Assimilation is a Brutal and Necessary Bargain

Let me begin by acknowledging that I share Professor Samuelson’s concern that many immigrants today are not assimilating to “classic American values of thrift, hard work, and cooperation in civil society.” I, too, am uneasy at the prospect of immigrants being influenced by “trans-national” elites to the point where they, and especially their children, may be “embarrassed to be patriotic.” Unfortunately, I do not find his exploration of these issues very illuminating.

First of all, Samuelson never really explains or defines what he means by “assimilation,” one of the most misused and fraught terms in our political lexicon. For example, by assimilation does he mean the giving up of those “foreign ideas, customs, and manners” that, paraphrasing Jefferson, he highlights? At various points in his essay, this appears to be his position.

Many Americans similarly call out for assimilation in this sense. Yet in our history, things have seldom worked out this way. Rather, assimilation has typically meant that immigrants have adapted and changed in disparate domains, rejecting their immigrant past in some ways (forgetting their parents’ mother tongue and speaking English, or learning to tolerate individuals with sharply different values) and holding on to other aspects of their heritage (ethnic cuisine, specific religious holidays, family traditions from the homeland). As such, assimilation is often a long and tortuous process and may well stretch over more than one generation. Nor has this typically been easy for those undergoing it. As Norman Podhoretz famously put it in his memoir, Making It (1967), assimilation is a “brutal bargain.”

Samuelson is clearly preoccupied with the social and cultural dimensions of assimilation. Yet even more fundamentally, he is concerned with the political assimilation of immigrants, particularly their embrace of America’s Founding principles. At the very beginning of his essay, he emphasizes that American nationalism has been “primarily political rather than cultural,” and that “citizenship, not heritage, makes one an American.” He goes on to conclude that “the day someone becomes an American citizen, he is an American in the essential sense of the term.”

Unfortunately, I can make no sense of this last assertion. Nor can I square it with the concerns expressed elsewhere in the essay about the social and cultural assimilation of today’s immigrants. But let me try to sort things out.

On the one hand, I take it that when Samuelson asserts that “the day someone becomes an American citizen, he is an American in the essential sense of the term,” he seeks to underscore the consensual basis of American citizenship. He also endorses the idea of America as a uniquely “proposition nation” (though he does not use that term) and in this regard respectfully invokes “Emma Lazarus’s words,” by which of course he means the sonnet, “The New Colossus,” which is now affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Unfortunately, Lazarus’s famous lines (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) are an incomplete and ultimately misleading guide to much of our immigration history. For the fact is that large numbers of those arriving on our shores have not sought political liberty but opportunity to work and support their families. Many arrived, moreover, not intending to remain. In fact, a not insignificant number eventually went back to their home countries.

To be sure, some of those arriving here have fled persecution and sought out America as a political refuge. And for the most part, these individuals arrived with no intention of returning whence they had come. Eastern European Jews fleeing Tsarist pogroms and military impressment fit this description, and it was they whom Lazarus had in mind when she penned those famous words. But that tells the story of refugees, not immigrants. They may be similar, but they are hardly identical.

Then, too, many of the immigrants who eventually settled here were not as single-mindedly in search of equality as Samuelson suggests. Yes, many religious minorities sought the freedom to worship as they chose. And among German immigrants, almost certainly the largest such group in our history, there were many who came here seeking the land and freedom to build their own, largely self-contained, communities where the language and customs they brought with them could be maintained and nurtured. As historian Jon Gjerde reminds us, another such group was Norwegian immigrants, who clung to their mother tongue as their only means of addressing God.

Many others arrived with no such aspirations for separate communities, and simply flooded into America’s cities. Irish immigrants constituted the largest such group. While they, not unlike refugees, were fleeing famine and religious persecution at home, their search for opportunity here did not involve an embrace of equality. For example, when the Irish encountered Americans seeking to end slavery, they did not respond very positively. They tended to regard slaves as potential competitors in the labor market. As Catholics, moreover, they thought of society as composed not of freely assenting, equal individuals, but of hierarchical, corporate units. It is no accident that Irish immigrants figured so prominently in the deadly rioting against President Lincoln’s authorization of a federal draft in March 1863, a couple of month’s after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Aside from overlooking such revealing aspects of our immigrant history, Samuelson fails to consider the possibility that America is not just a set of political principles: liberty, equality, individualism, but also a way of life—a culture, if you will. The British writer G. K. Chesterton once observed that “America is the only nation that is founded on a creed” and is therefore “a nation with the soul of a church.” But as noted by historian Wilfred McClay, a church (or a nation) consists of much more than a creed. America is a “living creed,” he writes, “a distillation and codification of beliefs that are grounded elsewhere—embodied in the habits and mores and institutions of the people.”

A key source of those principles in America is dissenting Protestantism, today transmogrified into the Judeo-Christian ethic. To be sure, in contemporary America there are many non-Christians. But as political scientist Hugh Heclo has remarked: while it is not un-American to be non-Christian, it is un-American to behave in an un-Christian manner.

So, America’s political principles are not transcendent. They are embedded in a specific historical and cultural context from which they are not easily abstracted. They are certainly perceived as such by various peoples around the globe. And for that matter, they have also been perceived that way by immigrants.

Let me return again to the example of Catholic immigrants. I have already mentioned the Irish. Catholics more generally perceived America’s political principles as embedded in a culture and institutions toward which they felt considerable suspicion—and which felt the same toward them. This mutual suspicion is one reason Catholics took so long to feel at home in America and to be fully accepted here. Indeed, it took generations for this process to play out, long after Catholics had embraced American political principles, even if by this embrace we mean fighting and dying for one’s country.

To be sure, only a few Catholics served in Washington’s Continental Army. Many more fought with the Union Army during the Civil War, though their contributions were devalued by the evident lack of enthusiasm for that cause among the Irish. Catholic sacrifices during World War I were similarly tainted by resistance and opposition to the war on the part of immigrants from Germany as well as from Ireland (at that time struggling to break free of British rule). By contrast, the American effort in World War II was marked by no such dissent. Indeed, it was fought in large part by the sons and daughters of immigrant Catholics who eagerly went off to defeat their nation’s enemies.

These contributions to the war effort by American Catholics were widely acknowledged—especially in the popular culture, as the historian Anthony Burke Smith has pointed out. Notable in this regard was publisher Henry Luce, whose wife, Claire Booth Luce, eventually converted to Catholicism. Luce himself overcame his own initial, Presbyterian-influenced misgivings about the Church’s influence on American life and wound up featuring Catholic contributions to the war effort prominently in his mass circulation magazine, Life.

Meanwhile, Hollywood had begun celebrating Catholic contributions to American society even before the war. In 1938, Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for his portrayal in Boys Town of Father Flanagan, the crusading priest who founded that alternative institution for orphaned and delinquent boys. By 1944, Bing Crosby was starring in Going My Way as an urbane young priest who helps rescue a failing New York City church. The film swept that year’s Oscars.

Yet even after the marketplace had discovered and celebrated the contributions of Catholics to American society, including their sacrifices during World War II, old suspicions resurfaced in the postwar period. Ironically, even as Catholics sought instinctively to prove their Americanism by supporting the demagogic anticommunism of Senator McCarthy, they reinforced the idea that Catholicism did not mesh well with democratic values. Prominent social scientists like Seymour Martin Lipset mused that Catholics were susceptible to authoritarianism, which was particularly worrisome in the context of divisive postwar debates over birth control and governmental aid to parochial schools. (See Lipset’s contribution to the 1955 volume edited by Daniel Bell, The New American Right.) Others recollected that in the 1930s, American Catholics had been sympathetic to fascists like Generalissimo Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

At the heart of such postwar concerns lay the continued opposition of the Roman hierarchy to freedom of religious conscience. The teaching of the Church had been, and continued to be, that Catholicism was the one true faith that ideally should be supported by the state. Indeed, critics of the Church’s position such as the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray were silenced by their superiors. Such issues did not get resolved until Vatican II, at which a vindicated Father Murray figured as the leading author of the 1965 Declaration of Religious Freedom, which, in the words of historian John McGreevy, “acknowledged the importance of individual conscience and removed from Catholics the stigma of supporting (even theoretically) intolerant regimes.”

It is worth noting that these events transpired after John F. Kennedy had been elected President, a victory that came in no small part because during the campaign he pledged to the Ministerial Alliance of Houston that, if elected, he would act in accordance “with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates.” Even after the sacrifices of thousands of Catholics during World War II, many Americans continued to have misgivings about the loyalty of Catholic citizens to America’s Founding principles. Given the Catholic Church’s doctrinal opposition to religious freedom and its at-best ambivalent support for liberal democracy, such misgivings were not entirely unreasonable.

This history suggests that assimilation in American life is a much more complicated process than Richard Samuelson allows in his essay. It is certainly more complicated than merely accepting—or even dying for—the nation’s political principles.