This week end no more reflections about Jack the historical  theologian. Today you find my post-Fourth of July reflection about identity and social trends in US society.

Although I currently live abroad, I am still very much a born-in-Michigan patriotic US citizen; and for many years now, my academic research and teaching have focused on religion and values in US society. I still work hard to stay up to date, through research visits (limited most recently by Covid-19) and close contact with research institutes and historians.

These days I also have a different US vocabulary than a few years ago. Not everyone agrees with my position, but I try to refrain from speaking and writing about “Americans” when the focus is clearly about “US Americans.” I see it as an important identity issue for all Americans, because ALL people born in North and South America, from Canada to Argentina, are “Americans.” I am a US American and have friends in Canada and Mexico who are Americans. 

Changes in the words and phrases we use to describe each other reflect whatever progress we make on the path toward a world where everyone feels respected and included. 

In language usage, we change and grow. Years ago in my Catholic elementary school, Sister Stella Maris told our class one day that the world had two kinds of Christians: “Catholics” who have “the one true faith” and “Non-Catholics” who think they do but actually are “defective” believers. Then she told me – in front of the class – that it was very sad that my mother was Catholic but my father was a “Non-Catholic defective believer.” Later I told my father what had happened in school. With a short expletive he quickly replied: “Stella is nuts. Your mother is a Catholic Christian and I am a Protestant Christian. Neither of us is defective. We just have different traditions.”

Well, times do change. One very positive result of the liturgical reforms from the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) is that Catholic Christians and mainline Protestant Christians now share almost the same readings of the Word of God on the same Sunday, or at least the same Gospel.

Words, perceptions, and realities. What strikes me about US society today is how much it has changed in the last fifty years. Part of the tension and polarization in the contemporary United States comes from the tremendous growth of a multiracial and multicultural USA. White Christian nationalism is a backlash to this, but it will not change the demographic reality. The USA is no longer demographically or culturally a majority white, Christian nation; and the  United States will continue moving along the multiracial and multicultural roadway. The USA Census Bureau has made it official: White births are no longer a majority in the United States. A good book to read in connection with this is The End of White Christian America  by Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. 

And the United States and US Americans need to adjust to how dramatically the world has changed in just the past 20 years. On Thursday, July 8th, President Biden announced that the US war in Afghanistan, “the military mission of the United States,” will end on August 31, 2021.

That “military mission” began in October 2001, to go after Taliban terrorists. Today, as US Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas  have  stressed, the terrorism danger in the United States is homegrown and comes from “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.” Issues of identity and equality for  sure.

Some observers also suggest that contemporary US Americans are facing a new generational conflict, in which young people think the old have sold them out; and the old think the young are arrogant and foolish. I am still wondering about that. In general, these days, I tend to be rather positive about young people.

Recognizing and accepting one’s socio-cultural identity, however, is not always easy and painless. There is a current movement in US society to neither teach nor speak about troubling or painful identity issues. As of the end of June 2021, nine US states have passed “divisive concepts” laws. Seventeen more states are considering passing similar laws. 

“Divisive concepts” laws are attempts to control how teachers talk about issues of race, sex, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin. The assertion is that such discussions are “divisive.” These laws promote a distorted understanding of reality. Regardless of political identity, age, race, gender or education level, these so-called “divisive concepts” do in fact provide essential historic information. They are appropriate and should be part of every school curriculum. Teaching should be broad-minded and honest.

The “divisive concepts” laws are about more than just schools of course. They contribute to the destruction of accurate history. They shape self-determination and restrict one’s freedom to make good decisions about his, her, or their life.

This past Fourth of July weekend I read a fascinating book, America in Crisis and Renewal, by George Parker, staff writer at The Atlantic. The book is provocative in every good sense of the word. It is short and to the point. Whether one agrees with him or not, Parker asks the right questions.

Parker’s main observation is that, in the post-Trump era, US inequality has undermined the common faith that US citizens need to create a successful multi-everything democracy. 

What we now have in the USA, according to Parker, is a “cold civil war” between four incompatible narratives that now dominate US life: (1) “Free US America,” which imagines a nation of separate individuals and serves the interests of corporations and the wealthy; (2)  “Smart US America,” the world view of Silicon Valley and the professional elite; (3) “Real US America,” the white Christian nationalism of the heartland; and (4) “Just US America,” which sees citizens as members of identity groups that inflict or suffer oppression.

Packer stresses that none of these narratives can sustain a truly well-functioning democracy. Indicating a more hopeful way forward, he looks for a common US identity and finds it in the US passion for equality, what he calls “the hidden code” that US Americans of diverse persuasions have in fact long maintained. How to achieve that is the contemporary problem. 

All four narratives, Parker suggests, have emerged from the United States’ failure to enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years as a multi-everything democracy. All four narratives respond to real problems. Each offers a value that the others need and lacks values  that the others have. But the narratives still divide us up, pitting tribe against tribe. These divisions impoverish each narrative and create ever more extreme version of each. More polarization.

So how do we interpret this today? At the heart of contemporary US divisions are almost fifty years of rising inequality and declining social mobility. US citizens tolerate more economic inequality than citizens of any other modern democracy. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. It is also one of the most unequal. According to a 2020 report from the Pew Research Center, income inequality in the United States is highest of all the G7 nations. 

Education is not equal in the United States. Educational inequality contributes to a number of broader US problems, including income inequality and expanding prison populations. A number of studies have found that US states are spending less money on students from low-income communities than they are on students from high-income communities. Students from minority backgrounds, immigrant origins, and economically disadvantaged families leave school earlier. They receive fewer degrees and certificates; and they exhibit lower academic skills than their more privileged peers.

There must be changes at the US national and individual citizen levels: in economic structures, in education for all, and in habits of thinking and acting. An economy for truly equal US Americans is one that gives everyone a chance not just to survive but to live and participate with dignity. Human dignity.

Packer says again: “Schools that congratulate themselves on achieving numerical diversity, while they sink into intellectual mediocrity, degrade the value of equality and merit.” We need to reexamine and revamp education at all levels. When  curiosity dies, when the quest for knowledge dies, when the desire to see beyond the obvious dies… what more remains to struggle and live for.

Creating the conditions of equality requires new structures and new policies — new ways of thinking and living.

  • We need journalism that is independent and imaginative enough to go to places that Mark Zuckerberg and Fox News never see. And never care about.
  • We need citizens who can listen to one another respectfully while thinking for themselves. We need correct information not fabricated news and “reality.” We need critical thinking and education that passes on critical thinking skills. Just because something appears on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t mean it is true and accurate. There is helpful and good information on the Internet. But there is also a bundle of pure nonsense and phony information, presented as “truth.”

The document of  July 4th 1776 is memorable and remarkable in many ways. Now two hundred and forty-five years later we need not just to read it again but to implement it in its fullness.

ALL people are created equal: men and women; indigenous peoples and immigrants; gay, trans, and straight people; Nones, Muslims, Jews, and Christians; yellow, black, and white people. ALL have dignity. We are all human, we are born with certain inherent, natural, and unalienable rights. Those rights include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” No one is born with a natural right to rule over others without their consent.

This applies to governments and to churches as well. In my religious tradition, equality is often not considered a virtue….but that is a discussion for another day. Jesus, fortunately, was not that way. He is our hope, our guide, and our inspiration. 

We can and we must build communities which enable us, in the words of Sr. Joan Chittister in a July 8th NCR article, to “learn from the other what we do not know and to supply for the other what they need. We are there to do together what we cannot possibly do alone — which means come to the depth of ourselves and the growth of the world around us, both psychologically and spiritually. We are there to go beyond our self-centeredness to the gift of self-giving and immersion in the presence of God.”

  • Jack

8 thoughts on “Identity and Equality

  1. An excellent, excellent read as usual, Jack. A personal note: Sister Stella Maris was the person who got me started in religious education as a catechist at St. Pius in 1959 or 60. So far, I have survived my early childhood religious education “brainwashing”. I’m still a Roman Catholic of sorts.

  2. Dear Jack,
    I taught 37 years in an inner-city public junior high and the struggle to teach children the importance of discernment in their beliefs/values was a huge part of our instructional goals. The challenge was to do so without a common religious moral basis from which to start. As your beautifully presented message states, not all people natually believe that we all deserve an equal chance. Plus, the multiple voices that are often the loudest send the message that my needs come first and yours don’t matter. Thankfully, there are vocal messengers putting themselves in harm’s way promoting love, peace, concern, selflessness, compassion, and community to offer a counterbalance to those who distribute the opposite. We need to be a unified tribe of love who stand for what Jesus demonstrated by His life. As St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.”
    Frank Skeltis

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