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what if there’s nothing to assimilate to?

December 26th, 2018 | 2 min read

By Matthew Loftus

Shadi Hamid continues to be indispensable in thinking through issues of identity, belief, and assimilation in America:

In short, Muslims are becoming more integrated, but they are becoming more integrated within only one half of the country, the Democratic one. This might be an improvement (for those who live in majority Democratic areas) but it’s not exactly a solution. There may not be a “solution,” at least not a conclusive one, to any of this, and perhaps this is why Patel is less persuasive when he points to civil religion as a path out of polarization. These more prescriptive parts of the book suffer from the weaknesses of much interfaith discourse: a falling back on aspirational rhetoric of “we”-ness; that we are more similar than we are different; and that the good-heartedness of ordinary Americans will somehow win the day, because it should, and if it should, it must. Patel takes heart in the fact that the Christian tradition was nimble enough to incorporate Jews, becoming “Judeo-Christian” in the process: Why shouldn’t the Judeo-Christian tradition be able to continue a natural, and distinctly American, evolution and broaden itself to include Muslims too?

In answering Patel’s question, the scholar of religion Robert Jones, in one of the book’s three excellent commentaries, reminds us that it might be different this time, in part because Muslims are different. First, Muslims look different, and “the acceptance of religious diversity has always been entangled with perceptions of race.” A large majority of American Muslims are Arab, Asian, or black, so being accepted in the pantheon of whiteness is simply not an option for many. Second, the idea of an American “melting pot” has always been dependent on the dominant group—white Protestants and later White Christians—assimilating new groups on the condition that these groups were willing to conform to the prevailing culture. White Christians were willing to extend these benefits from a position of both privilege and confidence. They couldn’t imagine that their cultural and political dominance would soon be weakened. This ignorance of their own future status allowed for a sort of paternal generosity.

White cultural decline—whether real, perceived, or both—has another important implication: There is no longer a predominant culture for minorities to assimilate into assuming they even wanted to. As Jones explains, “With fewer and fewer goods exclusively reserved to be granted from white Christians in power, religious minority groups are finding that the sacrifices assimilation often involves are no longer worth it.”

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at