God unequally bestows gifts to us that are to be used for the common good. The wise can guide others; the well-organized can administer businesses that provide employment; the strong can protect the weak. With such an understanding, equality and a hierarchical social structure are not incompatible, but complement each other.
My three children grew up in a small New England town, much like Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, the setting of the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder, where everyone knows everyone, and where most people are rooted in place for four or five generations. To keep the Stanciu children from growing up with a narrow parochial view of humanity, a remnant of Puritanism, my wife and I decided to take our children every summer to the Big Apple to visit their Aunt Nancy, my wife’s older sister, who turned out to be a wonderful guide to New York City. Under Aunt Nancy’s guidance over four summers, Tanya, Brett Ann, and Nikolai climbed inside the Statue of Liberty, ate cannoli in Little Italy, consumed dim sum in China Town, paid a penny to visit the Met, and gamboled on Frank Lloyd Wright’s circular walkway in the Guggenheim. On their first train ride into the City from Pelham Manor, my children’s wide eyes saw in the Bronx the result of urban warfare — the opposite of the Currier-and-Ives landscape of New Hampshire.
Nancy and her husband, Bob, moved from Washington Square to Pelham manor, because Bob wanted his children to grow up in a setting much like he did in Grosse Point, Michigan, an upper middle-class suburb of Detroit, where many executives of the automobile industry lived. In Bob’s mind, Pelham Manor approximated the rigid, elite world of his youth that he never outgrew.
Bob bought a three-story, brick Tudor house in what was obviously an affluent section of Pelham Manor — I loved how the houses and street names reeked for Americans Old England, the birthplace of Bob’s ancestors two centuries ago.
One morning, Nancy and I were standing in the living room, drinking coffee, and looking out the window, chatting about not much. A middle-aged couple walked by, and I asked Nancy who they were, since I was curious who lived in her neighborhood.
Nancy raised her left arm, as if to brush something repulsive aside, and replied, “They’re not one of us.”
Surprised, and somewhat ungrammatical, I asked, “Who is us?”
“Oh, they are Eastern European.”
“Nancy, you know I am Eastern European.” I did not remind her that I am a Romanian gypsy, a descendant of fortune tellers, draft dodgers, and chicken stealers. But I did listen to her two-minute apology for inadvertently informing me that I was not a true American.
When I returned with my family to lily-white New Hampshire, I began to think about what “not one of us” means. I recalled that John Jay declared in Federalist No. 2 that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion….” Jay considered the citizens of the United States of America as English in ancestry despite the presence of enslaved Blacks, the Indians, dwindling in numbers, and some continental Europeans. The first U.S. census conducted in 1790 revealed that about 80% of the white population was of British ancestry.
Thanks to Aunt Nancy I wondered if I lived in one connected country inhabited by one united people. In grade school, I learned that professing the same religion, Christianity, did not unite all Americans. In 1635, Roger Williams was banished by the Puritan leaders from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, because he was spreading “newe and dangerous opinions.” Under the threat of arrest and shipment to an English prison, Williams fled the Massachusetts Colony and established the Providence Plantation, in present-day Rhode Island, as a refuge of conscience. Two years later, he founded the First Baptist Church in America. My fifth-grade teacher held up William Penn, a Quaker and the founder of Pennsylvania, in 1681, as a model of religious tolerance. Through advertising, he made public in Europe that Quakers and other religious dissidents could live safely in the Province of Pennsylvania. I was taught that with the founding of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania freedom of religion was firmly established in America. Years later, I learned otherwise.
The real issue for the founders of the Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not the splintering of Protestantism into different denominations, but the Catholic Church. The Puritan leaders “were deeply imbued with a hatred of everything Catholic” and desired to “keep absolute control of the government” by close inspection of immigration, so that “no dissenting elements might creep in.” To keep out any suspected Catholics, laws “carefully regulated the admission of strangers to the various communities.” In 1647, a law was passed that prohibited Jesuits and other ecclesiastics ordained by the authority of the Pope or the See of Rome from entering the Massachusetts Colony.
In 1688, Goody Glover, “one of the wild Irish,” was executed as witch. Cotton Mather said, “She profest herself a Roman Catholick, and could recite her Pater-noster in Latin very readily.” In 1691, a new Massachusetts charter was issued, which provided toleration of all Christians, except Catholics. The early law against Catholic clergy was reaffirmed in 1700: “No Jesuit or Priest to abide in the Jurisdiction…. Whatever Priest residing there, did not report before November 1700, he was to be imprisoned for Life, and to die if he broke Prison…. If a Priest is driven on the Coast, he must go to one of the Council, observe his Orders, and depart as soon as possible.”
America was founded by Protestants; in 1790, 98% of the white population was Protestant. New England was dominated by the Puritans, the Middle Atlantic by the Quakers, the Coastal South by southern English Cavaliers, and the Appalachian hinterland by Anglo-Scottish Presbyterians. These denominations shared a hatred of the Roman Catholic Church, called the Whore of Babylon by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox. The Westminster Confession of Faith, drawn up in 1646, as part of the confession of the Church of England, stated that the Pope was the Antichrist and that the Roman Catholic Mass was a form of idolatry. For Protestants, the Roman Catholic Church was the profoundly other, with an incomprehensible Latin Mass, a clergy dressed in strange vestments, and a hierarchy whose apex was the Pope, who lived in a foreign land.
The enslaved blacks and the indigenous peoples were profoundly other, too. Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, claimed that “in memory they [the blacks] are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” In contrast, Jefferson had nothing but praise for the Indians: “They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated.”
Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the Englishman in America “being obstinately attached to the opinions, habits, and slightest customs of his fathers, has remained amid the solitudes of America just the same as he was in the towns of Europe; he therefore has not wished for any contact with the savages he scorns and has been careful not to mix his blood with that of the barbarians.” John Adams in letter told Jefferson that “I would rather be the poorest man in France or England, with sound health of body and mind, than the proudest king, sachem, or warrior of any tribe of savages in America.”
On July 4, 1776, the very day the thirteen states declared independence from Great Britain, the Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to design a Great Seal for the new nation. Jefferson proposed for the front of the seal “The Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by day, and a Pillar of Fire by night,” and on the reverse “Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon Chiefs, from whom We claim the Honour of being descended and whose Political Principles and Form of Government We have assumed.”Although Jefferson’s design was not adopted, it captured the two essential elements of colonial America: The new chosen people, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, were given by God a messianic destiny to bring democratic government to humankind.
The next two great waves of immigration brought into question what “one of us” means. Because of the potato famine (1845-1849) in Ireland, over one million Irish fled their homeland to escape poverty and death, substantially increasing the Catholic population in America. In the 1850s, Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes, some driven by failed revolutions in continental Europe, settled the Midwest, swelling non-Britons. (See the illustration, Norwegian settlers in 1898 North Dakota in front of their sod hut.)
After 1870, 25 million Europeans — mainly Italians, Greeks, Poles, Ukrainians, and Hungarians — flooded into America. In this third wave of immigration to the United States, Southern and Eastern Europeans flocked to cities; in most urbans centers, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Jews overwhelmed in numbers the Anglo-Saxon Protestants. (See the illustration, Mulberry Street, along which Manhattan’s Little Italy is centered, circa 1900.)
The Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Italians, Greeks, Poles, Ukrainians, and Hungarians who emigrated to America seemingly had nothing in common with the original Anglo-Saxon colonists or between themselves, but surprisingly what bound all inhabitants of America together were three common values — materialism, equality, and individualism.
Except for an exceeding small number of individuals, the 37 million immigrants to America from 1850 to 1929 did not seek religious freedom or the absence of political oppression to write poetry. These immigrants, like my parents, Romanian gypsies, born in a Transylvanian village and raised in thatched-roofed houses with dirt floors, sought economic well-being, and in this regard were not different from the colonists described by Tocqueville. “The wonders of inanimate nature leave them [the colonists] cold, and, one may almost say, they do not see the marvelous forests surrounding them until they begin to fall beneath the ax. What they see is something different. The American people see themselves marching through wildernesses, drying up marshes, diverting rivers, peopling the wilds, and subduing nature.” The New World was seen as a source of unlimited wealth; a view that persisted for at least a century, when Europeans, Latin Americans, and Asians told themselves that “in America, the streets are paved with gold.”
The immigrants left behind in the Old World a landed gentry, an established church, and a class based on birth. My parents, living in Michigan, were no longer oppressed by the lord of the manor, a village priest, or an educated magistrate. America was the land of opportunity, and just like for the colonists, the Promised Land “opened a thousand new roads to fortune and gave any obscure adventurer the chance of wealth and power.” Tocqueville observed that what makes America unique in human history is the equality of conditions; immigrants through hard work could become wealthy, and their children could become doctors, lawyers, and professors.
Individualism was an inherent part of establishing a new life in America. Tocqueville, while traveling through the dense woods in Michigan, in 1831, came across a pioneer and his family, making the “first step toward civilization in the wilds.” The pioneer and his family formed a “little world” of their own, an “ark of civilization lost in a sea of leaves. A hundred paces away the everlasting forest spread its shade, and solitude began again.” The pioneer had left behind in Old Europe parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, everyone to impede his freedom and independence.
Both my parents came from the same village in Romania, although they did not know each other in the Old Country, since my father was twelve years older than my mother. I had hundreds of cousins, but no uncles and aunts who had children. It took me a while to figure this out. Romanians call all persons from the same village “cousins,” whether or not they are blood relatives.
When my parents were born in Romania, peasant life had not changed much in five hundred years; the family was the basic unit of the village. Every change in the structure of one family affected the whole community; as a result, the entire village had an interest in a new marriage. “While each home was expected to be the source of its own discipline, the community stood ready with sanctions of its own to make sure that children were obedient, that parents were good, and that relatives were helpful to each other,” according to historian Oscar Handlin.
Romanian peasants worked for the family, performing daily tasks with the welfare of others in mind. Labor and actions were measured by human relations. A promiscuous daughter dishonored the family. A good housewife was praised for the health and weight of her children, not the quality of her cooking. A talented builder was esteemed for the number of people he pleased through his work, not for beautiful houses he constructed.
In the New World, everything changed. My father, as a boy, stood before his father in fear and with respect for him as the source of all authority. My father was more of a stranger in the modern world than I was and could not mentor me about the adult life that faced me in the land of opportunity. When I was a teenager, my father often consulted me about certain aspects of American life that he found bewildering. It was impossible for my parents to duplicate in America the rural Romanian family, and they knew it.
In the New World, economics, law, and education rest upon the autonomous individual, not the family. The social and economic functions of the family are virtually nonexistent. Outside the American house, the family ceases to exist. The moment a person steps through the front door and into the street he becomes an autonomous individual. Only in rare cases does the family name count for anything in the public arena. At school or at work, a person is treated by how he or she appears or behaves, not according to what surname he or she carries.
From the vantage point of the peasant past of my parents, the family in America did not exist, despite the superficial sermons and political platitudes extolling the family they heard. Once a social group loses its function, it either disappears or becomes something else. The American family is a new beast. In this new family, the primary loyalty is to self. Mention family loyalty to Americans, and they will think you are talking about personal loyalty to a brother or a sister. Americans cannot imagine being loyal to a family, since the family as a unit has no reason for its existence, other than biology.
In a comparative cultures tutorial I co-tutored recently, several of the young adult students likened their home to a boarding house with two or rarely three generations weakly tied together. One young woman claimed that what is called the nuclear family often seems more akin to a collection of astronauts in spacesuits, adrift in a vacuum, tethered to a visible, untouchable mother ship. Each person is alone, shut up in the solitude of his or her own heart.
All immigrants to America from 1850 to 1929 left behind an old life. Within one or two generations, a rootedness in place, family history and mores, language, and a tradition that seemed to go back to when time began, all vanished. I understand Romanian as well as English, but my attempts to speak it are laughable. My children know maybe twenty Romanian words. I know a fair amount about Romanian tradition and less about my family history; my children know essentially nothing. Like most Americans, we have no rootedness in place. My son and I have talked about how we could live on the road forever, camping out in the Sangre de Cristos, rock climbing in Utah, bunking in at the cabin in Colorado for a week or two, and then moving on again.
The immigrants to America were divided about the nationalism they encountered. Many sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” heads bared, and pledged allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, hand over heart, and willingly served their new nation in the Great Wars. Others, their hearts not stirred by United States Marines anthem “Semper Fidelis” were not quick to die for a new idol.
Nevertheless, all immigrants to America pursued prosperity, believing that economic well-being equals happiness, embraced equality, and lived individualism. Yes, Aunt Nancy your Eastern European neighbors are “one of us,” as I am.
After four summer trips to Pelham Manor, I accepted the hopelessness of convincing Aunt Nancy that we Eastern Europeans are also Americans. She stubbornly maintained that the only real Americans were Episcopalians or Presbyterians with English ancestry and Lutherans with German lineage before World War I. Aunt Nancy’s father and paternal grandfather were both Lutheran pastors; the grandfather had immigrated from Germany in 1890. If Aunt Nancy were alive during the 2016 US presidential election, she undoubtedly would have applauded building a wall to keep Mexicans out. I can hear her lamenting, “The whole trouble with this country are the immigrants. They come here to live off welfare and social security.” In my imaginary conversation with her, I do not refer to the strict rules to collect social security, such as contributing through taxes to the social security fund for forty quarters, because in the America of 2016 personal opinion and emotional outrage made facts irrelevant. Aunt Nancy would have enthusiastically voted to Make American White Again.
After lengthy discussions with Aunt Nancy, I learned that for her the “W” in WASP meant wealthy and that her major desire in life was to move up the social ladder, to join the elite in some way. She saw the buying, owning, and consuming of material goods as a way to improve her social status, and scoured Vanity Fair and Town and Country to learn what the beautiful people wear and think. She believed in her fantasies that she would be one of them, if she acquired the right opinions, tastes, and labels.
Aunt Nancy did have two elements of America right on the mark: social status is determined by wealth and at least half of the population comprised outsiders, of those “not one of us.” That money is the universal measure of everything in America probably will never change, but who was an outsider changed dramatically in the Sixties.
I suspect that Aunt Nancy would have been shocked to learn that we outsiders never wanted to join her white middle class with its Velveeta cheese, Wonder Bread, and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup; no, we did not desire to trade Gypsy music for Lawrence Welk or to replace our moaning from pain or dancing from joy with a stiff upper lip. Unlike the deadness of the dominant ethnic group, we immigrants from Eastern Europe, we former peasants, drank too much, ate too much, laughed too much, sang too much, and danced too much—we did everything to excess; life surged up from the earth through the soles of our feet. But, by God, we were alive.
What did in the white middle class was its youth. Some questioned middle-class values from reading books. Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye, praises the innocence of childhood and feels revulsion for the phoniness of the adult world, where keeping up appearances is central. The novel Revolutionary Road, is an “indictment of American life in the 1950s,” as capsulized by its author Richard Yates. The principal characters in the book, Frank and April Wheeler, dream of leaving the “hopeless emptiness” of the Connecticut suburbs for Paris, but fail to become expatriates because of a “lust for conformity.” Underneath all their dreams is a “blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.” The title of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road resonates with the desire buried deep in every American heart—to be free, to throw off all social constraints. Kerouac held up poetry, jazz, and drugs as a way of escaping the narrowness of middle-class America.
Nothing was more boring to white youths in 1960 than the music of their parents, sentimental ballads about romantic love performed by Frankie Laine, Patti Page, and the Dorsey Brothers. Every creative artist in the 1950s rebelled against the “hopeless emptiness” of the white middle class committed to a comfortable life free from economic anxiety and emotional distress, “clinging to safety and security at any price,” refusing to hear any challenge to militarism, racism, or consumerism. The suffering and pain of the Blacks supplied the ground for a more truthful popular music for whites. The Rolling Stones would not have existed without Robert Johnson, the great Mississippi Delta blues musician. Bob Dylan transformed the music of Woody Guthrie about the displaced Okies to angry songs about injustices in the 1960s. The Beatles openly acknowledged their debt to Chuck Berry: “He was a Magician… we learnt so many things from him.”
The civil rights movement made visible the hidden ugliness of America. The Selma to Montgomery March, with police brutally clubbing innocent blacks, seen in every white living room through television news, caused even President Johnson, never an advocate for the Black poor, to conclude one of his addresses to the nation by saying, “We shall overcome.” Martin Luther King, Jr., arguably the greatest American of the twentieth century, demonstrated through his orations, moral courage, and unyielding commitment to nonviolence the falsehood of Jefferson’s contention that blacks are not fully human.
The civil rights movement exposed that the dominant ethic group also oppressed women, gays and lesbians, Native Americans, Mexican farm workers, and the poor whites in Appalachia. Everyone who was “not one of us” demanded the equality of conditions that gave access to the Promised Land. Nothing could be more American and thus more powerful than to invoke equality, and such a strategy, on the whole, was successful. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, blacks can travel across the country by car and stay at Holiday Inns without harassment, women outnumber men in medical colleges, laws schools, and graduate studies, a 2015 US Supreme Court ruling made same sex marriages legal in all states; however, for many Native Americans and poor whites, poverty has increased over the last thirty years.
The oddest outcome of the quest for civil rights in America is members of the once dominant ethnic group—White Anglo-Saxon Protestants—now see themselves as outsiders. In my travels throughout the Midwest and the South during the 2016 presidential campaigns, I saw numerous yard signs telling immigrants, in one way or another, that “English is our language; no exceptions; learn it or leave.” (See illustration.) When Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, in 1979, his constituents were a minority even then. By 2017, the Moral Majority had shrunk even further. Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, summarized the state of the once dominant ethnic group in the title of his essay “Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn to Live as Exiles in Our Own Country.”
Mr. Dreher and the remnant of the WASPs believe that they own America and that their country was hijacked by immigrants, atheists, and perverts. Their entrenched opinion prevents them from seeing that America was never defined by British ancestry, slave ownership, and Protestantism. America, as Tocqueville pointed out in 1835, was defined by the equality of conditions. Under the banner of equality, the former outsiders seized “our own country;” equality destroyed the claimed legitimacy of the dominant ethnic group.
Eerily, Tocqueville’s worst fear about what awaited American life in the future seems fulfilled. He predicted that a blind commitment to equality would result in an America where “an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in himself and for himself….”
With no common narrative about ancestry and religion, the country has disintegrated into a collection of isolated individuals and families. The 2000 U.S. census uncovered that one out of every four households consisted of only one person; Aunt Nancy and my wife’s other sister, Suzanne, were two of those households.
If Aunt Nancy were alive today, I would have to tell her that “us” no longer exists and that a new understanding of equality is needed, one that binds people together instead of separating them into individual units.
Going back to the very beginning, to Genesis, we discover the root of equality in the Western world: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Such equality would have been absurd to ancient Greek philosophers. Aristotle, for instance, claimed that certain men were natural slaves and that “the relation of male to female is that naturally of the superior to the inferior—of the ruling to the ruled.” The freeman should rule over his wife and slaves, because the “slave is entirely without the faculty of deliberation; the female indeed possesses it, but in a form which remains inconclusive.”
In Christian terms, equality is expressed as “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Each person is worthy of unconditional love because Christ lives in him or her.
God—nature if you like—distributes unequally intelligence, bodily strength, and physical beauty. But no person can develop his or her talents without the help of others, both living and dead. In a good society, the potential hidden with every person is actualized, for everyone profits from a Pablo Picasso, a Robert Frost, and a Jonas Salk.
The Christian understanding of inequality is that God unequally bestows gifts that are to be used for the common good; everyone receives at least one talent, so he or she can contribute to the commonweal. The wise can guide others; the intelligent can uncover the secrets hidden in nature; the well-organized can administer businesses that provide employment; the strong can protect the weak. With such an understanding, equality and a hierarchical social structure are not incompatible, but complement each other. The true nature of the human being and the good society makes every person “one of us.”
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 “Roger Williams Banished, October 9, 1635,” Mass Humanities.
 William H. J. Kennedy, “Catholics in Massachusetts before 1750,” The Catholic Historical Review, 17, No. 1 (April 1931): 11.
 Cotton Mather, quoted by Kennedy, p. 16.
 Kennedy, p. 24.
 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966 [1835, 1840]), Footnote 17, p. 330.
 John Adams, Letter to Thomas Jefferson, 1812, in John Adams: Writings from the New Nation, 1784-1826, ed. Gordon S. Wood (New York: Library of America, 2016), p. 536.
 Wikipedia Commons, “A Milton, North Dakota, photographer took this picture of John and Marget Bakken and their two children, Tilda and Eddie, in front of their sod house in Milton in 1898. John Bakken was the son of Norwegian immigrants, who homesteaded and built a sod house in Milton in 1896. This sod house was used as the basis for the design of the Homestead Act Commemorative Stamp in 1962.”
 Wikipedia Commons, United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g04637.
 Tocqueville, p. 485.
 Ibid., p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 9.
 Ibid., Appendix U, pp. 731-733.
 Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People, 2nd edition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), p. 204.
 For a discussion of these group-centered values in peasant life, see Mariella Doumanis, Mothering in Greece: from Collectivism to Individualism (London and New York: Academic Press, 1983), p. 57.
 Richard Yates, “An Interview with Richard Yates,” Geoffrey Clark and DeWitt Henry, Ploughshares 115 (Fall 2011).
 Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (New York: Vintage 2000 ), p. 200.
 Yates, Interview.
 Paul McCartney, https://www.paulmccartney.com/news-blogs/news/paul-on-chuck-berry.
 Rod Dreher, “Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn To Live as Exiles in Our Own Country,” Time (June 26, 2015).
 Tocqueville, pp. 691–692. Italics added.
 Genesis 1:27. RSV.
 Aristotle, Politics, in Ernest Barker, The Politics of Aristotle (Oxford, 1946), p. 13, Bk. I, Ch. 5, 1054b.
 Ibid., p. 35, Bk. I, Ch. 13, 1260a.
 Galatians 3:28
 See Galatians 2:20.
 See Romans 12:6-8.
The featured image is an illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1887 July 2, pp. 324-325. The image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division. It is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.