Dual Loyalty


    When I was a young girl growing up in the not-so-metropolitan town of Anderson, Indiana, the few Jewish families living in the area were acutely aware of their minority status. One of the most feared accusations Jews faced back then was that of “dual loyalty”—the suspicion that our support for the new state of Israel might be as strong or stronger than our loyalty to America and American values. 

    I hadn’t thought about dual loyalty accusations in a long time, although there were certainly echoes of it in the hostility with which Latino demonstrations over immigration reform were received. Displays of the Mexican flag, especially, seemed to engender resentment from people who proudly characterized themselves in letters to the editor and similar forums as “real Americans.”

    In my experience, Americans have historically tended to be pretty insular, even jingoist, likely to think of themselves as “real Americans” and “Americans First.” So I was really unprepared for the recent Pew Research poll showing that forty-two percent of Americans consider themselves Christian first, and American second. According to Pew, 

          “The 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Poll finds American adults are closely split between those   who see themselves as Christians first (42%) and those who see themselves as Americans first (48%); an additional 7% say they see themselves as both equally. By contrast, only a third of German Christians (33%) and fewer than a quarter of British, French and Spanish Christians self-identify primarily with their religion. In this regard, the views of Americans closely parallel those of French Muslims, 46% of whom think of themselves first in terms of their religion rather than their nationality.”

      Pew doesn’t tell us, of course, what kind of Christian these folks are, so we can take some solace from even more recently released research from Baylor University that debunks the notion that the more devout the Christian, the more conservative the politics. According to Baylor, equal numbers of political liberals and political conservatives are comitted churchgoers.Nevertheless, there is something disquieting about these numbers. My own worry is that the people most likely to respond that they are “Christian first” are also most likely to believe that their theological beliefs should trump America’s constitutional values.

Case in point: Recently, I got a call at the office from an elderly-sounding man who wanted my mailing address. He said he read my columns in the Star, and wanted to send me something. “How nice!” I said—to which he responded, “You may not think so when you get it.” He was right; he sent me a book by a self-professed Christian “psychologist” that explained why homosexuality is an immoral choice, and how gays can “choose” not to be gay. An accompanying note suggested that I share it with my misguided son. It was a good example of someone whose “Christian” values conflict rather sharply with American values of civic equality, not to mention the quintessentially American “live and let live” ethic. 

Don’t get me wrong: just as Christians in Germany who placed religious and moral teachings above the Fatherland were right, Americans absolutely must bring moral precepts—grounded for the most part in religious belief—to questions of officially condoning torture, the conduct of war and the erosion of civil liberties. “My country right or wrong” is wrong. For that matter, many of us who support gay civil rights do so because we believe our religion or morality requires it. But in these situations, most of us would not see our religious or ethical beliefs at odds with American values. Rather, we see our ethical or religious beliefs requiring us to work for an America that lives up to its own constitutional and civic values.

Maybe that’s all the Pew poll signifies. Maybe my own history as a member of a minority religion has made me too sensitive, has caused me to over-react to these numbers. But I can’t shake the feeling that these self-professed “Christian first” folks are really the fundamentalists who have done so much to divide Americans, and set us against each other. I can’t avoid the nagging suspicion that what these folks are saying is “My kind of Christian first.”

I sure hope I’m wrong.