Have you ever watched someone become American? Last week, at a national citizenship conference I organize, thirty immigrants from 17 countries swore an oath and became citizens of the United States. It was a stirring experience for the hundreds of people in the room.
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Our speaker that day was Gerda Weissmann Klein, an octogenarian Holocaust survivor from Poland who was liberated from the camps, married the GI who liberated her, became a U.S. citizen, wrote a celebrated book, and founded the organization Citizenship Counts. Her message, to Americans new and longstanding, was simple: freedom is responsibility. I was struck by Klein’s remarkable personal journey, but even more so by her full-throated faith in American citizenship. For such faith is becoming rare.
Immigration is in the news every day—but mainly because states like Arizona, Alabama and Mississippi are enacting laws to drive immigrants out. And while the courts are striking down some of these laws, the politics of citizenship remain fraught. From the right, you get demagogues shouting about brown-skinned anchor babies and clamoring to deport the undocumented. From the left, you get advocacy for the oppressed but otherwise, when it comes to national civic identity, mainly silence. Conservatives forget that citizenship is more than a thing to withhold from immigrants. Progressives forget it’s more than a set of rights. What’s missing is a reckoning with the true content of our citizenship – with the exceptional nature of our inheritance and the skills needed to sustain it. That absence looms large as our communities become ever more fragmented and our politics more polarized.
More than ever today, we need to re-Americanize Americans. We need a movement – for native-born citizens and newcomers alike; adults as much as children – to reanimate our creed, cultivate character for civic life, and foster a culture of strong citizenship. Here’s how to reinforce those three civic pillars.
Creed. To be Americanized is first to be immersed in the tenets of our democratic faith, expressed in seminal texts, speeches, and stories, from Jefferson’s time to our own. It means being comfortable telling everyone that what separates this nation from others is that it has a moral identity. When Jefferson proclaimed the truth of human equality “self-evident,” he was not recording a fact; he was asserting one. His saying so helped make it so.
It falls on us to keep it so. To reanimate the creed we need to focus in part on revitalizing civic education in our schools. Though public education is largely left to the states, there should be a federal requirement that the basic texts of our nation’s civic creed be taught, in an upward spiral, every year from kindergarten to twelfth grade. After all, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor notes, this was the very point of creating free and compulsory public education: to make citizens.
Character. Civic character is more than industry, perseverance, and other personal virtues. It is character in the collective: team-spiritedness, mutuality, reciprocity, responsibility, empathy, service, cooperation. It is acting as if you believed that society becomes how you behave. Educators and parents need to teach not just the texts but also the context of civic character: how the everyday choices we make in public cascade into an ethic of responsibility – or not.
Culture. Is there a gap between the high ideals of America’s civic religion and our very imperfect union? Certainly. But our country is unique in that it measures its worth by naming, and ever narrowing, that gap. To Americanize means to build a culture of song, story, and scene around this fact. The patriotic pageants of yore didn’t acknowledge the creative tension between ideals and reality. But we can create new pageants to interpret the old rituals and symbols in contemporary ways, not with irony but with urgency.
In the end, a new Americanization movement can’t just be about listing our privileges and immunities, which we catalog in our laws. It also has to be about reinforcing our duties, which we convey in our habits. Of course, Americanization can be abused and co-opted by those with a narrow, even racist idea of America. That’s what happened a century ago during the last push to Americanize immigrants. But the potential for abuse does not absolve us of responsibility for proper use; it only doubles the burden.
That means progressives have to get over their distaste for patriotism and assert that they, too, claim America. After all, our nation is dedicated to a proposition that is inherently progressive. The right has to get over its fear of demographic change and a majority-minority future. After all, the thing most worth conserving in American life is our tradition of adaptation to change.
New citizens do this kind of fearless claiming by swearing an oath. It’s time for us all to become sworn-again Americans.