I have a Bachelor's in History with a concentration in American History and Culture and enjoy writing about America's fascinating past.
America is a melting pot over various peoples and cultures from all over the world. Some of these people are noticeable, say, in your local grocery store, while others, you couldn’t tell their faith, culture or what part of the world they maybe from or affiliated with. It is this sort of adaptability that, according to Will Herberg, a social philosopher and Jewish theologian, we, as Americans, desire.
Melting Into an Americanized Whole
One's religion does not matter to Americans in the form of how they worship, so long as it does not affect the status quo that Americans have come to know as an identifying factor in American culture.
But ethnic customs, terms, symbols, etc. can conflict with unifying American factors such as civil religion and cause friction between the differing groups of people. It is necessary that the differing groups make adjustments and adapt to the surrounding American environment and become “Americanized." It is important to Americans that people merge in the “melting pot” and become one people. We are to be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." By this I mean, a nation united in its diversity under a sort of civil religion and what it means to be an American, amalgamated by the fact that they have this American commonality, while their private form of worship plays no factor in being American in the general sense.
Most of the nation belongs to a monotheistic religion with similar beliefs that, in many ways, makes it easier for Americanization. Judaism and Catholicism have been able and willing to melt in the pot and Americanize. They have adapted many of the practices and rituals to the American way of life in a variety of areas. Islam, however, has been slow to do this due to many different factors that have blocked its Americanization over the years. That said, much of the action of Americanizing is adapting to Protestant-influenced American civil religion. This civil religion contains American symbols, rituals, foods and other activities that unite us as Americans.
Judaism in the United States began many decades before there was a United States. Throughout their history, they have been singled out for a variety of reasons, including their dress, diet, rituals, etc. In America, however, these elements of their religion were translated into American life and what it took to be successful in America.
The Assimilation of Jews in America
Jews in America, almost from the very beginning, seemed to have a direction planned out. They did whatever to make a living, and this caused them to adapt to their surrounding culture. They found success in peddling, trade, business, and some farming. Through their interaction with other Americans, they began to realize that they needed to conform. They began to shed their traditional clothing and wear the same clothing as the rest of the population. They also changed their days of worship on Saturdays to fit the more prevalent Christian Sunday worship. As more Jews began to live outside their inner city communities, they began to shed the custom of not using their car to travel to temple services on Sundays.
They also realized that to be successful they had to leave the cities and settle in new areas of the country. In the beginning of the country through to the early 1900s, Jews lived in cities, with a majority of them living in New York. Ideas like the Galveston plan, a plan to assist Jewish immigrants to escape the impoverished life of the major cities, showed that many Jews realized the need to spread and acclimate.
People like Mordecai Kaplan, a well-known Rabbi and Jewish educator, believed that Jews lived in “two worlds” (Jewish and American), and it was the Jews that had to adapt to American conditions, not the other way around. Kaplan created a new sect of Judaism called Reconstructionist that called for change with the times and circumstances by a democratic vote. This sort of thinking paved the way for changes like some of the beliefs that excluded woman from certain leadership rights in their religion.
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How Catholics Adapted in America
Catholics have adapted in many of the same ways as Jews. They have a long history in America. Like the Jews, their involvement in America began before there was a United States, further back that the Jews even, during the days of the conquistadors. When settling in the newly established colony of Maryland, they began to be the recipient of discrimination and hatred with the arrival of Protestants to the colony. Over time, the Catholics began to align more so with the Protestants.
In the 1840s, a potato famine brought massive numbers of Irish Catholics to America. These Irish Catholics became very influential in American politics, sports, journalism, and the Catholic Church itself. In the beginning of their arrival, they worked hard, gritty jobs and were discriminated against highly. Eventually, they earned their place in America by fighting in the Civil War, as well as their importance in politics and elections, where they became very significant in office.
Other area that Irish Catholics were influential in was the Americanist movement in the Catholic Church, which was an attempt to become less reliant on the Churches of Europe and be more American. On the other side of the issue were the German conservative Bishops, as well as the leaders of the Polish nationalist movement. These Poles believed that the persistence of a strong Polish identity did not disqualify them as Americans. This situation is a demonstration to the Herberg question. The Poles were adamant about having both a Polish and an American identity. To adapt in America, Americans are not as easy with accepting a sort of duel ethnicity. Adapting and conforming to American culture and civil religion is essential to success in America.
The Difficulties of Islam Assimilation in America
For the religion of Islam, it has been more difficult to Americanize. Muslims first came over as slaves in colonial America and the early United States. Islam never really caught on in America. Many slaves were converted to Christianity, though a good portion practiced Islam in secret, and the religion could not spread much beyond an oppressed people. Descendants of slaves later tried to bring about a variant of Islam without a major proliferation of the religion in the last half of the 19th century and early 20th century. There was an attempt to spread Islam by Alexander Webb, American writer and United States consul to the Philippines, in the 1890s. He attempted to attract the more affluent Americans, in the hopes that their status would propel the religion, with no luck.
Muslims in America remained in very small numbers that wavered up and down until 1965, when the Hart-Celler Immigration Act was passed. Previous to this act, peoples from Islamic nations were not allowed to migrate to the United States in large numbers. The act of 1965 changed that and allowed for more Muslims to enter the country.
Previous to the act, the lack of Islamic peoples in the US did not allow for a strong united group to be able to adapt their religion to the American customs. Previous generations of people that were primarily Christian/Catholic with some spots of Jewish peoples here and there had a much longer history of immigration and much more time to Americanize themselves. They also had the advantage of larger numbers of these people being permitted to enter the United States. There were larger quotas for immigration from these more Christian nations of Europe than those of Islamic heritage.
Since the 1960s, we have seen larger amounts of Muslims entering the United States. This is more reminiscent of the Catholic immigration in the last half of the 19th century and early 20th or the immigration of Jews that came around the same time period. An Islamic foundation in the United States has not yet been established in order to pursue any form of Americanization. The population of Muslims has not fully entered the process that Catholics and Jews have gone through, simply because their history in America is a short one with limited interaction with American society.
Catholics and Jews were able to preserve their religions and form of worship by letting go of some of the ethnic barriers that caused them to not be so easily accepted into the American mainstream. On the other hand, Islam just has begun its journey to be accepted. The struggles of hate, violence, and discrimination were all unfortunate and disgusting hurdles that each religious group has had to overcome to adapt to the American way of life. Islam’s short history has barely begun to lead them in the direction of acceptance but, as future generations come to pass, like the religions before Islam, it shall one day be accepted and Americanized.
- Muslims in America: A Short History by Edward Curtis
- Communion of Immigrants: A History of Catholics in America by James T. Fisher
- A New Promised Land: A History of Jews in America by Hasia R. Diner
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.