Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Melting Pot

There is a very early use of the “melting pot” image of dealing with diversity in J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur’s Letters from An American Farmer 1782 (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968). A farmer, writing back to England:

“Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race … whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world .. As I have endeavoured to show you how Europeans become Americans it may not be disagreeable to show you likewise how the various Christian sects are introduced, wear out, and how religious indifference becomes prevalent … Then the Americans become as to religion what they are as to country, allied to all. In them the name of Englishman, Frenchman, and European is lost, and in like manner, the strict modes of Christianity as practiced in Europe are lost also … his children will therefore grow up less zealous and more indifferent in matters of religion than their parents … in a few years this mixed neighborhood will exhibit a strange religious medley, that will be neither pure Catholicism no pure Calvinism. A very perceptible indifference even in the first generation will become apparent.” (pp. 49, 54-56)

In recent years I’ve heard people say, “It’s more like a stew than a melting pot; we retain our distinct flavors” or use the tossed salad image. But now Attorney General Holden calls us to go further, and so do I.

And how much did we ever meld? Perhaps Americans of English and French origins (but raise that issue with Canadians). But what about people from Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America? And those brought here in slave ships? And those natives peoples who had lived on this continent for a thousand years or more? Do we even yet really see one another clearly?

And, at the same time, a very perceptible “indifference” to race (and religion?) in this first generation after the 20th century Civil Rights movement has “become apparent.” Our neighborhoods are more diverse than this 18th century farmer could ever have imagined. But note, he, writing to friends and family back home burdened by religious wars, applauds various “Christian sects” wearing out and religious indifference becoming prevalent. What is our goal? What is the paradox of pluralism? What is our calling in dealing with diversity?

1 comment:

Allison said...

Reading the history of the church in America shows that Crevecoeur's "hope" that indifference would grow never was fulfilled. It is a history of revival after revival and while mainline established churches are not doing well, religion of all stripes is alive and kicking in America. The "melting pot" image doesn't seem to work really well, maybe "stew" or "patchwork quilt" work better, or maybe what works is Bill Watterson's Calvin's transmogrifier. If we look at the church throughout time and, more to our purposes, in America, we see it morphing all the time, shaped by currents in philosophy and thought, stretched by the needs of society, and buffeted by culture, into forms that sometimes look very much like something Jesus speaks against. But the answer to this shouldn't be hoping for less faith, less passion - the answer is always repentance (turning back) and reformation. As Rob says somewhere else in a comment on this blog, it's human to let things get really bad before we seek change and it's human to forget what our predecessors learned so that we repeat their struggles but as Michon also said, we are called to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments knowing that God is always operating in both the church and the state (even though we should keep them institutionally separate and functionally interactive). I hope we never again try to keep our faith out of the public square, but making our faith public must also make us aware of our responsibility to keep our faith faithful to God in Christ.