Preserving the American Idea in our perilous times

Preserving the American Idea in our perilous times

By Dr. Joseph Chuman

It is often said that unlike most other nations, the United States is founded on an idea. Whereas countries on other continents are grounded in blood and soil, with primary allegiance to clan, tribe, ethnic or religious group, those who come to our shores commit themselves to an implicit contract. Becoming American means subordinating one’s native loyalties to distinctively American principles, summed up in what has been referred to as “The American Idea.”

The basis of that Idea is articulated in our founding document, the Declaration of Independence. It consists of three components: that all people are equal, all possess inherent rights inclusive of the right to life and to freedom, and that all should have the opportunity to enjoy these rights in the pursuit of greater happiness and fulfillment. Constitutive of the American Idea is a rejection of privilege conferred by birth. The American experiment was born out of a blanket contempt for aristocracy and monarchy, and is summed up in the motto “E pluribus unum”–“out of many, one.”

The American Idea has undergone several variations and adjustments. From about the 1840s, the regnant form the Idea took was that of the melting pot. What this suggests is that people come from all places, and once arriving on American soil, they leave behind their cultural identities and blend with others to form a new, American identity in which the Old World identity is lost. In short, the melting pot is an ideology of assimilation.

An orchestra rather than a melting pot

This version of the American Idea has at times been challenged. After World War I, an academic by the name of Horace Kallen, a Polish-Jewish immigrant, proclaimed that the melting pot was the wrong way to construe the American Idea. Kallen felt that one’s identity of origin could never be erased or forgotten and thereby melt into something new and different.  He believed not in assimilation, but in what can be properly called “ethnic pluralism.” This means that people continue to identify with their ethnic, racial or religious backgrounds while at the same time offering allegiance to the universal and abstract ideals proclaimed by the Declaration. His model for American society was not that of assimilation, but what he called “orchestration.” Just as an orchestra contains many different instruments with their distinctive sounds and roles that come together to create a harmonious whole, so American society is a mosaic of different ethnic, racial and religious groups that mutually enrich each other to create a greater–and pluralistic–society.

The late 1960s experienced a dramatic outpouring of this contrasting view of America as expressed by the Black Power Movement. Committed to the belief that the integrationist endeavors of the Civil Rights Movement had failed and blacks could never melt into American society by virtue of their skin color, the Black Power Movement defiantly affirmed pride in the distinctiveness of black identity, as manifested in rhetoric, cultural forms, modes of dress, and a proud rediscovery of African roots.

“Negroes” became “African-Americans,” and with it the beginning of the movement that spawned hyphenated Americans. And so we witnessed “Italo-Americans,” “Latino-Americans,” American Jews, and a multitude of other identities that eschewed a universal Americanism in favor of a parochial identity around race, ethnicity and religion, and shortly thereafter, gender.

Ethnic identities subordinated in the 60s

This move nurtured the origins of what we know as “identity politics.” During much of the New Left rebellions of the 60s, activists subordinated their ethnic or racial identities in favor of economic justice or other overarching causes. Indeed, proclaiming one’s parochial identity was seen as diversionary, if not reactionary.

But in recent decades, that politics has been stood on its head. Ever since, many people express their call for justice through their specific religious, ethnic, racial or gender identities. For many people who were previously marginalized, this has been a very good thing. Minorities, women, and more recently, gays, have benefited by identity politics.

While ethnic pluralism has raised concerns about its potential to disunite America, as long as there remains a greater commitment to our founding principles, it remains within the canvass of the American Idea.

But in the current moment the American Idea in whatever form is being savaged by an administration with a dark agenda, in favor of a crude nationalism that has assaulted basic constitutional freedoms, the rule of law, and democratic conventions as well as a healthy pluralism requiring mutual respect.  Instead of pluralism and the tolerance it requires, it promotes an ignoble white supremacy. Rather than affirm that all are part of the American mosaic, it thrives by sowing divisions among peoples, scapegoating the marginalized and powerless, and enhancing the wealth of plutocrats at the expense of the rest of us. It’s raw, it’s ugly and it is un-American.

Nationalism diminishes America’s role

In the international arena, this nationalism is manifest in a new American isolationism, which is quickly abandoning America’s leading role in maintaining global stability and in affirming American commitments to human rights and those ideals that have often served as an inspiring model for others around the world. America, its ideals, its power, its international standing, are not being made great or greater; they are being diminished.

These themes—and how we need to respond–will serve as the substance of my talk on Nov. 5.  I have titled it “Preserving the American Idea in Our Perilous Times.” I warmly look forward to being with you then.

Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.


  1. Joe,
    I’ve always admired your talks. This one especially, since we are living in perilous times.

    • Thank you, Marilyn!

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