Identity Crisis

Book cover
Who Are We?by By Samuel P. HuntingtonSimon & Schuster. 448p $27

Samuel Huntington, the Harvard professor who gave us The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order, has weighed in on the current discussions of religion, politics, race and ethnicity with his extended meditation, or rather screed, on American national identity. It is a maddening book, from two perspectives.

The early chapters are full of interesting and synthetic insight into the complex roles that racial, religious, ethnic and political identities and codes of conduct play on a global scale. They make fascinating reading. This impressive global sweep, however, is used to ground a breathtaking and appalling lifeboat ethic of pushing others away, using the oars for attack rather than assistance. It is also maddening to a Catholic who views the individualism and ideological uses of Christian faith promoted by Huntington as a pretext for propping up an uncritical and globally harmful U.S. foreign policy. That policy is a huge part of our problem, rather than the solution. On the domestic side, Huntington expresses sympathy for, even encouragement of, white Protestant nativist reaction to “the Hispanic Challenge” to “American” culture and polity. The publication of a version of the chapter on Hispanic immigration in last March’s issue of Foreign Policy occasioned a flurry of concern and outrage on the part of those who work with immigrant communities here in the United States and with human rights organizations in Latin America.


The author’s main thesis is that historically, and he hopes for the future, to be an American is to be Anglo-Protestant, at least in our most important values, and to speak English. A quotation suffices to convey the message:

For more than two hundred years Americans defined their identity in opposition to Catholicism. The Catholic other was first fought and excluded and then opposed and discriminated against. Eventually, however, American Catholicism assimilated many of the features of its Protestant environment and was, in turn, assimilated into the American mainstream. These processes changed America from a Protestant country into a Christian country with Protestant values.

In other words, and in other places, he makes clear it is not Catholics as such that he dislikes or finds un-American, but their un-Protestant values. Change our values, and we can become sufficiently productive, individualistic, “work ethic motivated” and properly socialized human beings. There is much truth to his assertion that U. S. Catholics assimilated many capitalist, democratic, anti-authoritarian, formal-legal values and attitudes. Indeed, U.S. Catholic bishops and Roman bureaucrats are painfully aware of some of those characteristics, expressed in the development of a kind of Catholic congregationalism, the assertion of autonomous lay authority and pressures for more latitude on such key issues as family, gender, worship and church authority structures and polity.

More distressing, from my point of view, is the resistance of many American Catholics to the new Latino immigrants that is based on many of the same arguments espoused by Huntington. But I read this reaction as a sad illustration that the blood of class and racial antagonism can be thicker than the water of baptism, rather than as a positive sign.

To claim that vast portions of the country are becoming so antagonistically bicultural, so bilingual as to threaten national identity and unity beyond recognition pushes the data and likely outcomes much too far. Huntington is correct to locate changes in immigration legislation in the mid 1960’s as the watershed moment that led to a dramatic change in U.S. cultural demography. We now have the largest percentage of foreign-born persons resident in this country since 1910. Legislation had a lot to do with that shift, as did, even more profoundly, massive shifts in the global economy and the role that the United States plays in it. Since then, global migration, both forced and voluntary, has emerged as one of the defining characteristics of human life in our era.

Global economic disparities between the northern and southern hemispheres have increased. Both our domestic demand for low-wage labor and the external pressures of progressive impoverishment in Latin America are fueling migratory flows. Large-scale undocumented immigration to this country and the rapid dispersion of the Latino (and largely Catholic) communities throughout the country, including the traditional South and Midwest, are indeed a challenge to everyone involved, old-timers and newcomers alike.

They are also testimony to the futility of formal legal impediments to the freer movement of people at the same time we encourage, if not force, the opening of markets and free flow of capital, goods and jobs across borders. And without doubt the racial dynamics and codes of the American South are undergoing rapid transformation. This is due both to the flow of cheap Latino labor and to the movement of professional and middle-class blacks and whites from the North. That clock is not going to be turned back anytime soon.

Huntington’s preferred scenario is to limit immigration drastically, especially from Mexico and the rest of Latin America, and to reclaim good old WASP, success-oriented individualism and our “God-given” mission to enlighten the rest of the world as to how it should behave—in English, of course. Little matter that such a stance has made us one of the most resented and feared countries in the world. Is it too bold to suggest that the United States could use a good dose of “Catholic” values? Would we not all benefit from practices and policies that take more account of the common good, concern for the poor and some kind of serious and effective safety net for all?

Pope John Paul II’s call for conversion, communion and solidarity in his apostolic letter Ecclesia in America has become something of a blueprint for the development and application of Catholic social teaching in America, both North and South. The pope’s letter is, indeed, a far cry from Huntington’s Boston Brahmin desire to reclaim some fictive Protestant America.

Questions of our national identity in light of immigration, security concerns and our role in the global economy and culture are indeed pressing. Unfortunately, Huntington offers little constructive thought to the discussion and a great deal of incendiary baiting. A far more constructive effort, combining solid analysis of data and serious reflection on the questions, is offered by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force. Its report, Keeping the Promise: Immigration Proposals from the Heartland, deserves attention.

Huntington is worth reading to see what fear and resentment bring to the table. Only when we see, and even to some extent empathize with, the people who hold such views, can we understand the depth of the questions and the passions they elicit and appreciate how difficult the call to conversion, communion and solidarity for all of us really is.


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