By Gary Berg-Cross
Mary Bellamy recently noted her perplexity at the meaning of the words “Merry Christmas" in the context of mixed salad of multi-ethic, religious and racial society. Different people with different cultural-religious background interpret it differently. One may ask how religious is it or how American?
I was thinking of this of this multi-ethic, religious and racial context and perplexity while listening to Pete Seeger's song "All Mixed up" about how races mixed to give us a rich stew the English language. Then I read that Pat Buchanan has gotten into trouble for what seems like ethnic and racial charged views promoted in his new book Suicide of a Superpower. One of the chapters is entitled "The End Of White America." He's very worried about the mix of races (e.g. Black and White/Caucasian), ethnic culture with Nationality (e.g. American or Mexican). One can add a 3rd category of religious identity (e.g. Christian or Hindu) as a broad category that is gets mixed into the discussion. We are used to checking these categories off on questionnaire along with age or gender as if they are unitary-atomic things. The categories can seem pretty clear captured in simple words but these denotations are simpler than the implied connotations that people have. As a result terms like American are often used in head spinning ways and allow us to talk past each other in conversations about things like identity & loyalty. To channel New Gingrich talking about Palestine and Palestinians, American is an invented nationality with many ingredients.
I recently wrote about vague language which is partly the reason we get perplexed about the concept of Christmas, but also identity. Differing concepts creep into the language that people use describe themselves (e.g. American, Secular Italian, or Christian Humanist). We can do a good deal of my head scratching about religious and non-religious people describe themselves, which is one part of 3 basic dimensions, but it probably easier to start with national identities which seem to bother some reactionary politicians/commentators like Buchanan and is a dog-whistle item in political campaigns.
One of the things that historically gets American conservatives off about nationality is the hyphenated American label phenomena – Italian-American, Irish-American, German- American etc. That hyphenation epithet seems to have come in vogue in the late 19th century a surge of immigrants. World War 1 sparked a bit of consternation since German-& Irish Americans (i.e. Catholics) were big on U.S. neutrality in that war. This earned the enmity of former President Teddy Roosevelt. In a speech in 1916 before a luncheon given by Astor, TR "eschews" hyphenated Americans such as Italian-Americans, German-Americans and Jewish-Americans as being 50-50 Americans and the former colonel said:
"The effort to keep our citizenship divided against itself by the use of the hyphen and along the lines of national origin is certain to a breed of spirit of bitterness and
prejudice and dislike between great bodies of our citizens. If some
citizens band together as German-Americans or Irish-Americans, then
after a while others are certain to band together as English-Americans
or Scandinavian-Americans, and every such banding together, every
attempt to make for political purposes a German-American alliance or a
Scandinavian-American alliance, means down at the bottom an effort
against the interest of straight-out American citizenship, an effort to
bring into our nation the bitter Old World rivalries and jealousies and
There is a history to talking like this. It reflects the old melting pot hope of a majority identity and loyalty to a simplified, unified national identity. Well, as Mary noted, the fact is we live in more of a mutli-racial/ethnic nation now and the fact is that hyphenated groups abound. The melting pot aspiration of TR's time came under fire when it became apparent that the mainstream public had no intention of "melting" with (certain) "other" races and cultures or of giving up their historical religions. In the face of this fact subsequent immigration policies became restrictive based on race,but immigration ground forth to produce today's synthetic multi-racial-ethnic America.
Over time many have softened into tacit acceptance of what seems like a quasi-compromise. We have what is described as a tossed salad society where the racial ingredients remain somewhat recognizable distinct, but also leads to some identity vagaries.
To some, like Buchanan, there is no real agreement and we are drifting into danger down the road. It raises issues like loyalty. If your are Chinese-American or Mexican American to which label are you loyal too? Buchanan thinks the Mexican-American hybrid might eventually annex and take back the American West.
Nationality is only part of the problem of labeled identity, because there are other ways of identifying oneself. Usually in parceling out identity, as on a biographic form, we again use our 3 simple labels of seemingly independent categories of:
- Nationality/Country (US),
- Race (Negroid)
- Religion (Muslim).
So you can be a Negroid US citizen (say of Egyptian descent) and a member of the Muslim religion. Seems like a simple, atomic formula. Sort of like chemistry. We can switch the labels around to have Italians who are Catholic or make compounding distinctions. So we can construct Southern American of African descent who are Southern Baptist Christians. But there are some vagaries here. Not everyone fits into nice compound labels. In reality things get a bit fluid in the compound mixing of labels since there are dependencies between the concepts.
There are many things that can be seen in different ways. The Black-American category is too big a racial and ethnic grouping, and many of us don’t see a West African or Central African distinction. Biologists tell us that there are actually more historical genetic differences between groups in Africa than anywhere else in the world groups. But skin color tends to be used to overwhelm this deeper distinctions and we tend ignore the use of different languages and customs that might mark the difference. We do make these distinctions for Asian-Americans, so Chinese and Japanese are easily distinguished as is their language.
The religious categories can also be vague. As some one noted when discussing Christians in the Middle East :
"Yes, all Assyrians are Christians. But we are Christians in different ways, of course."
We can cite the usual major categories from Christian to Muslim to Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist etc. But as a Mormon can we agree that Romney is a Christian or just a Christian in a different way? Fundamentalists don’t see it that way and are concerned about the beliefs and values that Mormonism has imbedded into its culture.There is lots of baggage and stretching Christianity to accommodate Mormonism seems as dangerous to them as accommodating Mexican-American hybridization to Buchanan. It’s like the meaning of Christmas. It will change depending on which group is doing the interpreting.
Here is a final example where simple, atomic labeling yields to a complex of underlying . meanings . Does it make sense to say that one is an atheist Catholic? It doesn’t seem like it. I can be an atheist who is a White, English person, but atheist and Catholic are both in what seems the “religion” dimension with no overlap on the Venn diagram. Does it make sense, then to call a person an Atheist Jew then? I’ve heard several people describe themselves that way, but does it make any more sense than being a Protestant Atheist?
Here the perplexity seems to be about Jewish as a religion as opposed to an ethnic group label. When listing religious categories Jewish gets thrown into the mix with Muslim etc. Maybe we want to say the religion isn’t “Jewish” but Judaism. Then Jewish becomes an ethic identity label which relates to a mix cultural factors such as nationality, culture, customs, ancestry, language and beliefs.
Our simple categories have become all mixed in ethnicity and this is more generally true than we like to admit. It allows some flexibility, but probably some confusion. Maybe we want to allow atheist or secular Catholics. These would be folks who hold onto cultural and historical experience and celebrate Easter, like secular Jews celebrate Passover which has religious roots and ceremony.Machar (The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism) is perhaps an example of this hybrid. They may meet in a temple with religious culture and tradition evident and talk of humanist values.
It seems a mixed message and doesn’t appeal to me particularly, but perhaps that is a half-way house for transitioning people slowing out of a faith culture into a more secular stance, while keeping the comfits of cultural identity while waiting for a secular humanism with its own building and cultural tradition. This might mean a half-way, more Humanist type of Christmas season celebrate mixed with Humanlight. Or maybe this is all too mixed up and leads to that competition between groups to celebrate in their own way in the winter season. Hanukkah is a minor holiday in Israel but Jewish culture in America has what a Washington Post called The Christmas effect: How Hanukkah became a big holiday.
In part, as the article says, the importance of Hanukkah among American Jews is driven by its proximity (in the time dimension) to Christmas and the need to "resist conversion" to the alien Christian culture. No melting pot there. More of adding some new humanist ingredients to an existing mixed salad.
Maybe there are pluses to go along with the minus in allowing some hyphenation of religious/ethnic culture and a stance like atheism or secular humanism. It’s the old tossed salad rather than melting pot again where religious culture and tradition sort of remain in a form that hyphenates with an identity like atheist. Perhaps it is what atheists and theists talk about at Inter-faith meetings. It might lead to some compromise or perhaps it is just one of those unsatisfying compromises that is compromising. It takes us sideways and puts off the harder decisions about identity.