June 2008 – The political battle in the U.S. over immigration has intensified in recent years, especially in the wake of 9/11. Much of the controversy revolves around “diversity” and its implications for sundry peoples living in close proximity to one another.
“It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: Our differences make us stronger,” said Michael Jonas, editor of the Boston think-tank magazine CommonWealth.
After all, the motto found on the Great Seal of the United States is the Latin phrase E Pluribus Unum – “Out of Many, One.”
But what if instead of diversity making us stronger, it actually tears apart the public fabric so as to weaken our nation? Even more importantly, if America will remain a diverse culture, what can truly make us one nation?
Withdrawing from the community
It has been roughly one year since the growing confluence of academics, pundits, authors and other diversity-mongers got a rude shock: One of their own folks published research that upset the politically correct apple cart.
That person was Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist who was himself an advocate of the benefits of diversity. His arresting thesis, E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century, was published in 2007 in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies. In it Putnam said that diversity tends to turn people into “paranoid, television-watching introverts.”
That bit of tongue-in-cheek characterization had real research behind it. “Diversity does not produce ‘bad race relations’ or ethnically-defined group hostility, our findings suggest.” he said. “Rather, inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.” (Emphasis in original.)
What’s counterintuitive in Putnam’s results is that in diverse cultural settings, not only do individuals begin to mistrust those who are different, they also begin to mistrust those who are like themselves.
This means the overall dissolution of trust is deeper and more widespread than one might have predicted. Putnam said his research suggested that “in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tended to ‘hunker down.’”
Putnam makes clear in E Pluribus Unum that he doesn’t believe diversity is always a bad thing. In fact, he said that in the long run it’s usually beneficial.
But in the short run, he said, “immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital.”
Diversity is our future
Putnam’s research also revealed something else: Diversity is here to stay, and it isn’t simply an approach to how we think about other people. It is the incontrovertible wave of our demographic future.
Economic pressures, more than anything, will continue to push people from poorer nations to emigrate to wealthier countries. Most of those developed nations have aging populations that need younger workers in order for their governments to meet burgeoning health and pension obligations.
Whatever the reasons, Putnam insisted, immigration will be a fact – making diversity a challenge we can’t avoid. “The most certain prediction that we can make about almost any modern society is that it will be more diverse a generation from now than it is today,” he said.
So how will America handle increased diversity in the future? Interestingly, Putnam pointed to churches as a place where he and his team of researchers actually found a true ethic of E Pluribus Unum at work. After noting the historically segregated nature of most American churches, he said, “In many large evangelical congregations, the participants constituted the largest thoroughly integrated gatherings we have ever witnessed.”
In April, Dr. Alveda King, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said Christians in America can celebrate ethnic differences while also advancing the cause of reconciliation among the races.
Pointing to the Book of Acts, King noted that Chapter 17 “says of one family, of one man, God made all the nations. [We should] see ourselves as nations, not as races; and then we don’t have anything to fight about because we are the human race.”
Modeling an integrated yet diverse community might not be an easy assignment for the church, but it may very well be that Christianity is the only real hope for our diverse nation meshing in some meaningful way.