Kyle Brewer is a rising senior at Cedarville University, where he majors in international studies, with minors in bible and linguistics. He was a participant in the 2020 Summer Honors Program course “Christianity, National Identity and America’s Role in the World: Rival Interpretations” taught by Dr. Paul Miller.
Studying at an international university in Eastern Europe last year, I was caught completely unaware by something I had never before felt—a strong sensation that I needed to apologize for my nationality on behalf of my nation. The first time this happened, I was seated between students from Iraq and Afghanistan in a conflict studies course when the professor entered and asked the aggravatingly simple question: what is peace? How could I talk about peace with people who grew up with American forces fighting in their cities? I felt something similar and more poignant when a Ukrainian friend asked later in the semester, with tears in her eyes, why the United States had not intervened to stop Russia from invading her home and going to war with her people. I felt this way once again as I watched the video of George Floyd’s murder.
In my first experiences, I was struck by how arbitrary the political divisions were that separated me from my new friends and yet how sharply they were felt. I could just as easily have been born in Kyiv or Kabul and been on their end of the conversation, but I hadn’t. I did not choose to be born where I was and neither did they, and yet our national identities served to divide us and caused us to see the world differently, putting us on opposing sides of difficult situations despite our lack of desire to be so.
After returning home, I recognized a similarly felt divide between ethnic minorities and myself in my own nation, one that was based on cultural identity. Upon reflection, it has become evident to me that the notion of American identity is tied much more closely to the Protestant Anglo-American (and unavoidably white) cultural tradition our nation was birthed from than I had previously realized. I have always enjoyed the experiences and relationships that come with living in a diverse society and considered diversity a valuable asset to our country, but part of me held on to a cultural view of what it means to be American because it was comfortable for me as someone who fits squarely in that dominant tradition.
Over much of US history, the dominant cultural view of American identity has been acceptance and promotion of the traditionally predominant Protestant Anglo-American culture of American society as a defining feature. In this view, one particular cultural tradition is necessary to maintain liberty and prosperity in the United States, and therefore, other traditions should be disparaged or even suppressed as they are inherently anti-American. In contrast, a creedal view of American identity maintains that to belong to the American nation is to hold to the values of its founding as expressed in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, such as liberty, equality, and justice for all. These values can be held by all, regardless of ethnic or religious background, and therefore all cultural traditions can be brought into a strong and singular American identity.
I argue that the creedal view is the best way for all Americans to root their national identity. To be American is to hold these truths to be self-evident: that all people are equal in value and dignity, that all have rights rooted in that inherent value, and that among those rights are the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. To assert a Anglo-Protestant cultural view of American identity can end up creating an exclusionary society that benefits some at the expense of others and ignores the values we claim to champion. This is a path that can lead us to awful and dangerous ends as recent events have made abundantly clear. Being an American does entail nuances other than simply affirming creeds—such as residing in the United States and desiring to become a member of its society—but these qualifications are met irrespective of cultural heritage and in tacit acceptance of the founding values which guide our society.
This is not to say that finding unity in cultural heritage is inherently bad, but it is good to recognize its weaknesses as a foundation for American national identity and its tendency to result in exclusionary practices. In some situations, a cultural view of nationality is a good and effective unifying force. The United States at its inception was unified around a common cultural tradition and that enabled the essential imagining of American nationality, but that cultural consensus soon vanished. The US quickly became a remarkably diverse country through expansion and immigration. Today, it is now home to a myriad of cultural traditions. To seek to minimize, or even erase, minority traditions is illiberal as well as impractical, so a different foundation for national identity is needed to unite diverse groups of Americans. The creedal view supplies such a foundation, which allows for the flourishing of many traditions beneath common bonds of American values.
What would it look like for our nation if we all found identity and unity in our founding creeds? Our communities of faith, especially the church, should be able to illustrate this. The church has historically been a place where people of different backgrounds can come together to worship their God in unity. It has been a place of reconciliation where long-held prejudices could be cast aside through love. After all, it was not the priest or Levite, but the Samaritan, who was a neighbor to the Jewish man left dying in the streets. Since the church’s inception, when the crowds heard the words of the Apostles each in their own language, it has anticipated the day when all people, tribes, and nations will gather before the throne of God. This should be reflected in a radical unity of diverse people in our congregations today, as it has been through history, but tragically that is not always the case.
The church must do better to demonstrate that what divides people in the world cannot and should not divide people in the body of Christ. In addition, it should seek to sacrificially tear down a dominant Anglo-Protestant cultural view that seeks to exclude others, even if that identity has been a source of cultural influence and power for the church. In the end, that type of cultural national identity will always supersede our all-important call to love our neighbors. Through a powerful example of humble peacemaking and active harmony, the church can catalyze reconciliation in other domains of public life, and it can show us what it means to base identity on a creed, rather than a culture.
This is not to dismiss the need for legal and institutional reform across our local, state, and federal governments to eliminate the scourge of systemic racism. This does not preclude the need for individuals to educate themselves and reach out to people who are different than them in an earnest quest for understanding. It is to point to the unique role that creedal identity can play in healing our country’s wounds and how the church can be an institution in our communities that helps facilitate a re-imagined national identity that isn’t narrowly defined along cultural boundaries. There is no need to characterize Protestant Anglo-American culture as necessarily bad or seek to eliminate it from our public squares—indeed it should be defended vigorously as it strives for a godly and just society that recognizes the sacred value of human life—but it should seek to do so on an equal playing field with all of the other cultures and traditions that together form the wonderful patchwork that is the American experiment. This is what it means to be an American.