conservative civil religion, imposing racial and religious tests for membership in the national community. Lind prefers what he calls liberal nationalism, which rejects such qualifications for being an American. Liberal nationalism advocates a colorblind racial integration in the Frederick Douglass–Martin Luther King Jr. tradition. Regarding immigration, this perspective accepts the image of the melting pot, updated to fuse together not only white immigrants but Americans of all races. The almost-millennial result envisioned by this brand of nationalism would be a “transracial nation.” Most provocatively, Lind describes a nationalism (or civil religion) that rejects American exceptionalism. For liberal nationalists, “patriotism does not depend on overblown claims about American uniqueness or superiority. One should cherish one’s nation as one should cherish one’s family, not because it is the best in the world, but because, with all of its faults, it is one’s own.”

Historian Gary Gerstle’s important American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century examines the intertwined careers of race and nation in contemporary America. He describes a “racial nationalism” with “ethnoracial” images of an America unified by “common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government.” His alternative is a “civic nationalism” that defines Americanism as a commitment to the core political ideals of the United States. Here Gerstle’s formulation matches the concept of a “cosmopolitan patriotism” that Jonathan M. Hansen views as the “lost promise of patriotism” in a book by the same name.
These studies, as well as Lind’s, make little or no reference to religion, but their formulations would not preclude their insights in conceiving of a civil religion that pointed toward the civic-mindedness or cosmopolitanism they advocate. Bellah himself held out hope for a kind of world civil religion that would avoid exclusivism or jingoism. A civil religion shorn of the more arrogant aspects of American exceptionalism, which focused on loyalty to the core American values of freedom, equality, and democracy, and which eschewed racial or religious qualifications for being an American, could yield an armistice in the ongoing culture wars.

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