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The town where I live celebrates its Dutch Heritage each spring with a Tulip Festival. I am a big fan of eating ethnic foods, watching folk dances, and even having some contact with carnies (though in small doses). But ethnic festivals can also be tricky. One saying that I hear most often about the Dutch is a version of “you ain’t much if you ain’t Dutch.” While that phrase is typically spoken tongue in cheek, the grain of truth in the phrase points to the elevation or inherent superiority in a particular ethnic group. Is celebrating one heritage the same as glorifying one heritage over others?
Many towns and cities hold ethnic festivals. German tasting festivals, Czech Days, Belgian Days, Cornish festivals, and even native powwows are all ways that various ethnic groups in a particular area both celebrate their ethnic heritage and promote economic growth. Orange City, IA shares its Dutch themed Tulip Festival with Holland, MI and Pella, IA, each area an enclave of Dutch immigrants who came to the United States for economic opportunities. Some also came for religious liberty, as Seceders from the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk (Netherlands Reformed Church) who were alarmed at secularizing trends in the Netherlands. This is the other tricky part about ethnic festivals: what specific era do you choose to emulate and which values should be promoted?
Deciding on a certain set of values from a particular time period is no simple matter. Particularly when it comes to the religious leanings of an ethnic group. Fellow blogger Chuck DeGroat wrote extensively on what it means to be Reformed last week. I would like to underline a few of his points: the Reformed tradition, while varied in confessions, liturgy, polity, and its relationship with the state, is consistent in its emphasis of the sovereignty of the triune God in creation, providence, and redemption, as well as an understanding of God’s word to transform and continually reform God’s people and God’s creation. While this definition may seem simple, most people want to know specifics: who is in and who is out? In the 19th century, conflict among Dutch immigrants revolved around particular issues: Should the church include Freemasons? Should non-psalter hymns be sung? Do we need sermons that are more in line with the Heidelberg Catechism? How should a particular church exercises church discipline and exclude some from the Lord’s Supper? How lax or strict may one be on the doctrine of predestination? In the early 21st century, some folks are quite concerned with the theological error in area Christian institutions and churches but what is the litmus test for these ‘theological errors’ and, more importantly, who gets to decide what is an error and what is growth and change that relates to this continual reforming of God’s people and creation?
Aside from religious identifiers, what other aspects of an ethnic heritage should be emphasized? One of the key issues for any immigrant group is the degree to which they will accommodate to the larger dominant culture. Should Dutch immigrants speak English? Or speak Dutch and preserve their ethnic and cultural heritage? How much should ethnic groups support the role of the state, particularly with regard to religion? Some Dutch immigrants were suspicious of state-sanctioned religion, given their experiences with state-sanctioned religion in their home country. Others liked the “protestant character” of the public schools. Others created their own private Christian schools from grade school through college to avoid the accommodating influence of secular American culture in the latter half of the 19th century. Yes, the 19th century. Not the late 20th century. And yet, most of these issues sound familiar, don’t they?
Historically, Americans struggle to understand immigrants and their role in this country. On the one hand, with the exception of native peoples, all Americans are immigrants. Yet there is a long love-hate relationship with immigrants in the United States that seems to depend on the time and origin of the particular immigrant group. It may be acceptable to joke that “you ain’t much if you ain’t Dutch,” as a white American of Dutch heritage. But would it be acceptable to celebrate – (fill in the blank) – pride/heritage/ethnicity? It seems that we only celebrate certain heritages when it suits us.
For a brief history of Orange City, see Doug Anderson, Tim Schlak, Greta Grond, and Sarah Kaltenbach, Images of America: Orange City, (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014).