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I have a deep love for Avalon, Barry Levinson’s autobiographical movie from 1990. According to Wikipedia (which means it must be true), Avalon cost $20 million to make and earned $15.7 million. That’s not how you win friends and influence people in Hollywood. Avalon’s revenue pales compared to other Levinson hits such as Rainman, Good Morning, Vietnam, and The Natural. But it’s a beautiful movie.
Avalon tells the story, beginning in 1914 and going to about 1960, of the Americanization of a Jewish family who immigrated from Poland. The film keeps returning to Thanksgiving, a particularly American holiday. In the early years, the family cobbled together flat surfaces to make a table that stretches from the living room through the dining room and into a bathroom. Everyone has a seat at the table, and Thanksgiving dinner is a loud, raucous, argumentative occasion.
At the end of the movie, one of the children from that long table is now an adult, celebrating Thanksgiving with his wife and son. They sit alone, each with a TV dinner on a TV tray, watching their black and white set.
Is this what it means to be American? Is this the fulfillment of the immigrant’s dream?
It’s been years since I’ve seen Avalon, but one other detail sticks with me. The family’s name was Krichinsky. When the son of the original immigrant comes of age and goes into business, he changes his last name to Kaye.
Is that the behavior of a true American?
I’ve been asking myself those sorts of questions of late because I’ve been reading Jim Bratt’s Dutch Calvinism in Modern America. I’m not Dutch, but I’ve lived in West Michigan for over 40 years (except for one year in, of all places, the Netherlands). I figured it was time to learn something about this subculture, although when I saw Jim a few weeks ago and told him I’d bought the book he seemed stunned. It was published in 1984, after all. But Jim can relax, the book holds up.
As Reformed Journal readers know, Jim is a great storyteller. As you also know, he can’t resist inserting a comment here and there, which makes reading history according to Bratt sparkle: who expects wit from a historian? For example, there’s a sentences describing the Dutch Calvinists that begins, “From their position of a claimed monopoly on intelligence . . . “
Bratt’s argument is that as much as the Dutch felt like they would make an impact on America, it was America that shaped them. A great turning point in the Americanization of the community came with World War I. Many Dutch immigrants participated in fervent patriotic displays to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States (even though they were not sold on America’s partner, Great Britain, an objectionable country because of the Boer War). There was good reason to fly the American flag: as the members of the Christian Reformed Church in Peoria, Iowa, learned, their fellow citizens couldn’t distinguish between “Dutch” and “Deutsch,” and both the church building and Christian school were burned.
Americanization is a Pandora’s Box: once opened, it doesn’t close. By the 1930s and ‘40s, the primary concerns in the Dutch Calvinist world mirrored those of American Fundamentalism. The enemies were “women’s dress, popular songs, Freudian psychology, dancing, birth control (and the associated evil of apartment living), divorce, and the movies.” Bratt then gives an analysis of these preoccupations that has stuck with me: “To talk only about the family and chastity, the Sabbath and dirty movies in the face of Depression, war, and concentration camps was to forfeit too valuable a part of the Calvinist tradition, not to mention of common humanity.”
I can’t help but imagine how to write that sentence today: “To talk only about the 1619 Project, pronouns, and the definition of chastity in the face of the climate crisis is to forfeit too valuable a part of the Calvinist tradition, not to mention of common humanity.” Too many of us can’t be bothered to care about the viability of the planet. We’re too busy building walls or white-washing history.
My wife keeps saying that if a certain orange hued someone is re-elected; we’re moving out of the country. Usually it’s Canada, but today it was Ireland. I love both countries, but my sober response to her today was, “If we moved to Ireland, we’d still be Americans.” We are American to the core. We learned that lesson in the one year of the last 40 that we lived away from here, our year in the Netherlands. When locals asked me if I voted for Bush or Obama, I had an unquenchable longing for a home that actually does not exist.
And so, I ask myself, what does it really mean to be an American?
I googled that question and words like “liberty,” “freedom,” and “individualism” came up.
Free to change your name from Krichinsky to Kaye, because it will be better for business.
Free to own an AR-15 or protest gun ownership.
Free to have the most American job I’ve ever seen: shopping for other people.
One site said being an American means one is free to do whatever one wants whenever one wants. I don’t consider that sort of freedom a Christian value. I don’t think it was what Paul had in mind when he told the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ set you free.”
In the 1950s, the Dutch immigrant community faced a dilemma. Their preachers had long spoken of the evils of America: according to Bratt these included “sloth, greed, carelessness, fornication, and Sabbath-breaking.” But then came the Red Scare of the 1950s: Communism was perceived as a genuine threat and, since God could not possibly favor Communism, God must be on the side of America. As Bratt writes, “If Communism despised religion, free enterprise, democracy, the bourgeois ethic, American might, wealth, and expansion, then these must automatically be the Christian’s preference, even his passion.”
That pretty much sums up where we are today. For some, the relationship between faith and American citizenship is quite simple: there’s no tension at all. To be an American, at its core, is to be Christian. For others, like the Jewish Krichinsky family, the relationship is endlessly complicated and tricky. How do we handle the many contradictions of America, not the least of which is this is a country founded on freedom where slavery was legal?
One last note: I apologize to our Canadian readers for writing something so focused on the United States. Please let me know how these tensions play out in Canada. Apparently, I might have to move there.