The United States is now in the throes of a “crisis of identity” that bids fair to undermine the idea of a sovereign American nation governed by the U.S. Constitution. So argues Professor Samuel P. Huntington, for decades professor of government, now University Professor, at Harvard University. Huntington is best known to the reading public for The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), an often misunderstood work that has generated considerable attention and controversy. Now Huntington has turned his prodigious talents as social scientist to one of his central concerns as an American citizen. Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity examines the roots and substance of traditional American identity, the dynamic social forces altering it, and prospects for the revival and extension of what he calls “the cultural core,” which he identifies as “Anglo-Protestant” culture.
This work is no exercise in “value free” social science. On the contrary, Huntington makes it clear that he writes not just as a political scientist but also as a citizen and patriot. He has chosen the present moment for this closely argued but full-throated jeremiad because of his belief that a crisis of identity is upon the United States.
While American identity once included marked elements of race and ethnicity, this is no longer true, as Huntington is at pains to point out. Upon what, then, is American identity now based? Students of American society often take what Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal famously described in 1944 as the “American Creed” to be the common factor that unites Americans in a single identity.
Briefly put, the “creed” includes commitment to political and personal liberty, political equality, equality of opportunity, constitutional democracy founded on popular sovereignty, individual dignity and individualism, and economic freedom. Huntington argues, however, that by itself, adherence to the creed is insufficient to sustain a distinct American identity. Indeed, the “principal theme” of Who Are We?, he writes, is “the continuing centrality of the Anglo-Protestant culture to American national identity.”
Huntington argues that the ideological element of that identity (the “creed”), while essential, is insufficient to describe, still less to sustain, American identity. If millions—or billions—of people believe or come to believe in the creed, would that make them Americans? If American identity in its entirety consists in the creed, then they are all Americans, just as all those who accept the Roman Catholic faith are all Catholics, and identity must have further substance. That substance, in Huntington's view, is America's founding Anglo-Protestant culture.
American identity is thus built upon a “core” Anglo-Protestant culture consisting of traditions and values “that have been embraced by Americans of all races, ethnicities, and religions and that have been the source of their liberty, unity, power, prosperity, and moral leadership as a force for good in the world.”
From this core culture were distilled values of the creed already mentioned, as well as the value of hard work, the centrality of religion in its dissident Protestant form, “ostensibly secular” political principles, and use of the English language.
Religions other than Protestant Christianity, including Catholicism and Judaism, have adapted themselves to this core culture, assimilating its key features. Non-Christian religions, however, are marginal to American identity. Additional features of the “core culture” include a moralist and reform ethic and its reach into foreign policy, illustrated by the figure of John Foster Dulles, son of protestant missionaries, who as secretary of state under Dwight Eisenhower declared the “neutralist” movement of nations to be immoral for their failure to join the West in its struggle with Soviet Communism.
Huntington's talk of the centrality of “Anglo-Protestant” culture has elicited charges of “nativism” from hostile critics. Such claims are not based on a careful and accurate reading of the book, however; and some undoubtedly arise from partisan animus or ill will. Indeed, the author explicitly contradicts nativism in his foreword:
This is, let me make clear, an argument for the importance of Anglo-Protestant culture, not for the importance of Anglo-Protestant people. I believe one of the greatest achievements, perhaps the greatest achievement, of America is the extent to which it has eliminated the racial and ethnic components that historically were central to its identity and has become a multiethnic, multiracial society in which individuals are to be judged on their merits …If...
(The entire section is 1944 words.)