TEXAS FAITH: What does it mean to be an American today?

William Lawrence, dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, talks about the ever-evolving definition of an American.

By William McKenzie

What does it mean to be an American today?

This question is more than an academic one. It goes to the heart of the immigration debate that is growing hot in the Senate this month.

The Senate is debating a reform bill that could come up for a final vote by July 1. A part of that legislation focuses on institutions that help immigrants become part of American society. I recently wrote a column about this aspect of the bill, which you can read at this link.

Tamar Jacoby of Immigration Works USA has written extensively about the concept of assimilation. As she has pointed out, what it means to be an American today is vastly different from what it meant in, say, the 1950s.

Almost a decade ago, Jacoby wrote this:

“We may need a new definition, or new understanding of assimilation — a definition that makes sense today, in an era of globalization, the Internet, identity politics, niche advertising and a TV dial that offers a choice among a hundred or more different channels.
“Even as they live out the melting pot myth, today’s immigrants and their children are searching for new ways to think and talk about it, and together, they and the rest of the nation face the challenge of updating the traditional ideal.”

(For more of her essay, see this link)

I would say we still are searching for an update for that ideal, including how immigrants become part of the mainstream without losing their ethnic identity.

This is obviously hard work. As our society becomes more diverse, America develops a broader and richer culture. At the same time, nations depend upon some common core of values, beliefs and identity to hang together. And that requires some kind of definition of what it means to be an American.

So, how would you define being an American today?...

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

In the classic Mel Brooks film “Blazing Saddles,” there is a moment when a leader of the besieged town delivers a rant about the people who are not welcome in his community. When various persons object to being excluded, he relents and says everybody can come. Then, after a pause, he adds, “But not the Irish!”

At the root of the question about defining what it means to be an “American” is the conviction that there is some set of normative traits or characteristics that must be included in the definition. At various times in our history as a nation, we have adopted interesting ways to describe such a norm.

The founders of the Republic, for instance, acceded to the principle that any person of African descent was one-fifth of a human being for purposes of the census and that black people did not belong to America’s normative identity. From the language of the Declaration of Independence to the policies of President Andrew Jackson and beyond, the Native peoples of North America were not included in America’s normative identity, for indeed they were labeled “savages.” There have been places and periods when Jews and Catholics were considered outside of the norm. There have been times when persons from every ethnic or national group were considered welcome under the umbrella of “Americans” except for …

The current debate over an immigration bill in the Congress seems unable to shake the notion that there is a normative definition of “American” identity. Instead of grasping the vision that we are a nation of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and the wretched refuse of other teeming shores (as Emma Lazarus’ poem described us), there remain voices in the Congress that want to demand some specific standards for defining a real “American.”

Voices of faith need to declare boldly that America is not an existing set of norms to which others much accommodate or assimilate. Rather, America is always in the process of remaking itself with each new generation, each new set of languages, each new rising ethnicity, and each new wave of immigrants crossing the border.