Friday, October 1, 2010

We Are Not You: The Problems With American Christian Identity

I’m sure everyone is sick of hearing about the proposed Muslim community center/mosque near ground zero – that was so last September. It seems to me, however, that the major issues emerging from the debate are not those addressing the construction of the community center. The main question I want to ask is: If 71% of Americans, according to an August CBS News poll, believe building the mosque near ground zero is inappropriate, what does that say about who we are as Americans and what we believe?

Surely, no Constitution-minded citizen of the United States could whole-heartedly object to the proposed building; we, as good, freedom-loving Americans, should encourage diversity and at least tolerate religious difference. How, then, it is possible to reconcile with the fact that so many Americans (several among them members of the upstart Tea Party Movement with their Constitutions in their back pockets) deny that this religious group has a right to free exercise and assembly? If most Americans object to this clearly benign attempt to exercise the freedoms that we so proudly tout, what does that say about who we think we are?

For the sake of my own interests, I’m going to approach this from a religious angle. According to a Gallup poll taken last year, 78% of Americans claim to be Christian. Therefore, it is safe to say, the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians. This is not to say that The United States is necessarily a Christian nation. In reality, however, it is difficult to argue against our deep Christian roots and their significance in our foundation, growth, and how we continually shape our identity.

Indeed, the role of religion in general in American identity is indisputable. As the American sociologist Robert Bellah points out in his discourse Varieties of Civil Religion, we all hold to a kind of civic religion that can be traced to the very roots of our American values. “It was a republican and a democratic religion that not only inculcated republican values,” writes Bellah, “but gave the first lessons in participation in the public life” (16). Moreover, this civil religion is loosely based on concepts and themes found within the Bible – Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, and even Sacrificial Death – which, despite the much touted separation of church and state, vaults Christianity to a high status in our collective identity.

If most Americans claim to be Christian and our country somewhat resembles a Christian nation, then why do I feel like we’re distinctly not Christian? In his April article in the online religion blog Religion Dispatches, “What Do ‘The Christians’ Believe? Easter Reflections from a Non-Christian,” Emory University Professor of Religion Gary Laderman asks a similar question to mine, writing, “Over the span of a 24-hour news cycle, one hears about Christians in action with all sorts of spoken and unspoken moral commitments and sacred investments, but at the end of the day it is increasingly difficult to reconcile this array under one theological umbrella.” He notes the recent arrest of a Christian militia and the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church as prime examples of Christians in American acting decidedly un-Christian. In his conclusion, he suggests that perhaps it is time to see Christianity similarly to how we define Native Americans or Hindus: a broad and antiquated classification that essentially eliminates differences and unites a large group of people under one umbrella of identity, and, as he contends, “does not hold up under serious scrutiny and distracts from real-world politics, power, and difference.” In other words, maybe it’s time to stop classifying Christians by their beliefs – presumably of faith, hope, love, and justice – because it clearly doesn’t coincide with real life.

Through this lens, then, it seems as though the identity of the American Christian – and perhaps of the American in general – is one that is not formed by beliefs in Bellah’s civic religion or by the tenets of faith, hope, and love in Christianity. What, then, shapes our identity?

In examining the responses to the proposed Muslim community center in New York, I am reminded of Samuel Huntington’s 1993 article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Clash of Civilizations.” Huntington asserts that civilizations, rather than countries, will be the main source of identity and conflict in the next era of humanity. In his discussion on the nature of civilizations, Huntington argues: “European communities…will share cultural features that distinguish them from Arab or Chinese communities. Arabs, Chinese, and Westerners, however, are not part of any broader cultural identity. They constitute civilizations” (4, italics added). Civilizations, because of their differences, will create conflict: “The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from another” (5) The underlying assumption of his theory is based on the idea of identity by opposition: in order to have a civilization, one must have an enemy to solidify one’s identity.

Critics of this theory, however, point out this unnecessary facet of negative identity construction and instead assert the need for positive association in the global community. In a world where identities are positively constructed, the outlook is optimism, progress, and peace. One such proponent of this viewpoint is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who in his aptly titled book, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, emphasizes the need for religion to be an active force in creating peace. In this discourse, he argues for unity in difference by drawing on the biblical image of the Tower of Babel. In the Hebrew Bible, God destroyed the Tower of Babel, a massive building representing the unity of all humankind, and purposely spread the human race throughout the earth with different races, languages, and cultures. This action, Rabbi Sacks contends, had the intention of “teaching humanity to make space for difference…The unity of God is to be found in the diversity of creation” (53), a notion which he then ties into the fact that “the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger’” (58). If heeded, such a viewpoint would forecast peace rather than Huntington’s ominous clash, and the difference is identity based on similarity rather than difference.

I believe that Americans are fulfilling Huntington’s horrifying prophecy. As Christian Americans, we too often construct our identity based not on beliefs found in Scripture, but on whom we believe to be the enemy. If we note the words of Rabbi Sacks, perhaps we would not misconstrue Muslims, homosexuals, democrats, liberals, and anyone else who seems to oppose traditional Christian values as our enemies. Perhaps we could actually claim to be a Christian nation.

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