By Christopher Zehnder

Peasant Dance, by Albrecht Dürer

It will come as no surprise to those who read the previous two essays, “Of Lager Beer and an Ohio German Catholic Bigot” and “A Visit to a Creole Village,” that I sympathize with those groups in U.S. history who sought to maintain their unique cultural patterns and resisted assimilation into the broader culture. I confess a certain antiquarian and romantic twist of soul that revels in things past; yet, my sympathy is not entirely nostalgic. Rather, I think such groups were guarding truths that our mass culture has forgotten and our mechanized culture of change has no patience for. They, in perhaps an inchoate way, grasped what culture is and why it is so important.

The resistance of such groups as the Germans of Berlin, Ohio, and the Creoles of the Mississippi to the prevailing culture of their day sprang, it seems, from different causes. In describing the Creole village, Washington Irving depicts for us a people content with life as they lived it. Indeed, if there was any resistance on their part, it was wholly unconscious. They had found a way of living they found congenial and were not tempted to change it, at least very much. Their common life and its expression was a finished work of art that could be perfected only in detail, not in fundamental form. The Berlin, Ohio, Germans, on the contrary, were quite conscious of their resistance. They too, it seems, lived in a manner congenial to themselves; but they had conceptualized it and so saw it as preservative of two goods: their temporal well-being and their religion.

We, with our modern proclivities, might be tempted to place too firm a division, even an opposition, between these goods – the temporal and the religious – for we have raised a stout wall of separation between religion and everyday life in society. We would tend to call the first good “secular” and think that it could exist apart from the second good, which we have relegated to the realm of the private. This was not how the Berlin Germans and, perhaps, the Creole villagers would have viewed the matter. For them, the temporal and sacred orders were intimately intertwined. Religion informed the customs of everyday life, and these customs had become the necessary soil in which religion throve. Custom and religion, though distinct as principles, were nevertheless united and inseparable in life.

It was such an understanding of culture that informed the resistance of the Berlin Germans and similar enclaves to resist assimilation into the broader American culture. Americans of their day, however, did not look kindly on such intransigence. They would have regarded it as an affront to what came to be the American way of life – the cultural melting pot, where different cultures are boiled down into a new cultural brew. Despite multiculturalism, Americans of our own day would, I think, agree. And should not everyone also concur in this judgment? That the American ideal could be congenial to so many people; that it was arguably productive of a vibrant and progressive society that has commended itself to the world, might lead one to wonder if the conviction is not, in the end, right. Is it not finally for the best that the likes of the Berlin Germans lost their struggle and the American cultural pattern triumphed?

Theodore Roosevelt

One prominent and intelligent American thinker would have given a strong, punctuated yes to this question. Decrying “hyphenated Americans,” as he called them, Theodore Roosevelt emphasized that “our citizens must act as Americans; not as Americans with a prefix and qualifications; not as Irish-Americans, German-Americans, native Americans — but as Americans pure and simple. We are making a new race, a new type, in the country.” Roosevelt would not have tolerated the pig-headed stolidity of the Berlin village Germans; and if he thought Washington Irving’s Creoles quaint, he would sacrifice their culture to the interests of the “new race.” Roosevelt was not a bigot; he did not think the “native,” Anglo stock – the sons and daughters of the Mayflower and Jamestown – necessarily superior to other races that settled America. Indeed, he once praised the Germans as a “manly” and “warlike” race; and as for Spanish-speaking peoples, he predicted that, on account of their fecundity and, therefore, their virility, they would come to outnumber Anglos in the Southwest. To a group of progressive Christian theologians, Roosevelt decried the declining birthrate among these Anglos and told them: “If you do not believe in your own stock enough to wish to see the stock kept up, then you are not good Americans, you are not patriots, and … I for one shall not mourn your extinction; and in such event I shall welcome the advent of a new race that will take your place, because you will have shown that you are not fit to cumber the ground.” When Roosevelt spoke, then, of a “new race,” he did not necessarily mean an assimilation of immigrant racial groups into the majority, Anglo population and culture but a reduction of Anglos and other races into a new type.

What was this new type – this “new race”? For Roosevelt, it seems it was not a race in the way the Germans, the French, or the Chinese are a race. The new race was not so much a matter of common blood but of commonly held ideas. This new race, he said, would speak a common tongue, “the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, of Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech and Second Inaugural, and of Washington’s farewell address.” In other words, Roosevelt located the nexus of this new race not in the flesh but in the realm of ideas.

American Gothic, by Grant Wood

Of course, not all Americans who have praised the melting pot have shared Roosevelt’s seeming unconcern for physical race or at least a racially-rooted culture. To be Americanized has very much meant becoming assimilated to the predominant Anglo-American culture and shedding the culture of one’s ancestors. It has come to mean speaking English (something Roosevelt pushed for, incidentally), adopting American mores, American dress and cuisine, even American entertainments. Yet, as Roosevelt saw, though these cultural accoutrements have marked being American, they have not constituted it. What has constituted it has been a way of looking at the world, a common tongue of ideas that underlie the Declaration, the Constitution, and the speeches and addresses Roosevelt cites. To be an American is very much to embrace a kind of secular religion – a way of looking at and interpreting all of reality.

America is, in short, a kind of philosophical church. As for what has generally earned the name of religion – though Americans have not denied God or been overtly anti-religion, they have relegated all the important questions concerning God and religion to the realm of the private. Americans say “in God we trust,” but they do not say in what God they trust, or even how they trust in him. Whether God is a Trinity or a monad; whether he has or has not reveled himself to man by supernatural or just natural means; whether or not he intervenes in human affairs; or even whether he exists at all – all such questions are pre-political or, rather, extra-political. Religious people can participate in the greater society; they can express their religious ideas in society; but society, as such, is to remain radically separated from any and all specifically religious ideas. Every man is to be free to express a religion, or no religion at all, for every man has the right to determine for himself what he thinks is right and true.

Such freedom does not only embrace religion, but every aspect of life; for the highest good for man, according to the tenets of the American church, is the widest possible expression of individual freedom and autonomy. Indeed, society itself in its institutions exists primarily to ensure the freedom of the individual to pursue what he thinks is the sum total of human happiness. The only restrictions placed on this pursuit are those that ensure the ability of other individuals to pursue what they think conduces to happiness. Americans have opposed anarchic freedom; they have praised “ordered freedom;” but ordered or not, it has been freedom that has been the goal and purpose of American society, and this freedom is individualistic to its core.

This individualism is imbued with a sense of radical autonomy that encourages and reveres the man who “thinks for himself,” who questions received traditions and creates his own world view and the morality that follows from it. It is precisely the spirit that resists the circumscription that traditional culture imposes on individual expression. For, though cultures are not fixed or static, they nevertheless develop in ways that are consistent with their beginnings. Though open to change, they must conform to their inner genius, or they cease to be themselves. Culture has been called “second nature” because it mimics nature. From its beginnings as a seed, a tree is true to what it is in its nature, which is its unchanging essence burgeoning in time. The oak tree fulfills the potential of the acorn without ceasing to be what the acorn is in its nature. But to be an oak tree is necessarily not to be an apple tree or any other thing. Likewise, to be German or Creole or English or Chinese or Ethiopian is to be a certain kind of man and not any other. To be true to that identity demands limitations on one’s individual expression; but, at the same time, under such limitations, one discovers the very roots of oneself as an individual or, rather, a person, not in what he possesses in and by himself, but in what he shares with others. Living according to culture is a way of participating in a common good.

A woman practicing the traditional Japanese tea ritual

It is precisely because culture is a common good that conformity to a culture does not cramp an individual but allows him to discover a depth and breadth of experience that is closed to the mere individualist. It is in conformity to its beginnings, its deep-rootedness in the loam of the ages, and its development through those ages that give a traditional culture its depth and complexity. These are the sources of its peculiar, many-faceted beauty. It is is not the spawn of the moment, a continual new birth, a new creation. Rather, it is an artifact of the ages to which countless generations have contributed. It is an expression of all their sorrows and triumphs, their foolishness and wisdom, their false starts and accomplishments: their experience of living. In culture, the individual lives with the life of those who have gone before him. He is at once himself and his ancestors.

Ironically, though it is anti-traditional, American culture – the culture, that is, of the United States – really is a culture, for it characterizes a people; yet, it is a strange sort of culture. Its struggle to be ever new is the antithesis of culture – or, rather, it is the antithesis of what has characterized human culture throughout all the ages of man’s sojourn on Earth. Every culture has, of course, a philosophy of life, a set of beliefs, a religion or creed, that defines its highest aspirations; but in traditional cultures, such a creed is rooted in the material bases, often of race or national identity, but always in received customs that arise from a common experience of living. The creed both informs and molds the culture; to some degree it is conditioned in its expression by it. Several cultures, for example, may share a common creed, but they express that creed in their own unique folkways that are received rather than imposed. These folkways develops from the soil of a common life beyond the power of individual to determine them. Moreover, they unify rather than divide persons and impose a kind of conformity. American culture, on the other hand, is a celebration of individual autonomy and nonconformism. It calls for the remaking and even eradication of the material bases of culture; it dissolves the common life of people, reducing it to a soup of autonomous expressions of individuality united under a common ideal, which is nothing more than the freedom it celebrates.

In keeping with its religious character, however, American culture does demand a high level of conformity on the level of ideas. To be an American requires an adhesion to the American ideal of individual liberty. To be an American means to share in a certain way of understanding ourselves, the world, and the goal of human life. Even so lofty a concept as justice is subordinated to freedom; it becomes merely the necessary condition of autonomy. Some have called this Americanism, though the term is used rarely these days. More often today we call it simply American values.

Ironically, even on the level of the habits of life, Americans are fairly conformist; there may be various patterns of self expression, but these are sets that, within their parameters, allow for little variation from behavior that is deemed acceptable. These patterns, moreover, are always in flux, for they are not received but imposed as it were from above by forces that are the influence of the few powerful enough to determine them. We have a media culture, a popular culture, and a political culture that molds the people. It does not arise from the people but descends from centers of power above the people. Ultimately, these centers of power are driven by a pursuit after a summum bonum, a highest good that, in the end is purely material – the deity that Washington Irving called the “Almighty Dollar.”

It is not my contention that historically other, contrary tendencies have not existed alongside what I have called American culture, or that American society has always been uniformly materialistic. Devotion to God and spiritual goods have exercised some influence on American life; philosophical and ethical movements have investigated ways of communal living dedicated to higher goals than mere individual aggrandizement. Yet, none of these movements has characterized the predominant cultural thrust of American society, and each of them at some point has retreated before its advance.

In the number of such anti-individualist movements were groups like the Berlin, Ohio Germans. Their intransigence witnesses to their basic agreement with Father Anton Walburg of Cincinnati, Ohio who over a century ago said, transition from one nationality to another is always a dangerous process, and it will not do to hasten it, and to force foreigners to Americanize.” The danger was, perhaps, greater than Walburg realized; for becoming American did not represent for these groups merely an assimilation to a new cultural pattern, which in itself may on balance be benign. Rather, it would prove to be an eradication of the very possibility of an integrally human culture both in terms of its material bases in commonly practiced, deeply-rooted folkways and the communitarian and spiritual understanding of life that is such a culture’s formal inspiration.

If you found this essay interesting, you might want to look into two novels I have published: A Song for Else, Part I: The Vow and Part II: The Overthrow. They tell the story of a boy growing into a man during the “heroic” years of the Reformation in Germany and of his struggles to make sense of a rapidly changing world.