In this book, Robert Wuthnow, Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Sociology and Director of Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion, probes the extent to which time honored mythic narratives of America as the land of opportunity and diversity that is built by immigrants and enriched by their many talents and contributions measure up in real life. He is especially interested in uncovering the reasons for the disconnect between the traditional American narratives with the reality that falls painfully short of the idealism expressed in those narratives. In search of answers to these questions, Wuthnow reached out to current first and second generation immigrants to the United States from all parts of the world, asking them for their views on the American dream, success, ethnic and individual identity, religion, as well as how they saw themselves in the American society. What he discovered from the interviews is instructive to say the least.
On the one hand, Americans have grown more tolerant and accepting of diversity within the contemporary American society, as the pages of this book attest. On the other hand, Wuthnow discovers how superficial this pluralism and diversity can be, marked by an increasing gap between perception and reality in areas such as racial discrimination and economic disparities. He argues that a complacent and uncritical acceptance of rags-to-riches narratives of self-made individuals blind many Americans to the fact that many American immigrants succeed because of extraneous social factors such as privileged upbringing, good education and extensive networking. He concludes that these social factors are at least as important, if not more than the hard work and individual efforts that are often lauded in decontextualized traditional narratives.
At the same time, Wuthnow is disturbed by an increasing privatism in matters of faith and religion. He argues that the very pluralism and diversity that defines the unique character American society has, in a twist of irony, led to increasing “spiritual privatism.” While he is not the first to make this claim, Wuthnow makes a cogent argument supported by sociological data. He is concerned that the increasing relegation of religion to the realm of the private or personal would lead to a loss of the prophetic dimension of religion as bearer of universal values of right and wrong, of truth and ideals that shape society. He believes that this privatization of religion would lead to the inability of religion to define and shape the moral character of American democracy.
To overcome these obstacles, Wuthnow makes an impassionate plea for “reflexive democracy.” Here, he is calling for Americans to think critically, whether individually or collectively, as well as challenge each other and society at large, about the values that undergird the American society. Americans need to overcome the shortsightedness of the political cycle and the increasing pervasiveness of powerful political and economic interests to think deeply about the issues confronting the American society, transcending the limitations of mythic narratives.
This book is a welcome respite from the vitriolic but often shallow rhetoric that both sides of the immigration debate in the United States often hurl at each other in the ongoing national discussion about immigration and its social, cultural, economic, and political implications. Scholars and students would find a treasure throve of information in the extensive footnotes, bibliography, and comprehensive index. The casual reader would find an elegantly written book that is both compelling and thought-provoking.