For many years the image of a “melting pot” was used to describe the experience of immigrants coming to America. The expectation was that as people from diverse backgrounds, cultures and religions make their way to our country, a sort of American cultural crucible would melt away all the differences leaving one homogenous social stew.
And at some levels that has happened. Technology has provided a nice blending together of cultures around common language and activities involving cell phones, the Internet and so on. Our consumer culture has had a similar effect, at least in the clothing styles of young people.
But on other levels, and in some regards deeper levels, there has not been a melting. The distinctive qualities of race, religion and cultural heritage have been stubbornly retained by many who have immigrated to this country. Rather than a melting pot that boils away all the differences between us, we are more like a tossed salad with unique pieces of cultural heritage clearly visible and intact.
These pieces of heritage are most often identified with hyphens — African-American, Irish-American, Italian-American, Jewish-American, Muslim-American, Latino-American and so on.
There are some who decry these hyphens and argue that they weaken America. Ethnic groups are accused of allowing cultural loyalties to come before a common commitment to our country. While that remains to be seen, we have no one to blame but the creators of our own Constitution. The founders, while perhaps not anticipating the level at which people of the world would be drawn to our country, nevertheless made it possible to happen.
Article Six of the U.S. Constitution states that there is no religious test for public office. No candidate is required to adhere to a religion in order to run for and be elected to office. And the same is true for citizenship. A person need not be a Christian or any other religion in order to be a citizen. There is no official religion of the United States.
And so, the world has come. They have embraced our freedoms and our citizen rights, but many of them have kept their cultural heritage and religion intact.
So how do we now live together in this tossed salad of a hyphenated culture?
Well, one answer may come from a surprising source. On July 4, mega-church pastor Rick Warren will address the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America. Is he going there to evangelize them, call them all to accept Jesus?
No, Warren will be engaging in what is known as “interfaith dialog.” Dialog, as in having a conversation, learning from the other while introducing ourselves. A sort of culturewide “get to know you.”
And he is drawing fire for it. Bloggers among the evangelical faithful are throwing everything at Warren except the kitchen sink. They are accusing him of selling out the faith and betraying the cause of evangelicalism.
But I don’t think he is. Warren is demonstrating a kind of faithful American pragmatism. He understands that as far as the Constitution is concerned, all religion is created equal. Consequently, all devotees of all faiths, and those with no faith, are entitled to the full protection and benefits afforded to citizens by that Constitution.
In other words, Warren is being a good neighbor to a group of Muslim-Americans. He is talking and listening. He is showing respect and honor, much as you would expect from someone who claims to love his neighbor as he loves himself.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.