Let’s admit something right at the outset: The Muslim critique of American society is largely correct.
We really are a materialistic people, prone to decadence and preoccupation with sex. We’re profligate with our resources—wastefully so. Self-indulgence is our default setting. We seek constant distraction in sports, vulgar entertainments, titillating imagery, sentimentalism, and amusing trivia. Our sense of religious/cultural identity is fluid (not to say shaky).
We’ve lost the sense of propriety in our public conduct and any correct understanding of how the sexes should behave and interact. We’re sloppy and immodest in dress, crude in speech, disrespectful of authority, and disdainful of conventional standards of decorum.
Indeed, we barely understand what the word “conventional” means anymore. We’re skeptical to the point of pretentiousness about anything that smacks of tradition. We value novelty over heritage, cleverness over wisdom. And the attitude we like to put forth as our personal outlook is cynicism, which we present as sophisticated insight.
Naturally, I’m painting with a very broad brush here. These are generalizations, and they’re extreme. But if we each examine our own hearts, we can’t help noting—that is, if we’re honest—how some or all apply, at least to a degree.
It is this impression of the U.S. to which new immigrants often react so negatively when American culture presses its relentless influence upon their family lives. And it is what inflames hatred of America when this rude and unpleasant picture of us gets distorted to the point of caricature by foreign media and even the films and TV shows we export overseas.
There is, of course, another side to life in the United States.
Americans tend to be generous. We’ve raised private charitable giving, voluntarism, and corporate philanthropy to the highest levels of any nation in the history of the world.
Most of us still maintain an essential belief in God—a point that opinion surveys continue to demonstrate. While nearly all churches have suffered losses in membership, many of the negative numbers actually reflect conversions from one faith to another or adoption of institutionally disconnected worship practices (à la the Emerging Church Movement).
Even as a growing proportion of Americans claim no explicit religious affiliation, and most young people pass through an agnostic or atheistic period, a majority of us admit to praying privately and assume there is some sort of life after death—which is really just religion without makeup.
In addition, Americans are a friendly and accepting people. Foreigners may detect a certain superficiality in our warmth that doesn’t always encourage lasting friendships. Yet we are extremely welcoming, by both habit and conviction.
And Lord knows, we make few demands for social or moral conformity. Our national motto isn’t so much “In God We Trust” as it is “Live and Let Live.”
We also retain a noteworthy amount of family and community loyalty, despite disastrous rates of divorce, abandonment, and out-of-wedlock births, as well as extreme personal mobility that has deep historical roots. We hold feelings of obligation even to parents we blame for ruining our lives and other relatives from whom we’re estranged.
And despite nearly a century of national marketing, network broadcasting, and mass entertainment, our patterns of speech continue to reveal connections to family lineage, ethnic descent, and some specific home place. This enduring linguistic phenomenon—dialect—stands against mighty forces of media homogenization.
That we live comfortably with a wide variety of dialects says something in itself about our accepting nature. We do not disdain local variations in speech (certainly not as, say, the Parisian French might wring their hands over how vowels are mangled by Jacques Bonhomme out in the hinterland).
On the contrary, we’re usually quite charmed by regionalisms and ethnic flourishes. Our daily conversation is conducted in a colorful English-Spanish-Yiddish-Black patois.
Linguistic diversity reflects the ethnic diversity that has been a fact of American life from the beginning and has spawned the notion of Strength in Diversity. That idea is pretty much a cliché by now, though like all clichés it contains a grain of truth. No doubt the various races and nationalities have all contributed their salient native traits, be it German inventiveness, Jewish scholarship, or whatever. But these are really all just human attributes, and it’s hard to say which would be lacking if a particular group hadn’t made it to our shores.
Out of this mélange has emerged something that can roughly be termed an “American character.” But that character owes less to multi-ethnic trait-sharing than to the common acceptance of a central idea: The American Idea.
This great proposition—which has proven enormously durable and compelling—is that you are free to think of yourself pretty much any way you like as long as you accept that others can think of themselves anyway they like; that everybody has claim to a set of basic rights; and that, on those terms, we can all live together.
Every ethnic group in our immigration history, after the very first settlers, has confronted The American Idea, initially being shocked by it, then gradually adjusting to it, and finally benefiting from it.
(Admittedly, the benefits came late to Black people who were dragged here in chains and excluded from the arrangement for too long. One might say the same about American Indians who had the deal imposed on them in ways that made it hard for most to take advantage of it. Until recently, both Blacks and Native Americans were forced to accept other people’s traits and practices, with very little reciprocal acknowledgment of theirs.)
A marked exception to the normal process of shock-to-adjustment-to-acceptance is the recent wave of Muslim immigrants, those who have come here since about the late 1980s.
Earlier-arriving Muslims made their transition following the well defined pattern. I’m acquainted with one family from Lebanon who are as American as hummus, a Middle Eastern staple that’s found its place in the U.S. diet and figures prominently on the menus of the restaurants these folks own. They’re typical of multi-generation Arab-American clans that have taken The American Idea to their bosoms and prospered by it.
But all too many of the newcomers—among those who’ve arrived in the wake of the never-ending Arab-Israeli conflict, and the First and Second Gulf Wars—are different. Steeped in the Islamic Revival, they’re convinced of Muslim cultural/moral superiority and the inevitable worldwide triumph of Islam.
In their encounter with The American Idea they’ve gotten only as far as the shock. They tend to resist assimilation. And backed by Saudi oil money, they’re on an ambitious campaign of building mosques and schools, reaching out to the U.S.-born children of earlier Muslim immigrants, and mounting active missionary efforts among non-Muslim youth.
In this they’re not dissimilar from other religious groups. Christians, after all, are charged with the Great Commission to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. And, given the points with which I began this reflection, the negative aspects of American society provide Muslim missionaries with plenty of grist for their appeals.
This too echoes Christian experience. Throughout its history, the Church has hardly been pleased with the practices of pagan societies it encountered. It’s worked tirelessly to convert those pagans, sometimes in highly aggressive ways.
Today we find ourselves at a moment of crisis. After two centuries of increasing emphasis on individual liberty (and a good deal of social tumult as a consequence), the live-and-let-live attitude central to The American Idea has created a moral vacuum into which Islam is poised to rush. Muslim critics of America stand firmly on a straightforward, unambiguous ethical code prompting questions we find hard to answer. Here are two:
1. Can our society survive the debasement of marital commitment caused by the growing disregard for permanent, exclusive man-woman bonds?
2. Does a nation that intentionally sends its women into frontline combat have a culture that’s even worth trying to defend anymore?
These questions (and many others) are deeply disturbing, and they are not answered by pointing out the inequalities between males and females in Muslim countries or citing how women have martyred themselves in the causes of Palestinian liberation or Islamic supremacy. In fact, such questions shake the very foundations of The American Idea that generations of our people have considered worthy of sacrifice, even sacrifice of their own lives.
It’s important to remember that The American Idea came about as an antidote to sectarian conflict. Our first immigrants were, in large part, refugees from religious persecution. While the earliest colonies were confessionally distinct (e.g., Puritans in Massachusetts, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Catholics in Maryland), such factors as population growth, inter-colonial trade, and the first stirrings of that American personal mobility soon blurred both territorial and social lines. Adherents of different faiths found themselves rubbing up against each other.
To avoid repeating the bloody creedal rivalries of Christian Europe, our ancestors settled on a practical formula: You go to your church, and I’ll go to mine (the very nub and genesis of The American Idea). Sectarian peace didn’t come easily, of course. Maryland was pretty much stolen from the Catholics, and even today disagreements can boil over into doctrinal fights, and there’s a good deal of proselytizing and cross-denominational “sheep stealing.”
But for the most part, the formula worked.
There was, however, another strain in Early American life: religious liberalism. From the beginning, Christianity in the New World included free-thinkers and theological mavericks, people like Roger Williams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. The liberal religious impulse found expression first in Unitarianism, and eventually in the casting off of any solid faith convictions at all.
Consequently, our ancestors’ practical formula evolved into: I’ll go to my church, and you can do whatever you like on Sunday mornings. This too was a gradual thing. Regulations safeguarding the Christian Sabbath—the so-called Blue Laws—kept many businesses closed on Sundays well into the 20th entury.
Nevertheless, our basic attitude of acceptance prevailed, even enabling us to absorb large numbers of non-Christian immigrants. Among those, Jews especially have thrived in America, despite the traditional prejudices faced by God’s Chosen People throughout history.
In more recent times, liberal religion has mutated into an increasingly militant and angry secularism. And so today we live with the contradiction of organized atheism and face attacks on the religious liberty that was able to accommodate free thinking in the first place.
To this, Islam offers America an answer, the formula that’s operative in Muslim countries: universal embrace of the one true faith handed down from Mohammed, and suppression of everything else.
What we are experiencing today is only the latest phase in a difficult civilizational confrontation that has been occurring since Muslims first rose to challenge the West. There are some striking parallels between now and then.
One of the reasons for Islam’s swift emergence from the Arabian Peninsula to span the Mediterranean world was moral and religious disarray within the Roman Empire. Islam wasn’t spread entirely by the sword. Muslims had a valid critique of Roman society and political culture. The alternative vision they offered resonated with many of Rome’s subject peoples who often welcomed these desert conquerors—and who especially welcomed relief from oppressive Roman taxation.
While Christianity had become the official imperial religion, the Church faced severe internal divisions. And anyway, not all Romans were Christian. There were still plenty of pagans around who, disillusioned with the old gods, nonetheless found what solace they could clinging to long-established pagan ways—some of which are finding renewed popularity in our own time.
It remains to be seen whether the newest wave of Muslim immigrants ultimately will buy into The American Idea, become fully assimilated, and play a constructive role in the progress of our nation, as earlier Muslim arrivals have and other immigrant groups before them. (And naturally, all of this presupposes that we’re talking about Muslims of good will—not any who may have committed themselves to the path of radical Islamist subversion or terrorist violence.)
Likewise, whether the Muslim world in general can recognize that America is greater than its moral shortcomings is one of the most pressing questions of our time. In no small measure, global peace depends on the answer.
The cultural gulf may simply be so vast that in order for them to embrace us, Muslims would have to become, in essence, less Muslim. That’s a prospect we can’t expect would be easy for them to accept when, as I said at the outset, their critique of American society is right on target in so many respects. And of course, one must ask as well: Would Christians give up their expectation of the ultimate triumph of Christ?
Today it falls to all Americans—Christians, Jews, and those of other religious persuasions, even the unaffiliated—to be truer to our national principles, rise above our societal flaws, achieve a greater degree of unity and purpose, and put our moral house in order. Addressing the commitment to marriage would be a good place to start. Current rates of divorce are pretty much the same among the churched and the unchurched.
Such a broad and sincere effort (letting our “light shine before men,” as the Bible would have it) may help to make the meaning and value of The American Idea more clearly evident to Muslims, to secularists, and to everybody else.
Of course, the reaction to this line of thinking is entirely predictable: “So...what you’re saying is we need an old-fashioned religious revival? In the 21st century, that’s what you’re proposing?”
I realize that such a project seems at once too simplistic and too hard. It would undoubtedly be a difficult pill for non-believers to swallow, since it carries the discomforting implication of faith. But we’ve seen great religious awakenings before, and they’ve been surprisingly inclusive, with profound effects that reached well beyond the purview of churches or even the explicitly religious. (Abolition of slavery was a consequence, at least partially, of one such revival.)
I believe it could happen again, if a few obstacles were gotten out of the way. In fact, we may be surprisingly close to it right now. The moral climate of our society has become so confused and the public discussion of it so shallow and facile, I sense that many people are ready for a fresh infusion of faith—even some who may not think they are.
And in any case, what’s the alternative? More secularization? Increased restriction of religious activities and freedom of conscience?
Given the chipping away of the First Amendment we’ve witnessed, I wouldn’t trust any political regime to guarantee my right to be a free thinker—certainly not the current one, the all too obvious disdain of which for both faith conviction and genuine independent thought (as opposed to ideological recitation) continually finds new and creative outlets. History shows that whenever a state sets itself above religious doctrine, it inevitably ends up promoting civic doctrines that are far more repressive.
It’s interesting that the non-religious who are ever so quick to criticize the faults of Christians—and who dismiss unassimilated Muslims as just another hue in America’s multicultural rainbow—fail to recognize that the right to believe is the same as the right not to believe. They also don’t see that, having grown out of inter-church strife, this liberty is a fundamentally Christian concept.
It is anathema to Islam.
Which is something secularists should ponder. In a logical world, non-believers would be making common cause with the Church, since—irony of ironies—Christianity is the best protector of their non-belief.
To such folks, who have good moral intentions but can’t quite give themselves over to church participation, I would suggest dialing back the anger and reexamining their enthusiasm for today’s fashionable attacks on religious liberty. If they don’t know what I’m talking about, they can Google: Hobby Lobby, Chick-fil-A, Little Sisters of the Poor, and a few other recent faith-related dustups.
What’s needed from them at this moment in history is bit less antagonism, with maybe a touch of good-natured hypocrisy thrown in for encouragement sake. That’ll do right now.
Reasserting The American Idea, with all the religious freedom and tolerance it implies, is the best option we have. A moral vacuum will not remain empty forever. Sometime soon, we might find our national life changed in ways that are not so hospitable to the free-wheeling American character. It’s happening in Europe and Canada, where Islam is demanding and, in gradual steps, gaining a protected status no faith has enjoyed since the post-Reformation era.
If it happens here, both tolerance and The American Idea will have run their course.