Who are We? The Cultural Core of American National Identity
by Samuel P. Huntington
Simon & Schuster. 448 pp. $27.00
Samuel P. Huntington is not only a distinguished social scientist, he is a notably brave and independent one. His new book, Who Are We? The Cultural Core of American National Identity, is almost defiantly unfashionable and counter-cultural. In the face of dominant pieties in the academy, Huntington not only takes on a presumably atavistic subject—national identity—but offers an unapologetically traditional interpretation and defense of the concept as most Americans, against their presumed intellectual betters, experience and understand it. His analysis of our situation and his prescriptions for renewal are not without flaws, but they deserve careful attention and serious consideration.
Through most of their history, Americans have had a strong and unabashed sense of national identity. Huntington argues, however, that this instinctive patriotic urge, having come under assault since the 1960’s, may not be able to endure in its traditional form, even with the boost it experienced in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001. How long will the flags continue to fly, he asks metaphorically, as that day fades from our memory?
As for how Americans have defined their national identity, that, Huntington notes, has varied over the centuries, with the relevant terms being race, ethnicity, ideology, and culture. The first two of these categories, for reasons almost all to the good, have largely been eliminated. The third, ideology, has been most strongly emphasized. Americans are firmly bound together, it is commonly held, by the bundle of principles that make up the American Creed: liberty, equality before the law, equal opportunity, individualism, human rights, representative government, private property.
Huntington does not deny the importance of the Creed, but he doubts that it can long survive without continued support from the Anglo-Protestant culture in which it grew and flourished—and which is now under attack. It is a misleading half-truth, he says, to refer to America as a “nation of immigrants.” The British Protestants who created America in the 17th and 18th centuries were not immigrants in the customary sense. They were, rather, founders or settlers who created the society and culture that all future immigrants assimilated into. As he nicely puts it, “Before immigrants could come to America, settlers had to found America.”
The distinctive features of the American Creed, in Huntington’s view, grew out of a culture that included “a work ethic, the English language, British traditions of law, justice, and the limits of government power, and a legacy of European art, literature, philosophy, and music.” Subvert that culture, he believes, and you subvert also the foundations of the Creed and thus eventually of American national identity.
Ultimately, Huntington insists, the sources of the Creed and of American liberal principles are not secular but religious. They derive from Christianity in general and from a dissenting Protestantism in particular—a product of the English Puritan Revolution, itself described by Huntington as “the single most important formative event of American political history.” It is the distinctively Protestant emphases on the individual conscience, the work ethic, opposition to hierarchy, and the responsibility to transform society that “have shaped American attitudes toward private and public morality, economic activity, government, and public policy.”
Huntington hastens to add that his is an argument “for the importance of Anglo-Protestant culture, not for the importance of Anglo-Protestant people.” America has happily become a multiethnic, multiracial society in which individuals can succeed on their own merits without regard to their origins. If a commitment to Anglo-Protestant culture is sustained, “America will still be America long after the Waspish descendants of its founders have become a small and uninfluential minority.”
But can the commitment to a national identity based on Anglo-Protestant culture be sustained? Huntington identifies a number of factors undermining it. The end of the cold war, welcome though it was, had the negative side-effect of removing the USSR as a threatening “other” that inclined Americans to unite behind their own nation and its political economy of democratic capitalism. Enemies help to create identity.
More significant than the end of the cold war, according to Huntington, has been the emergence of theories and programs of multiculturalism and diversity that have encouraged Americans to identify themselves not with the nation as a whole but with sub-national (gender, race, and class), dual-national (especially among immigrants), and trans-national attachments. Today’s elites characteristically encourage the first two tendencies in others and are themselves drawn to the third. In a globalizing world, business leaders naturally adopt international perspectives while intellectual and cultural elites increasingly think of themselves as citizens of the world, united with humanity at large.
National identity, in the view of these elites, is itself regarded as a problem. Huntington cites the well-known political theorists Martha Nussbaum and Amy Gutmann, the former denouncing “patriotic pride” as “morally dangerous,” the latter urging that the “primary allegiance” of Americans “should not be to the United States . . . but to democratic humanism.” In the perspective of such Left-liberal thinkers, traditional imperatives for the Americanization of immigrants have themselves become un-American. These views reveal a gap, emphasized by Huntington throughout, between ordinary Americans, most of whom are ardent and unembarrassed in their patriotism, and intellectuals and academics who tend to view patriotism with suspicion, if not contempt.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Huntington’s argument concerns immigration. He sees ominous implications in the fact that, in recent years, immigrants to the U.S. have been heavily Hispanic (almost 50 percent) and particularly Mexican (27.6 percent). There are now, he notes, slightly more Hispanics in America than blacks (both make up about 12 percent of the population), and the proportion of Hispanics is likely to increase significantly in the years to come because of continued high rates of both immigration and fertility.
Huntington does not ignore the economic implications of this influx—downward pressure on wages, high incidence of poverty and welfare—but he again focuses on issues of culture. Conceding that evidence about the pace of assimilation (e.g., English-language acquisition, intermarriage rates, self-identification, naturalization) is mixed and even contradictory, he worries that Hispanic immigrants—and, again, especially Mexicans—may, unlike previous waves of newcomers, be more resistant to assimilation in the second, third, and succeeding generations.
These immigrants, Huntington points out, though coming from many different countries, overwhelmingly speak a single foreign language, Spanish, a circumstance unprecedented in our nation’s experience. The result has been the formation of enclave communities in which it is not necessary to learn English to conduct the public, non-family aspects of one’s life. With language being so essential to culture, Huntington raises the possibility of a future “bifurcated America, with two languages, Spanish and English, and two cultures, Anglo-Protestant and Hispanic.”
Critics have been quick to argue that Huntington’s thesis—which I have only been able to sketch here—is too pessimistic. They may well be right. America is still a long way from having a substantial minority deeply separated from the majority culture, as has been the case in, for example, Quebec (though tensions seems to have abated there recently). But if Huntington is undoubtedly alarmed, he is not an alarmist, and his concerns should not be dismissed out of hand.
In terms of Huntington’s larger argument, the most striking feature is the crucial place he accords to religion. This, he says early on, “has been and still is a central, perhaps the central, element of American identity.” By any measure—and Huntington adduces copious empirical evidence—America is a religious nation, one of the most religious in the world. More than that, it is a Christian nation, culturally as well as numerically. Huntington easily dismisses those who depict America’s religious condition as radically pluralistic. Americans are 63 percent Protestant, 23 percent Catholic, 8 percent non-Christian, 6 percent with no religion. And most studies indicate that the intensity of Christian belief and commitment has not subsided in recent years; it may well, in fact, have increased.
Here, indeed, in both the country’s general religiosity and its Christian particularity, lie the essential underpinnings, in Huntington’s view, of our distinct national identity. Our religiosity distinguishes us from the rest of the West; our Christianity distinguishes us from most non-Western nations. More than that, religion and nationalism are positively correlated. Committed religious believers—who are, in America, mainly Christians—are more likely to be committed patriots than those who are nominally religious or not religious at all. Religion, patriotism, and American exceptionalism all go hand in hand.
Huntington is surely right about this in the large. Still, even for those who, like me, are essentially sympathetic to his analysis as well as to the preservation of our distinct national identity, there is at least one significant flaw in his program. It is the term that lies at the heart of the argument: Anglo-Protestant culture. It is simply too late in the day to suppose that words so restrictive in their connotations can serve as a rallying point for a reaffirmation of national identity.
The problems with “Anglo” are so obvious as not to need elaboration, even if Huntington insists that he is speaking of a culture, not a people. And what will the more than one-quarter of American Christians who are Catholic (not to mention other, non-Christian groups) make of their presumed need to affirm Protestant culture? It is true enough, as Huntington points out, that Catholics in America have in many ways internalized values that are generally Protestant in character. But in my experience, American Catholics, especially the more devout ones who are in many ways the most likely to buy into Huntington’s argument, are not simply quasi-Protestants who happen to have a thing for Mary and the Pope. The differences go deeper.
All that aside, this is a significant and important book. Whatever its limits, it recognizes and affirms the fact that Americans are still the most patriotic people in the world and that positive visions of the nation’s future must build on that foundation. And this, although historians have been taught not to say so, is a Good Thing.