Nations around the world are suffering from identity crises. Perhaps it began two decades ago, when the last European holdouts were dragged in and the European Union was finally established, a move described by one journalist as "the triumph of the Eurocrats over the peoples of Europe." More recently, The New York Times reported on France's efforts to articulate its national identity. Soon thereafter, controversy erupted when Switzerland banned the construction of Muslim minarets. The Times and Forbes have reported on identity crises facing South Korea and China, as immigration makes largely homogenous nations increasingly diverse.
All these reports raise the question, "Who are we?"—which is also the title of scholar Samuel P. Huntington's final and most prophetic book. "The more general causes of these … questionings," wrote Huntington, "include the emergence of a global economy, tremendous improvements in communications and transportation, rising levels of migration, [and] the global expansion of democracy …."
There's also an identity crisis bubbling just under the surface in the United States.
Huntington documents several challenges to a cohesive sense of American identity. First, while early settlers and immigrants were never ethnically homogenous, they largely traded in the same Anglo-Protestant cultural currency. But as 21st-century demographic trends increasingly draw people from other quadrants of the world, shared cultural assumptions erode.
Exacerbating the problem is a rise in dual citizenship and more subnational identities, which have created divided loyalties. Meanwhile, in the business community, an increasingly globalized economy has caused leaders to adopt a more transnational identity, what some call "Davos man." And aside from a temporary resurgence of patriotism after September 11, Huntington documents how academic elites have led the way in devaluing patriotism and American history.
We rightly pride ourselves on our multiethnic, multiracial society. But as our society grows ever more diverse, how will we understand our national identity?
Huntington poses four possible solutions. The first is a creedal community whose identity exists only in a social contract embodied in the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents. This has historically provided cohesion. The next option is a bifurcated America, one that is bilingual and bicultural like Canada or Belgium. The third option is an exclusivist or imperial notion of America. And the last alternative, the one Huntington clearly favored, is a reinvigorated core culture and religion coupled with the earlier solution of a reinvigorated creedal community.
Can a Christian worldview inform us as we wrestle with our national identity?
Any kind of racially or ethnically intolerant society would be incompatible with Christian principles.
Further, we know that the core values of our creeds, which in particular promote the dignity of all people, resonate with Scripture and are worth preserving. American patriotism does not rest on jingoistic nationalism but on a universal creed that says, "All men are … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."
Liberty is one of those unalienable rights. And this core value, also emphasized in Scripture, teaches us that we cannot force beliefs on others. Our founders understood, however, that freedom of religion is not synonymous with expunging religion from public life, a problem that I and others addressed last fall in the Manhattan Declaration. So if Huntington is in fact right that the U.S. needs a reinvigorated religious commitment, it won't come from a nation-mandated religion but rather from a reinvigorated populace.
I believe, then, that for national identity to be salient in the midst of our changing society, we need to promote a recommitment to our creeds, a respect for American history, and a proper role of patriotism, rooted in love of neighbor. Our founders' Judeo-Christian heritage helped produce a culture in which moral responsibility, transcendent ethical principles, and the dignity of all people could flourish—a culture in which our creedal values made sense. This is why our role as leaven within society is so important, and why we must continue to bring a biblical influence to the public square, reinvigorating society.
As we do so, we must guard against the easy tendency to embrace xenophobic notions or fall into the equally perilous trap of promoting subcultural identities over national identity. People will not live with, let alone die for, a nation that has abandoned its religious moorings and adopted a creed that suggests we simply live together in cosmopolitan bliss. Millions of us, however, have been willing to live and die for beliefs rooted in our deepest convictions about God and man—convictions that were expressed so well in the stirring words of our national creed, the Declaration of Independence.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Christianity Today articles discussing Christianity and citizenship include:
What's Right About Patriotism | The nation is not our highest love, but it still deserves our affection. (July 1, 2006)
Editorial: Rally Round the Flag | America may not be God's chosen nation, but it does have a mission that churches can support. (November 12, 2001)
Is Patriotism Dead? | "The day that patriotism ceases, that day we will have ceased to be a people." (July 1, 2001)
Watching My Daughter 'Defect' | Part of being a good Christian is being a good citizen. (July 1, 2001)
Previous columns by Charles Colson are available on our website, including:
Channeling the Populist Rage | How should we respond to the loss of confidence in the government? (April 6, 2010)
Valentine's Dynamic Love | Our love is most godly when it is against the world for the world. (February 12, 2010)
The Problem of Goodness | It's not just the problem of evil that baffles the secularist. (December 22, 2009)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.
Timothy George is the dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and a member of Christianity Today's Editorial Council. His books include Reading Scripture with the Reformers and Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? Like Colson, George has been heavily involved in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together discussions. George began cowriting "Contra Mundum" with Colson in 2011.
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