Murray: What Truths Do We Hold in the 21st Century United States?

Image of John Courtney Murray, S.J.

John Courtney Murray, S.J.

This week, my studies lead me to the theological and political writings of John Courtney Murray, S.J.  Murray is well known for his attempt to make sense of the Catholic faith in relation to the American liberal democratic tradition, as well as his efforts to think clearly about religious pluralism and religious freedom.  In We Hold These Truths, Murray poses a fundamental question that ought to be pursued in the contemporary United States context: Do we have a national identity?  If so, what is our national identity?  As a nation, what “truths” do we “hold”?  For Murray, this was a question of basic national unity.  He asks his contemporaries: “Today what is the goal, the victory to be won? Surely it has no such simple symbol.  So baffling has the problem of our national purpose become that it is now the fashion to say that our purpose is simple ‘survival.’ The statement, I think, indicates the depth of our political bankruptcy.” (WHTT, 94)  Murray’s challenge to his era comes crashing down on our own.  Of late, our body politic and elected representatives have shown meager commitment to any shared goal.  This has been most dramatically evidenced by the unwavering refusal to compromise by certain conservatives during the debt ceiling debate, but is certainly not limited to any party or faction.  We are a selfish nation, interested in what serves our own ends, even at the expense of human lives and livelihood, national credit and credibility, and as Murray would have duly noted, our very nationhood.

As an American of Mexican and Chicana/o culture, Murray’s question provokes another one for me: Whatever this national identity is, does it include me?  

While many of my well-intentioned fellow-citizens would answer in the affirmative, I can’t help but notice that many other of my fellow-citizens have attempted to shore up flagging U.S. identity by distancing from the racial, ethnic, and religious “others.” Groups that do not resemble American cultural norms[1] are framed as the villains of United States identity.  Samuel Huntington illustrates this political attitude in his article about the threat of Hispanic culture to American identity:

“The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrant threatens to divine the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages.  Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves – from Los Angeles to Miami – and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream.  The United States ignores this challenge at its peril.”[2]

It is not just Hispanic immigrants, but Hispanic culture, that threatens to eviscerate the United States. Huntington names a list of “key values” that are under threat by the heavy influx of Latin American immigrants:

“English language; Christianity; religious commitment; English concepts of the rule of law, including the responsibility of rulers and the rights of individuals; and dissenting Protestant values of individualism, the work ethic, and the belief that humans have the ability and the duty to try to create a heaven on earth, a ‘city on a hill.’”[3]

Our Latino values, which as far as I can deduce from Huntington include the Spanish language; a religion other than Christianity (Catholicism?); lack of religious commitment (?!); poor work ethic (?!); and frail personal and social ethics (?!?!),[4] pose a threat to Anglo-Protestant culture and thus U.S. national purpose.  While I balk at Huntington’s claims, I do not mean to demonize him.  Liberal Catholic hero John Courtney Murray also evaluated non-white cultures as “less advanced” than his own (white) culture: “…racial discrimination cannot be defended on moral grounds.  Nonetheless, the doctrine could once have been defended from a sociological point of view as necessary in the circumstances – in view of the unenlightened state of the public conscience, the temporary inferior cultural status of the Negro, etc.” (141) Murray hoped for greater and genuine social equality but, at least in this instance, appears to expect that non-white cultures will conform to his own.

Despite my dissatisfaction with Murray’s evaluation of “negro culture” of his particular time, I am compelled by his argument that the United States ought to have a common goal towards which we are pressing as a civil and political society.  I would thus like to offer a modest thought about the state of U.S. identity.  Have the defenders of Anglo-Protestant culture as U.S. identity ever entertained the idea that the problem is NOT Hispanics, and other groups, not being willing to assimilate?  Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest the opposite. Perhaps a major factor to our identity crisis is the refusal/inability of U.S. culture to receive the gifts of these cultures to national identity and political unity.  For example, while Huntington elevates the value of individuality over the value of community exhibited in many Latino/a manifestations of culture, might a more robust philosophy of community help us through the partisan log-jam during this time of global and national economic strife?  Instead of defending hegemonic social and political mores, is it possible for national political discourse to embrace new “values” or seriously entertain critiques arising from communities and cultures that have often been misunderstood, feared, and alienated?  How might cultural engagement transform the “truths” that we “hold”?  Politically, I am not too optimistic.  But as a God-loving, hard working, responsible Mexican-American United States Citizen, I hope still for God’s graceful transformation of our seemingly unprecedented cultural and political obstinacy into a political and civil society working side by side for the common good.

[1] I acknowledge the ambiguity, and even imprecision, of this term. Obviously, there is lots of variation among white cultures across the United States.  Some of my white interlocutors have raised important questions about the usefulness of glossing over the difference between white people in the New England, “The South,” “The Midwest,” etc.  Through a series of marathon Socratic discourses, we have been able to agree that while these cultures vary from one another, they generally exercise cultural hegemony in their various localities, effectively marginalizing other cultures.  To be sure, the dominant cultures often enjoy various aspects of the marginal cultures – food, style of dress, tourism, “exotic” objects, and even language study.  Yet, this superficial engagement and commodification of marginalized cultures ought not be mistaken for cultural equality.  Thus, I do not harbor much intellectual guilt for claiming that some version of white culture is still dominant throughout the United States.

[2] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Hispanic Challenge.” Foreign Policy (March/April 2004): 1.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] To be clear, Huntington does not list the values that Latinos bring, besides Spanish language (which is not a value), that are so harmful to national unity.  My list here is a (facetious) attempt to question what is  implied by his analysis.


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