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Monday, November 19, 2018

Assimilation and Acculturation

The worst thing the founders did was build slavery into the American political economy and so creating a house divided. Even after civil war, suffrage, and freedom movements, there remains a norm of propertied white male Protestant Christian preeminence which raises its standard from time to time often provoked by autocratic populist leaders.

The best thing the founders did was declaring the freedom of and from religion linked with the freedom of speech and assembly and so setting the American ideal as freedom and justice for all.

Immigration policy has historically wavered between these two standards which I name assimilation vs. acculturation.

The acculturation standard (I realize I am redefining its meaning) welcomes people of all ethnic origins, religious persuasions, tribal languages, sexes, sexual orientations which are consigned to the private sphere of household affairs.  This standard entrusts citizenship to the public sphere which sets its own visions and rules, its own policies and rules, and which is open to all as equals while protecting their privacy. 

This is why we can distinguish a private, (household, ethnic, tribal) culture and a public (American, democratic republican) culture. Another way of putting it, we have a personal religion and a civil religion. 

The assimilation standard does not recognize this division between private and public. It requires citizenship to be, or at least tending to be, in sync with Euro/Anglo, Protestant Christian, private propertied, heterosexual male values. And to be honest, I admit that this Euro/Protestant private culture and religious persuasion did indeed shape the public culture and religion in the thirteen original states.  

But the growth of the nation in size and in democratic republican ideals allowed many other cultures and religious persuasions to continue in the reshaping of that public culture and religion even to the point of amending the constitution and passing new laws. In the 1950s this was recognized in Will Herberg’s book, Protestant, Catholic, and Jew (which he might amend today adding Muslim, Hindu, Atheist, Feminist, LGBT, Universalist, and Secular Humanist) as ways of being American. 

I think there are few people in America who want to judge persons by the color of their skin, their sex, their sexual orientation (even though biases linger and so do certain institutions). While there are too many hate crimes, very few Americans hate one another or newcomers—especially once they come to know each another. I also think that, while we can value pluralism and multiculturalism, we have a right and a responsibility to work for a unified public culture and expect persons to act in a civil way according to generally agreed-upon norms. Our law is not Sharia, Canon, Confucian, or Biblical law, even though we might learn something from these traditions.

Pluralism or multiculturalism in no way opposes unity and cohesion. No more than the public sphere opposes the private sphere. Where one is strong so is the other. And vice versa.

We are all on a path to citizenship, whether we are born here or elsewhere. That means we abide in a public culture which we call American democracy with its values, language, and rules of civility. We can and should criticize and help shape that culture so that it more closely achieves its ideals of equality, freedom and justice in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a democratic, nonviolent way. Those of us who behave, serve, and act civilly are the true citizens.