Chapter 4: Nativism and Cultural Pluralism in America

The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial
by Robert N. Bellah

Chapter 4: Nativism and Cultural Pluralism in America

In the last chapter we considered the place of the individual in the developing pattern of symbol and myth in America. Now, in that same pattern, we must consider the place of the group, particularly groups that differed significantly from the majority of the early colonists.

In 1614 the Reverend Samuel Purchas, one of the first Englishmen to describe the new world opened up by the great explorations, wrote the following panegyric to the unity of mankind religiously conceived:

. . . the tawney Moore, blacke Negro, duskie Libyan, ash-coloured Indian, olive-coloured American, should with the whiter European become one sheep-fold, under one great Sheepheard, till this mortalitie being swallowed up of Life, wee may all be one, as he and the father are one . . . without any more distinction of Colour, Nation, Language, Sexe, Condition, all may bee One in him that is One, and onely blessed for ever1.

Five years later, the first group of Negro slaves was landed at Jamestown, Virginia. In 17th-century America the commonest way to make the distinction between white and black was to speak of Christians and Negroes. On the one hand being a Christian meant a deep commitment to the oneness of man; on the other it meant the right of Christian Europeans to enslave or destroy any who differed radically from them in belief, custom, and complexion. The dialectic between universalism and particularism, between inclusion and exclusion is found among all peoples. But nowhere more than in America has a universal conception of man existed side by side with such harsh and brutal exclusions.

The problem of inclusion and exclusion has been especially acute with respect to racial groups but it has also arisen in connection with the national, linguistic, and ethnic groups who have come as immigrants to these shores. All Americans except the Indians are immigrants or the descendents of immigrants, but not all immigrants have met the same reception. The way various groups have been treated and the place they have found in the national community is a critical index of how far American values have been realized in practice, how far our pretension to be a universal community has become actual. The struggle of oppressed racial groups to improve their position in America is a major aspect of our third time of trial. That struggle has called into question all the existing beliefs about America as a successful multicultural nation. We will have to consider both the idea and the reality of cultural pluralism to see whether it has any substance or is merely a screen for the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon minority.

America as an asylum for the oppressed is one of the oldest elements of the national myth, part of the millennial meaning of the American experiment. The Jewish American poet, Emma Lazarus, gave classic expression to this idea in 1883 in words inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!2

The image of America the openhearted, receiving the afflicted of the world, has deep historical and emotional roots. Emerson, Melville, and Whitman all celebrated the variety of nations coming to these shores and intermingling to form a new people. In 1817 Jefferson saw America’s open door to the oppressed as part of her meaning to the world. It was her role, he said, "to consecrate a sanctuary for those whom the misrule of Europe may compel to seek happiness in other climes. This refuge once known will produce reaction on the happiness even of those who remain there, by warning their task-masters that when the evils of Egyptian oppression became heavier than those of the abandonment of country, another Canaan is open where their subjects will be received as brothers and secured against like oppression by a participation in the right of self-government."3 Even before the establishment of the republic the British colonies had something of the same role which Benjamin Franklin described in 1752 in Poor Richard Improved as follows:

Where the sick Stranger joys to find a Home,

Where casual Ill, maimed Labour, freely come;

Those worn with Age, Infirmity or Care,

Find Rest, Relief, and Health returning fair.4

But it is also in Franklin that we find one of the first complaints about immigrants. He expresses the anxiety and hostility that immigrants would meet all through subsequent American history. Franklin complained of’ the German immigrants to Pennsylvania, whom he refers to as Dutch:

This will in a few years become a German Colony: Instead of their Learning our Language, we must learn theirs, or live as in a foreign country. Already the English begin to quit particular Neighborhoods surrounded by Dutch, being made uneasy by the Disagreeableness of Dissonant Manners; and in Time, Numbers will probably quit the Province for the same Reason. Besides, the Dutch under-live, and are thereby enabled to under-work and under-sell the English; who are thereby extremely incommoded, and consequently disgusted, so that there can be no cordial Affection or Unity between the two Nations.5

Implicit in Franklin’s remarks is the assumption that if the Germans would only give up their "foreign language," their "dissonant manners," and their proclivity to undercut native Americans in the labor market and in trade, all would go well. Thus Franklin seems to be propounding a very early form of what would later be termed "Americanization." We will have to consider later what if anything in the basic republican values of the nation or even in its underlying religio-political myth justifies that proviso of "Americanization" or, as it has more recently been called, "Anglo-conformity." 6

What "the homeless, tempest-tost" were supposed to find once they arrived on these shores was an "open society," with "equality of opportunity." In 1878 Emerson stated the cultural assumption well when he said, "Opportunity of civil rights, of education, of personal power, and not less of wealth; doors wide open invitation to every nation, to every race and skin, hospitality of fair field and equal laws to all. Let them compete, and success to the strongest, the wisest, and the best. The land is wide enough, the soil has bread for all."7

There is no need to question Emerson’s sincerity, but there is need to question his empirical accuracy. No doubt for some groups and in some areas of social life there was genuinely open competition and opportunity. Compared to European societies divided by insuperable barriers of class, religious prejudice, and linguistic difference there was relatively more openness in America. And yet for many, even of those children of immigrants who would later go to Ivy League schools and wear Brooks Brothers suits, many doors remained closed. Milton Gordon puts the case very succinctly:

Those who had for a time ventured out gingerly or confidently as the case may be, had been lured by the vision of an "American" social structure that was somehow larger than all subgroups and ethnically neutral. And were they, too, not Americans? But they found to their dismay that at the primary group level a neutral American social structure was a myth -- a mirage. What at a distance seemed to be a quasi-public edifice flying only the all-inclusive flag of American nationality turned out, on closer inspection, to be the clubhouse of a particular ethnic group -- the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, its operation shot through with the premises and expectations of its parental ethnicity.8

There are many ways in which apparently open doors may turn out to be closed. People of some ethnic backgrounds are not welcome in certain country clubs or yacht clubs, or there may be an invisible barrier in the corporate structure above which members of certain ethnic groups very seldom rise. But there is one group above all others for whom the proclaimed openness of American society has proven false, and that is the Negro. Blacks along with other Americans have been exposed to the exalted ideal of success described in Chapter III. But for no other group has it turned out to be such a mirage. The moment that mirage is discovered has been a formative experience for many militant black leaders.

Malcolm X tells of growing up in a small Midwestern town. He had done very well in school and had received excellent grades. He was well liked by the other students and had been elected class president in the seventh grade. One day when he was about to enter high school, a teacher whom he trusted asked him if he had any thoughts of a career. Impulsively he replied that he had been thinking about being a lawyer. The teacher looked surprised and replied,

Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer -- that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands -- making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person -- you’d get all kinds of work.9

The story of W.E.B. DuBois might seem to be more fortunate but in its own way it was equally cruel. Like Malcolm X, DuBois did extremely well in the public schools of the town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he grew up. He was outstanding in all lines of activity and well liked by all. As his father left his mother when he was quite young, and his mother had quite limited means, the townspeople decided to raise money so that DuBois could go to college. He expected to go to Harvard or Amherst as others from his community usually did, but he learned to his surprise that it had been determined to send him to Fisk University, an all-black institution in Nashville, Tennessee. It is this kind of experience, suffered in milder form by many immigrant groups, that leads Harold Cruse, perhaps the most thoughtful of contemporary black intellectuals, to write:

America is an unfinished nation -- the product of a badly bungled process of inter-group cultural fusion. America is a nation that lies to itself about who and what it is. It is a nation of minorities ruled by a minority of one -- it thinks and acts as if it were a nation of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. This white Anglo-Saxon ideal, this lofty dream of a minority at the summit of its economic and political power and the height of its historical self-delusions, has led this nation to the brink of self-destruction. And on its way, it has effectively dissuaded, crippled and smothered the cultivation of a democratic cultural pluralism in America.10


In many cultural characteristics Americans of all backgrounds have become remarkably similar. Differences of class are often more marked than by ethnic group or even race. Differences in food preferences, dialect, and expressive culture remain, and differences connected with religion seem to be especially tenacious. Yet what is shared probably outweighs what is different for almost all groups except those American Indian communities that have been able to maintain their own language and native religion within the semi-isolation of the reservation. Mexican-Americans in areas of the Southwest where they are densely settled and maintain their own language are perhaps the next most distinct group.

Questions have recently been raised as to how deep the apparent assimilation has gone, whether inner qualities of feeling, ways of relating to others, conceptions of the meaning of life, have not been more resistant than has long been assumed. Even so we can ask how millions of immigrants from a variety of European and Asian nations have been turned in a generation or two, even superficially, into relatively homogeneous Americans. There certainly were elements of what might almost be called forced conversion, especially in the period of the First World War and the years immediately after. It was then that there was a fervent campaign to end "hyphenated Americans," and bring about 100 percent Americanization. A festival sponsored by Henry Ford in the early 1920s symbolizes this Americanization campaign. A giant pot was built outside the gates of his factory into which danced groups of gaily dressed immigrants singing their native songs. From the other side of the pot emerged a single stream of Americans dressed alike in the contemporary standard dress and singing the national anthem. As the tarantellas and the polkas at last faded away, only the rising strains of the Star Spangled Banner could be heard as all the immigrants emerged from the melting pot of Americanization. In the long run, of course, it was the public schools (and hardly less, the parochial schools) that transformed the second and the third generations.

Anglo-Saxons were the dominant ethnic group in America and self-conscious proponents of Americanization were apt to come from that group. Even so, Anglo-conformity is not an entirely apt phrase with which to characterize the American culture of the 20th century or even of the 19th. It was certainly a very different culture from that of Britain or even of English Canada. It was the product not only of ethnic inheritances but also of unique experiences in this country, in particular the experience of independence, of striking out on one’s own, leaving the old world behind. The Anglo-Saxons were merely the first to undergo what would be the experience of every immigrant group.


In dealing with the relation between groups in America we may distinguish between three dimensions along which dominance can be measured: the cultural, the political, and the social. I would argue that the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon ethnic group has been by no means equal in all these dimensions. Or, perhaps better, that the Anglo-Saxon dominance has declined along all three dimensions, first in the political sphere, second in the cultural, and only quite recently has its social dominance been seriously challenged. Let us look first at the political dimension.

Analysts such as Gordon and Cruse recognize that there are central aspects of the American political system that they do not wish to define as the exclusive property of Anglo-Saxons but rather claim for all Americans. In this they are quite right, for many of these elements have long since been extricated from the matrix of Anglo-Saxon ethnic identity. The English political tradition underlies the institutions of the American republic, but the particular structures that resulted from the Revolution were not continuous with the British model. They were the product of an extensive study of traditions of republican thought and institutions from the entire history of the West. The American Revolution was part of a broad ferment in Atlantic society and was not confined to the English-speaking peoples. The influence of French political thought and continental natural-rights theories were major components of the emerging American political ideology. But leaving aside sources of influence, the crystallization of American political institutions is remarkably free of any cultural symbolization that would confine their benefits to those of Anglo-Saxon descent.

On the contrary, the American Revolution spoke, particularly in the Declaration of Independence, in the accent of mankind in general. American revolutionary thought had the capacity to transcend ethnic barriers, as its influence on revolutionary movements all over the world, from the French Revolution of 1789 to that of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam after the Second World War shows. When W. E. B. Du Bois spoke in 1903 about embracing the "greater ideals of the American Republic" and the "spirit of the Declaration of Independence"11 he was only doing in the language of his day what Gordon and Cruse in our own time do when they espouse democracy and pluralism as fundamental to the American republic. Though Anglo-Saxons may have formulated these ideals originally and, at least in principle, committed the society to them, they are not exclusively Anglo-Saxon ideals. Even men like Garrison, who seem to reject the proclaimed ideology of America, do so because they believe those who assert the ideals of that ideology have subverted them. The ideal of equal protection of the law for everyone in the exercise of his or her natural rights is not an ideal for Anglo-Saxons alone. Its validity and appeal remain even when it is betrayed by the very Anglo-Saxon group that originally formulated it.

That larger promise remained moot for a long time, and Anglo-Saxon dominance in the political sphere is not completely gone even today. But already by the later decades of the 19th century some immigrants, notably the Irish, were able to exercise political power at least at the local level. In the 20th century major ethnic groups and even racial groups began to be represented on the national political stage and the election of the first Catholic president in 1960 marked the crossing of an important symbolic barrier. Inadequate as the representation of certain groups may be, American political life clearly includes the active participation of many ethnic and racial groups besides the Anglo-Saxons in the late decades of the 20th century.

Turning to the cultural dimension, I would argue that American culture was moving out from under the dominance of purely Anglo-Saxon ethnic considerations even before the Revolution. The influence of the enlightenment philosophers is the crucial influence in the 18th century. Enlightenment thought not only affected specifically political institutions, it also influenced the way the religious tradition would be formulated at the level of national culture. The biblical imagery underlying the conception of the new nation was sufficiently generalized, sufficiently pruned of anything specifically Protestant, so that both Catholics and Jews could easily echo it. Rabbi Wise followed the general pattern, as we have seen. Catholic expressions of the special mission of America -- in Archbishop John Ireland’s words "A chosen nation of the future!" -- would often outdo their Protestant models. The use of biblical figures to express the meaning of American history was by no means an Anglo-Saxon monopoly. They have even been used to quite critical effect by black Americans.

Among the intellectuals who championed these universalistic components of the national ideology were some who were self-conscious representatives of the Anglo-Saxon ethnic group. They argued that though the ideals were universal the Anglo-Saxons were their ablest representatives and that their leadership of the world was necessary in order to "Anglo-Saxonize" mankind. But the most outstanding of the American intellectuals who began to emerge in the 19th century outside the ranks of the Protestant clergy were often sharp critics of Anglo-Saxon pretensions. While second-rank intellectuals, often popular in their own day, were providing ideology and leadership for nativism, the major figures of classic American literature and thought were self-consciously extricating themselves from the prejudices and presuppositions of their own ethnic group rather than reflecting and glorifying them. That is one reason they were so often ignored in their own day. Especially since the First World War it is very hard to find an Anglo-Saxon intellectual of the first rank who will take a narrow ethnic-group position.

The highly critical stance of Anglo-American intellectuals to much in the outlook of their own ethnic group has had the negative result of isolating them and reducing their influence on their own group. The alienation of the intellectuals from their own religious tradition, and the loss of intellectual creativity in the Protestant Churches, that is both cause and effect of that alienation, has further weakened their influence. But their critical stance has had the consequence, as Milton Gordon has pointed out,12 that the intellectuals are the one major group in American society that is open to individuals of all ethnic backgrounds, in practice as well as in theory. And it is among intellectuals that primary-group association and intermarriage between those of different ethnic and religious background is more the rule than the exception. A qualification has to be made, as usual, with respect to the blacks and even more to groups like the Indians and the Chicanos whose social situation has virtually prevented the emergence of intellectuals in the modern sense. But even in these cases the lack of full integration can be understood, more because of the special forms of oppression they suffer in American society than from any intrinsic closure of intellectual institutions to them. The absorption of very large numbers of Jews and significant numbers of Catholics makes it even less likely that American cultural and intellectual life, and here I am speaking of popular culture as well as high culture, will reflect an exclusively Anglo-Saxon ethnic ideal.

It is at the social level rather than the political or the cultural that America remains divided into largely self-sufficient ethnic groups. It is at the level of primary-group association -- friendship, clubs, intermarriage, and to some extent neighborhood residence patterns -- that ethnic exclusiveness still operates. To a considerable though declining extent, Anglo-Saxon influence is still decisive in the occupational structure and the control of economic institutions. The emergence of other ethnic groups into positions of significant power in the political and cultural systems makes it doubtful how long the Anglo-Saxons will retain even this bastion. The universalism of the political system and the relatively complete integration of the cultural elite bring into question the indefinite survival of hereditary ethnic groups in American society, or how vital they will be if they do survive. If we value cultural pluralism in America we may have to look elsewhere than to the continuation of existing ethnic groups to find a basis for such pluralism, though the persistence of ethnic and particularly religious identities cannot be entirely counted out. Here as usual we must make a partial exception for the racial groups. The emergence of ethnic pride and some degree of vitality in ethnic culture among blacks and Chicanos and the continuation of such culture among Indians fits the classical conception of cultural pluralism developed by Horace Kallen 13 better than the present condition of most of the white and oriental ethnic groups. But in these racial groups ethnic separation clearly represents a response to special oppression. There may be some pull toward generalization of the model of the racial groups but it is questionable if it will be strong enough to reverse longstanding trends away from ethnic groups as the structural location of cultural vitality in America.


In spite of the long-term attenuation of Anglo-Saxon cultural influence, there are continuities that link recent developments with the cultural orientations of the earliest settlers. The salvation/success polarity has tended to recur in new forms rather than to disappear. These ideals of personal fulfillment have played into the dialectic of inclusion and exclusion in the relation between ethnic and racial groups.

Among the early Puritans there was a strong sense of the difference between the saved and the reprobate, the saints and the sinners, that made any sense of community between them difficult. Robert Middlekauff summarizes the views of Increase Mather on this subject as follows:

The company a Godly man kept constituted a test of his regeneration: a truly Godly man, Increase said, delighted only in the company of other Godly men; he resented wasting his time with sinners; he did not want them to throw his mental frame out of joint. The thrust of this attitude is toward a kind of moral separation, a fear of contamination.14

The fear of contamination, interpreted along the lines made familiar by Freud and Durkheim, derives from the fact that the behavior of the sinners is experienced unconsciously as seductive. The inner structure of repression supporting the character structure of the Godly man is threatened by the behavior (drunkenness, fornication, brawling) of the sinners. Increase Mather’s mechanism for dealing with the threat is separation. Another is external repression of the reprobates. If sinners lack inner controls, the society can enforce outer controls on them. This logic led to Cotton Mather’s societies to suppress disorders. But this effort at external control of sinners did not remain a matter for voluntary groups of saints. It affected the entire legal structure and in many respects still does. The rise of the temperance movement in the 19th century, carried by a proliferating string of voluntary associations and leading to the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 prohibiting the manufacture, importation, and sale of alcoholic beverages, is only the most spectacular example of a mechanism that has been very widespread in American life and still exists today.

The fundamental notion of dividing society into saints and sinners, separating the saints from the sinners as much as possible, and then instituting a system of external controls to bring the sinners into at least outer conformity with the moral expectations of the saints, originally had nothing to do with the relations between ethnic and racial groups. But it was not long before certain of the characteristic traits of sinners were projected onto whole groups of people. Both Indians and Blacks were seen by the earliest Americans as prone to every kind of sinful impulse -- rampant sexuality, bloodthirstiness, and sloth. When the allegedly sinful group was external to the society, the dialectic of saint and sinner could fuse with the notions of chosen people and holy war to justify extraordinary hostility and aggression against the despised group. The uncompromising ruthlessness of American warfare has seldom been orgiastic. The autonomous, decent, and efficient American described by Erikson has killed cold-bloodedly whether in fighting Indians, dropping the Atomic bomb on Japanese, or Organizing search and destroy missions against the Viet Cong. It is this kind of thing that led D. H. Lawrence to say, The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted."15 The repression of evil, regardless of the means, is a simple duty to the classic American.16

Where the sinful group is not external to the society but internal, stringent controls, including both rigorous policing and occasional mob violence, have long been normal in America. In the course of the 19th century, as we have seen, moral uprightness tended to become more and more defined not by religious rebirth but by secular, -- especially monetary -- success. And groups considered morally upright have been allowed extraordinary freedom in American society. Police and governmental controls on such groups -- and they have in America always included a significant proportion of the common people as well as the upper classes -- have been minimal compared to most European or Asian societies. In this respect America has indeed been remarkably voluntaristic and democratic. But such voluntarism has not been extended to groups that are deemed not to live up to established moral standards. Blacks have suffered more than any other group in American history from the projection of every rejected impulse in the unconscious white mind. They have been subjected to an unparalleled history of extreme coercion and violence which did not end with emancipation but has taken ever new forms to the present day.

But immigrant groups from the time of the first large-scale Irish immigration have also been subjected to external control and violence. The Irish were early characterized as drunken, brawling, and lazy and thus legitimate subjects for police control and mob violence. In fact American urban police forces (and public schools) emerged initially only in conjunction with large-scale immigration. Later immigrant groups, for example the Italians, were characterized as criminal and often as seditious and further controls against them were instituted. Of course, as such immigrant groups became acculturated their position with respect to such inter-group violence and control changed. By the late 19th century the Irish had become the archetypal American cops, just as in the 20th century they would be the typical FBI agents. By and large it has been only the racial groups that have not graduated, so to speak, from the status of controlled to the status of controller.

It was the success ideal that lured the various immigrant groups into the cultural patterns and inner controls that have gradually weakened the barriers between them and older Americans. It would be a mistake to see this as entirely inflicted on the immigrant groups by an alien American culture.17 Some form of it is what lured many to these shores in the first place. Emma Lazarus closed her poem with the phrase "I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" What many of the immigrants hoped for, as Hannah Arendt has pointed out, is not "to each according to his ability," nor even "to each according to his need" but that old dream of the poor, "to each according to his desire." That hope, in the hard conditions of the new world, would be tamed, regulated and controlled; and more modest, more American mechanisms of striving would be installed, if not in the immigrant at least in his children and grandchildren. The human price was high, for the first generation incalculably high, in broken community and personal meaninglessness. The American experience has always been ambiguous; never repression alone, but also liberation; never success alone but also, in some form or other, salvation. And so Oscar Handlin, in his well known book The Uprooted can give an answer to the unasked question of the first generation as to what it all meant:

No longer part within some whole, you mourn the loss beyond all power of repair and, blinded, fail to see the greater gain. You may no longer now recede into the warm obscurity where like and like and like conceal the one’s identity. And yet, exposed, alone, the man in you has come to life. With every hostile shock you bore, with every frantic move you made, with every lonely sacrifice, you wakened to the sense of what, long hidden in that ancient whole, you never knew you lacked. Indeed the bitter train of your misfortunes has, in unexpected measure, brought awareness of the oneness that is you; and though the separation pains now will not let you know it, the coming forth endowed you with the human birthright of your individuality.18


But no matter how we evaluate the past, and it is in many respects an ambiguous and ironic story, it is part of our third time of trial that the old verities are no longer taken for granted. While our conservatives would meet the present disorder in American society with the old formula of moralistic rhetoric and police control, others are calling into question the values and character structure that underlie that very formula. For 50 years and more America’s most established intellectuals, artists, and writers have been subjecting the narrower version of American character and values to devastating criticism. And they have rejected the moralistic self-righteousness, the sacrifice of all human impulses to the single goal of success, the materialism and vulgarity of so much of American life. In the last ten years or so this criticism has begun to disaffect a whole generation. Students in many American universities have begun not only to believe what many of their professors have long been saying but to act on that belief with a single-minded rigor that has often appalled their teachers. They have frequently displayed a moralistic self-righteousness and a personal vulgarity that makes one wonder whether they are criticizing American character or exemplifying it at its worst. But one must expect all kinds of pathology when a great change occurs, and the deflation of the myth of American innocence, of material success, and of the necessity to inflict aggression on various allegedly dangerous groups, is a great change indeed.

One of the more interesting features of the present situation is the transvaluation that has taken place in much of the youth culture so that the WASP is a negative image and the black, the Indian, and the Asian are culture heroes. Here too one must wonder at the depth of the change if there is too total a reversal so that we only have a new set of actors in the traditional good-guy and bad-guy roles. But some at least have begun to experiment with the logic of complementarity rather than of opposition. As long ago as his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois put forward the idea that blacks might have certain characteristics that whites desperately need. He toyed with the idea that "some day on American soil two world-races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack." And he added: "We the darker ones come even now not altogether empty-handed." He cited the integrity of emotion and expression in black culture which might appear as "the sole oasis" in white culture’s "dusty desert" of dollars and vulgarity.19

Much more recently Eldridge Cleaver has pointed out that the splitting tendency in American culture, which we have traced back to the early Puritans, tended to make the white man a mind without a body and the black man a body without a mind.20 Only when the white man comes to respect his own body, to accept it as part of himself, will he be able to accept the black man’s mind and treat him as something other than the living symbol of what he has rejected in himself. The abiding American hostility to the body and to deeper levels of the unconscious personality, was pointed out by D. H. Lawrence in 1923 and confirmed by Erik Erikson in 1950. It is part of the single vision against which classic American writers such as Melville and Whitman rebelled in the last century. Following a similar logic, Hart Crane in the 1920s found in the American Indian a symbol of the mythic consciousness that American culture had for long repressed. Recently the Indian became a symbolic focus of the counterculture.

The transvaluation of roles that turns the despised and oppressed into symbols of salvation and rebirth is nothing new in the history of human culture, but when it occurs, it is an indication of new cultural directions, perhaps of a deep cultural revolution. For it means not merely a potential change in the social position of formerly persecuted groups but a change in the balance between repression and freedom in the dominant American psyche. I do not want to imply that such changes are any more than incipient and fragile at the moment. But what is undeniable is that the defenders of the old attitudes and values have thoroughly lost confidence in themselves. If they are not ready to opt for anything radically new, they are very uncertain as to how much of the old can be or ought to be saved.


The changed valence given to black and Indian culture on the one hand and to WASP culture on the other raises questions about the future of cultural pluralism and community in America. One common model of the assimilation process in America saw it as a process in which immigrant groups, and eventually racial groups as well, would finally adapt themselves to an atomized and highly mobile "rational" society that is as far from original Protestant culture as from that of any immigrant group. Naturally, the energy for this process was to be supplied by the continued technological and economic "development" of America. In recent years that model has come under increasing criticism. The "mass culture" that seems an inevitable accompaniment to industrial society has been rejected in favor of the intimate, the personal, the communal, the kind of culture that individuals and small groups can make for themselves. "Community" has become a kind of magic word. Though its use has often been sentimental and imprecise, its prevalence is symptomatic. Much of the new mystique of the racial minorities comes from the fact that they are alleged to have retained a sense of community missing among whites. Michael Novak recently argued eloquently that Eastern and Southern European groups have maintained a vital sense of family and neighborhood that gives them a different sense of reality from other Americans and that deserves careful nurturing.21

Nostalgia for the rural past of Anglo-Americans, when "community" was more of a reality than in the modern suburbs, has even invaded the mass media of late. The extent to which any effort to revive or even maintain community in America without a fundamental change in the economic system is a problem we will consider in the next chapter. Here we can only reflect on the meaning of the current ferment.

The rejection of the Anglo-Saxon image of the American goes very deep and there is a great effort to retrieve the experience and history of all the repressed cultures that "Americanization" tried to obliterate. Instead of one American civil religion, it is argued, there are many civil religions; instead of one covenant, many. (It is ironic that late in its history the great Protestant word "covenant" should have been used in the phrase "restrictive covenant" as a symbol of the exclusion of others.) A few critics feel that the American experiment has been so badly botched that it is even questionable that we can survive as a single society. Others look to the emergence of new collective ideals quite different from those of the past in which pluralism and community will have a prominent place.22

Without a great deal of research and the passage of time it is difficult to know which ethnic groups or what percentage of them will survive as separate cultural entities. For many the attrition of language, history, and custom has been so great that only a name and a label remain. We should not, however, infer from loss of cultural content to loss of actual community. As Isaac Berkson wrote over 50 years ago, "The ethnic group is not a system of ideas but a nationality, a community of persons; it is a living reality related, indeed, to thought, but still flesh and blood and desire and no mere pale abstraction."23 Where community survives, culture can be revived. Americans may finally be ready to see that biculturalism is an advantage more than a defect and agree with Berkson that "True universalization, colloquially called ‘broadmindedness,’ can only come through the multiplication of loyalties, not through the suppression of them. . . ."24 The beginnings of a shift in public policy in education and other areas to the preservation of community and cultural diversity are hopeful, even though developments in this direction are still quite fragile.

The survival of ethnic identities seems to me only meaningful in the context of the survival of religious identities. Religion provides an essential mediation between the ethnic group and the larger culture of the modern world. Not only does religion often preserve the deepest symbols of ethnic identity, it also exerts a pull away from ethnic particularity to that which is morally and religiously universal. That particular ethnic groups are linked in larger religious groups, Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant, and that the religious groups share certain common symbols is undoubtedly an important element in whatever cultural unity and universality exists in America. But unfortunately not only the Protestant tradition but the Catholic and Jewish traditions have undergone severe attrition in America and in their present form it is doubtful whether they can provide the basis for a genuine cultural renewal.

The cultural vitality in America of the several religious traditions has been waning for a long time. They have been dependent on European theologians and philosophers for their inspiration. Though American Protestantism has recently produced more significant minds than at any time since the early 18th century, even the most important American theologians have had less influence here than Karl Barth or Paul Tillich. American Catholic thinkers have not rivaled Jacques Maritain or Karl Rahner, and American Jews have hardly produced figures of the magnitude of Martin Buber or Franz Rosenzweig. Even if we consider the three major religious groups as ethnic traditions rather than religious in the narrow sense, their brightest and most creative intellectuals and artists have been absorbed into the general American intellectual and artistic community so as to deprive the communal groups of their natural cultural leaders.

It is questionable whether a ‘return" to inherited ethnic and religious identities, at least among the more privileged white groups, would be particularly healthy. A return to primordial loyalties in the face of cultural and social breakdown can be defensive, based more on fear than joyous reaffirmation. Where the motive is the protection of one’s own property and privilege against the threat of other competing groups, the political implications can be quite serious. One man’s "cultural pluralism" can then become another man’s "nativism," with all the classic elements of violence and repression that that entails.

Perhaps what we need at least among the more dominant white groups, is not so much a communalism of birth as a new communalism of intention. The openness of young Protestants and Catholics to each others’ traditions has never been greater and the openness of young Jews to all the religious and ideological possibilities is striking. Perhaps the revitalization of our religious traditions will come from new efforts to live them as experienced realities, rather than objects of thought, by those who find them meaningful, whatever their own origins may be. Experimentation with new cultural and social forms does not stop at the boundary of Western or biblical culture. Indian America, Africa, and above all Asia are supplying many new possible patterns. The young people flocking to Buddhist, Suh, and Yoga groups come from all ethnic and religious backgrounds. This experimentation with symbols and ways of experiencing reality from cultures once very alien to us has even begun to influence some of the established churches. Expansive openness is as characteristic of the present situation as is the revival of the past. Perhaps, if we are to survive our third time of trial, encouragement of a broad range of experiments with cultural symbols and styles of community may be essential.

There is long precedent for such openness in American culture. R. W. B. Lewis has referred to "the unrivalled hospitality of the American imagination to the literatures of other nations. For all its occasional parochialism and its periodic bursts of cultural nativism, American literature at its most original and adventurous is also the most international, the most cosmopolitan, the most Western of the literatures of the Western world."25 I would point out that it is also unrivalled in its openness to the East, from Emerson’s and Thoreau’s absorption with the Bhagavad Gita to Henry Miller’s Taoism and Gary Snyder’s Zen Buddhism. No one has expressed American cultural openness more insistently than the archetypal American poet, Walt Whitman. In 1876, the first centennial year, he spoke of "a vaster, saner, more splendid COMRADSHIP, typifying the People everywhere, uniting closer and closer not only The American States, but all Nations, and all Humanity."26 And in "Passage to India" he saw that the soul’s travelling to distant lands is at the same time, in the twofold vision of the visionary poet, an exploration of its own depths:

Passage indeed O soul to primal thought,

Not lands and seas alone, thy own clear freshness,.

O soul, repressless, I with thee and thou with me,

Thy circumnavigation of the world begin,

Of man, the voyage of his mind’s return,

To reason’s early paradise . . .

. . . back to wisdom’s birth. . . .

Again with fair creation.

But before we can explore further the possibilities of utopian renewal in contemporary America, whether we may yet recover that millennial newness that is our birthright, we first need to consider the somber reality of the American political economy. Unless its tendencies to destroy every genuine element of culture and community are brought under control, all else is in vain. The prospect does not give rise to great optimism.



1. Jordan, op. cit., pp. 12-13.

2. Hudson, op. cit., p. 92.

3. Hans Kohn, American Nationalism, Collier Books, 1961, p. 144.

4. Ibid., p. 143.

5. Ibid., pp. 143-144.

6. Milton M. Gordon, Assimilation in American Life, Oxford University Press, 1964, pp. 104-114.

7. Kohn, Op cit., p. 145.

8. Gordon, op. cit., p. 113.

9. Malcolm X, Autobiography, Grove Press, 1966, p. 136.

10. Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, William Morrow, 1967, p. 456.

11. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Signet, 1959, p. 52. (Originally published in 1903.)

12. Gordon, op. cit., pp. 224-232.

13. Horace M. Kallen, Culture and Democracy in the United States, Boni and Liveright, 1924.

14. Middlekauff, op. cit., p. 92.

15. Lawrence, op. cit., p. 73.

16. The use of the phrase "by any means necessary" by black activists shows how American they are.

17. William Greenbaum points out in "America in Search of a New Ideal: An Essay on the Rise of Pluralism," Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 44, No. 3, 1974, that the fuel for the melting pot was not only hope but also shame, and that was indeed inflicted on the immigrants by the majority population.

18. Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted, Grosset and Dunlap, 1951, p. 304.

19. Du Bois, op. cit., p. 52.

20. Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice, Delta, 1968, p. 186.

21. Michael Novak, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, Macmillan, 1973.

22. Greenbaum, op. cit.

23. Isaac Berkson, Theories of Americanization: A Critical Study with Special Reference to the Jewish Group, Teachers College, Columbia University, p. 121.

24. Ibid., p.130.

25. R. W. B. Lewis, The Trials of the Word, Yale University Press, 1965, p. ix.

26. Newton Arvin, Whitman, Macmillan, 1938, p. 287.