Indian Americans and Identity Politics

We do not have any clear explanation of the nature and rise of American identity politics as yet. But here are a few speculative intuitions:

1. Identity politics seems to be the way in which the dominant culture in America compels other cultural communities to become variants of itself. It sustains a basic model of society which neutralizes groups that challenge the dominant culture by making them into cultural ghettos. As such, these groups can demand recognition of their distinct identity and fight for a just representation in education. But they can do so only within the conceptual limits fixed by the dominant culture. In this way, the other cultural communities are straitjacketed into the basic cultural structure of American society. This basic structure somehow reflects the mechanisms through which Christianity has always transformed the nonwestern cultures into variants of itself. As such, American society and its identity politics are secularized Christianity embodied in a socio-political model.

2. Historically, this can be seen in the process through which American pluralism has come into being. At its beginnings, American society consisted of a variety of Protestant denominations, many of which had fled Europe as persecuted heretics. Both the variety of these Protestant groups and their experience of being persecuted by a dominant Protestant church-state gave rise to a distinct model of society. In everyday life, each group was free to practice its particular variant of Christian worship and proclaim its specific version of Christian doctrine and morality. The groups could even do so with a certain fanaticism and radicalism, as is illustrated by the Quaker, Amish and Mennonite communities. In the sphere of public debate, they could defend their own moral convictions and sacrosanct opinions (one instrument through which they could do so was the natural rights discourse). But when it came to politics, law and the state, these domains ought to be neutral towards all the different Protestant churches. That is, the central authority should be a broadly Protestant state free from any sectarian affiliations. Thus, the basic structure of society consisted of an overlapping secularized Protestant framework, which accommodated and arranged the variety of distinct Protestant sub-churches and their doctrines. From the time of Jefferson onwards, this model established itself as the ideal of the American nation-state.

3. From early on in American history, there were groups who did not fit in well in this overlapping Protestant consensus model: the Irish and Italian Catholics; the Native Americans; the African (ex-)slaves. Accordingly as it gained socio-economic and political power or became a threat of some kind, each of these groups could ask for recognition of its separate cultural identity and demand its own space in the American nation-state. However, the basic structure remained in place and the kind of niche it could give to these different cultural communities was that of a Protestant church. This entailed that the Roman-Catholic Italians and Irish, for instance, had to abjure all belief in the temporal authority of the pope. Their church had to become a voluntary civil organization with the purpose of religious worship. In other words, the Roman-Catholics could truly become part of American society, but to do so they had to cease being genuine Catholics and become a Protestant church with Catholic beliefs. I think that what has happened afterwards with the Jews, the Black movement, the Gay movement, etc. is very similar. They can invoke the strategies of identity politics and the rights discourse in much the same way as the separate Protestant sub-churches could earlier in the sphere of public debate, education, etc. But the basic structure of society–the state, politics, law–is still determined by the overlapping Protestant consensus model. Therefore, the groups who demand recognition of their separate identity are straitjacketed into the cultural constraints of a sub-church. This is the maximal space American society can allow them, without overturning its basic structure.

4. The response of Indians in America is subject to the same model and its mechanisms to conform each cultural community into the niche of a sub-church. The demand for an equal representation between ‘Hinduism’, Christianity, Islam and Judaism (‘all religions ought to be represented equally’) is part of this process of transformation. If one strives for ‘Hinduism’ to be represented in the same way as the Semitic religions, one becomes an accomplice in the straitjacketing of the Indian traditions into the constraints of the overlapping Protestant consensus model.