Features Week of May 13 2019
5 minutes

America needs many voices to make good on its creed.

I agree with Charles Kesler’s conclusion in his essay on our national identity, but not much else.

In the end, he writes, “The American creed is the keystone of American national identity; but it requires a culture to sustain it.” Kesler’s critique of Samuel Huntington, who put culture before creed, is correct, but the culture necessary to sustain the American creed is multi-culture. The Claremont Institute’s vehement campaign against multiculturalism as an “existential threat to the American political order comparable to slavery in the 1850s or communism during the Cold War” is thus as misguided as it is hyperbolic.

In my view, the American creed—by which I mean the premise that all human beings are created equal and are equally entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—is the core of American identity both for what it promises and what it has manifestly failed to deliver. It epitomizes our aspirations as a nation but at the same time stands as an ever-present reminder of how far we still have to go to achieve those aspirations. That cycle of striving, falling short, and striving again, is the engine of our progress.

This cycle is deeply rooted in Protestantism, as it is in many religions. Those of us who seek to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with [our] God” will always fall short, a falling short that is part of what it means to be human.

The culture, then, that is required to sustain this American creed is a culture that celebrates our successes and maintains awareness of our failures. Which is why that culture must reflect the views, traditions, history, and rituals of all Americans. An American history of white men is a history of much that is genuinely good, but also a history of hypocrisy, oppression, and atrocity.

Jill Lepore’s These Truths, which attempts to tell American history in the round as much as is possible in one volume, succeeds in weaving these multiple strands together. The result is neither a celebration nor condemnation of America, but an alloy of both that lifts up our best selves while forcing us to face our worst sins.

Kesler venerates e pluribus unum as our national motto, as does Ryan Williams in his “Defend America—Defeat Multiculturalism” essay. Both see “out of many, one” as the antithesis of an ideology that they define as multiculturalism, an ideology, in Williams’ view, that “seeks to divide and conquer Americans, making many groups out of one citizenry.” Yet it is completely possible, today more than ever, to be pluribus and unum at the same time. As America approaches its 250th birthday, we are many and one. That duality is our greatest strength.

Language, that bugaboo that seems to torture so many conservatives, offers the perfect illustration. Nearly 10 percent of American public school students were English language learners in 2015, most of whom spoke Spanish, Arabic, Chinese or Vietnamese at home. These students are unquestionably going to learn English, as the children of immigrants have since time immemorial. What is critical, however, for the strength and power of America in the world, is that they also continue to speak and write their parents’ language (or languages).

An America in which our citizens can move easily between countries and cultures is an America that can trade, invest, travel, influence, and engage the world in positive ways. It is an America in which our citizens’ brains are actually more developed from the experience of being multilingual from an early age.

Nothing in that multiplicity, however, prevents our citizens from identifying strongly as Americans, committed to the American creed. Indeed, the culture that supports that creed is a culture that evolves, but with additions rather than substitutions. The addition of other races, religions, and ethnicities has added holidays to the American calendar, but has not displaced Thanksgiving, Veterans Day, Christmas, Presidents Day, or the 4th of July. And our immigrants are often the most patriotic citizens we have, deeply grateful for the opportunity to live in freedom and give their children a better life.

I honestly do not recognize either the liberalism or the multiculturalism that Kesler caricatures. Nor do I recognize his definition of patriotism. I consider myself a deep patriot, the child of ancestors who go back to Jamestown and 18th century Pennsylvania and North Carolina on one side, and a first-generation immigrant on the other. But my patriotism runs far deeper than the simple display of the flag. It is the patriotism of Carl Schurz, an immigrant, Union Civil War general, Republican Senator, and Cabinet Secretary, who said: “My country right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

To own who we are in all our glorious multiplicity, to be pluribus et unum, is right. To create space for and listen to voices long suppressed is to begin to set right centuries of wrongs.

It is also wrong, however, to swap one system of oppression for another and to impose orthodoxy of any kind. A multiculturalism that leaves no room for traditional white Anglo-Saxon protestant culture, or for conservative culture of various kinds—as long as those cultures do not violate the basic values of the American creed—cannot support and inform the country we are becoming. But neither can a uniculturalism led only by white men who are determined to see a bugaboo in every newspaper headline or campus debate.

Much of what I know about our national identity as Americans does “command admiration and love,” as Kesler insists it should. But much of our history does not, a fact that I am not afraid to face. I am not threatened by Americans who do not look like me, who come from different traditions and histories than I do, who have had far less good fortune than I have had, or who have lived a very different American past.

Our country and our creed are strong enough to allow honesty to triumph over hypocrisy and to allow multiple cultures to co-exist as one.

is the Chief Executive Officer of New America and the author of The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World (2007).

Origin of this feature

Origin

The Crisis of American National Identity

Statesmen and citizens alike must contend with the relationship between American creed and culture.