American Identity and Environmentalism

Catherine Albanese published an interesting book many years ago, “Nature Religion in America”, where she shows the relationship of the religious status of nature in the American context. She has some provocative and insightful quotes like the ones below, that make the case of how distinctively Americans view nature:

“Americans learned to understand the sublimity of what they saw as a sign of the destiny and stature of a new nation. Even nature had smiled her beneficence on the grand political experiment the patriots had begun” (58).

“Nature provided a theological frame on which to a hang civil religion of the American republic… if any new popular religion arose in New World America, it was a nature religion of radical empiricism, with the aim of that religion to conflate spirit with matter, and in the process, turn human beings into gods” (63-65).

Roderick Nash‘s “Wilderness and the American Mind” also has a classic study on the distinctive American perspective of wilderness. In that sense it is interesting to examine the history, values, traits, influences, etc. of the American people and see how it has forged the current environmental debate of our time. For an example of distinctive American values, see a classic example here.

Now, what happens when American culture starts to change? It is implied that the view of the environment will change as well. One of the boldest, most recent challenges for redefining American culture has been expressed in a talk given by Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles. He explicitly engages the theory of Samuel Huntington, that America is fundamentally a country shaped by Protestant values and identity. In Huntington’s book he explains how Catholics were persecuted until they assimilated, and basically now Catholicism is a watered down version which conforms to the limits imposed on it by the American credo. Given this diagnosis, there are only two positions a Catholic bishop can take to engage America – assimilate Catholicism in some way or another into the American creed or redefine the nation to make room for Catholicism. Gomez does the latter.

The speech “Immigration and the Next America” and commentary can be read here. Below some of the highlights. If Archbishop Gomez is right, and we must begin to reverence Blessed Junipero Serra side by side with Thomas Jefferson, then the American environmental ethic is bound to find its “next” expression as well.

The American story that most of us know is set in New England. It is the story of the pilgrims and the Mayflower, the first Thanksgiving, and John Winthrop’s sermon about a “city upon a hill”.

It is the story of great men like Washington, Jefferson and Madison. It’s the story of great documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. It is a beautiful story. It is also true. Every American should know these characters and the ideals and principles they fought for. From this story we learn that our American identity and culture are rooted in essentially Christian beliefs about the dignity of the human person.

But the story of the founding fathers and the truths they held to be self-evident is not the whole story about America. The rest of the story starts more than a century before the pilgrims. It starts in the 1520s in Florida and in the 1540s here in California…

The 19th-century historian John Gilmary Shea said it beautifully. Before there were houses in this land, there were altars: “Mass was said to hallow the land and draw down the blessing of heaven before the first step was taken to rear a human habitation. The altar was older than the hearth”.

This is the missing piece of American history. And today more than ever, we need to know this heritage of holiness and service — especially as American Catholics. Along with Washington and Jefferson, we need to know the stories of these great apostles of America. We need to know the French missionaries like Mother Joseph and the Jesuits St Isaac Jogues and Father Jacques Marquette, who came down from Canada to bring the faith to the northern half of our country….

. That’s why it is essential that today we remember the missionary history of America — and rededicate ourselves to the vision of America’s founding “creed”.

When we forget our country’s roots in the Hispanic-Catholic mission to the new world, we end up with distorted ideas about our national identity. We end up with an idea that Americans are descended from only white Europeans and that our culture is based only on the individualism, work ethic and rule of law that we inherited from our Anglo-Protestant forebears.

There are, of course, far more complicated causes behind these moments in our history. But at the root, I think we can see a common factor — a wrong-headed notion that “real Americans” are of some particular race, class, religion or ethnic background.

I worry that in today’s political debates over immigration we are entering into a new period of nativism. The intellectual justification for this new nativism was set out a few years ago in an influential book by the late Samuel Huntington of Harvard, called Who Are We?. He made a lot of sophisticated-sounding arguments, but his basic argument was that American identity and culture are threatened by Mexican immigration.

Authentic American identity “was the product of the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers of America in the 17th and 18th centuries”, according to Huntington. By contrast, Mexicans’ values are rooted in a fundamentally incompatible “culture of Catholicism” which, Huntington argued, does not value self-initiative or the work ethic, and instead encourages passivity and an acceptance of poverty.

These are old and familiar nativist claims, and they are easy to discredit. One could point to the glorious legacy of Hispanic literature and art, or to Mexican-Americans’ and Hispanic-Americans’ accomplishments in business, government, medicine and other areas. Unfortunately, today we hear ideas like Huntington’s being repeated on cable TV and talk radio — and sometimes even by some of our political leaders.

There is no denying significant differences between Hispanic-Catholic and Anglo-Protestant cultural assumptions. This kind of bigoted thinking stems from an incomplete understanding of American history. Historically, both cultures have a rightful claim to a place in our national “story” — and in the formation of an authentic American identity and national character.  

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