I am restless in the Promised Land having just finished reading Jim Cullen's fascinating study of the role of the American Dream in the imagination and popular culture of twentieth-century U.S. Catholics. Part of my restlessness is due to my engagement with the many insightful readings of culture and religion Cullen offers in this book. The remainder of my restlessness is due to many questions Cullen raises in the study but does not answer. Cullen opens and closes Restless in the Promised Land: Catholics and the American Dream with meditations on what it means to be an American and to pursue the American Dream from two of the most significant African Americans of the twentieth-century, W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr.
DuBois and King provide Cullen with the principle ideas he uses to create a frame for his understanding of twentieth-century American Catholics and their pursuits, appropriations, and unique interpretations of the American Dream. Within this frame he explains what the American Dream is and how it came to be. Cullen identifies four primary American Dreams: the dream of freedom, the dream of upward mobility, the dream of homeownership, and the dream of the good life. His explication of each of these dreams is wonderful and convincing, as is his study of how the American Dream came to be. Using F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind, Madonna, and Martin Scorsese and The Last Temptation of Christ as "case studies," Cullen calls our attention to how Catholic creators of culture have both embraced and rejected their Catholicism as they sought the American Dream and added to the complexity of the American Dream. In particular, his interpretation of Madonna and her music videos and Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind seem particularly fresh and fruitful.
These interpretations rest upon his thesis that we cannot see the American Dream apart from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Cullen argues that the idea that a human institution could in fact be improved and even ideal was at the heart of the Reformation. Ultimately, this belief became the foundation for the American Dream in all its varieties. And, equally as engaging and provocative is his discussion of the anti-Catholic origins of the American Dream and the role of the Puritans in crafting this enduring legacy. One of the great strengths of the book is Cullen's ability to deftly handle Puritan, Calvinist, and Antiniomian theologies.
In The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois declared that African Americans, being Black and American, possessed a double consciousness that allowed them to see themselves as others saw them and as they saw themselves. Because these visions were both real and not the same it was then the African Americans' lifelong task to reconcile these visions and to make a place for themselves in a culture and society that relegated them to the extreme margins. It is Cullen's perspective that the same has been true for much of the history of Catholics in the United States. The culture and society's understanding of Catholics was not that of Catholics themselves and Catholics dealt with this by creating their own world, complete with churches, schools, hospitals, and social clubs. They did not try to make America see them as they saw themselves. They were content to build their own world and dream. He cites well-developed Catholic subcultures in major American cities as examples of this. But, in the twentieth-century, Cullen contends that American Catholics began to make a place for themselves and their unique religious and cultural perspectives as they strove for the American Dream. Herein lie two questions that he answers neither clearly nor persuasively: Why the twentieth-century and not before and what really precipitates American Catholics finally staking their claim to the Dream?
From a historical vantage point, Cullen's argument that until the twentieth century Catholics were immersed in their own subculture does not stand. In fact, Catholics participated in shaping American culture and society from the time of the Spanish and Portuguese colonization in the 16th century and their influence continues through to the present. For example, recent works like Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836-1920 well document the role of Catholics in laying the foundation for American education, American hospitals, and American social service agencies. In creating these institutions they made their impression on American culture and values. This is just one example of many. The subculture surely existed and Catholics lived there, but they were also an integral part of the larger culture as well.
As a historian of African American Catholics, I at once found Cullen's use of DuBois and King exciting and troubling. I agree with Cullen that for too long we have failed to see the connections between the experiences of U.S. Catholics and African Americans that could give us a much fuller understanding of what America is all about. But, Cullen also participates maintaining a division between the two experiences. He uses DuBois' and King's ideas to create the frame for his interpretation. But, he does not let their ideas have a substantial role in the body of his work. They remain on the margins. And, Cullen also presents the U.S. Catholic experience as being primarily White and European. Where are African American Catholics in this history? In the earliest days of the United States of America, Catholics of African descent made up nearly twenty percent of the Catholic population here. Neither DuBois nor King was Catholic, but there were African American Catholics who made significant contributions that are not mentioned in any significant way in this study. For example, it would have been interesting to see how he might have interpreted the great Catholic blues singer, Billie Holiday and her music.
This book is part of a larger study Cullen is doing on the meaning and history of the American Dream and Restless in the Promised Land is definitely an important contribution to the field of U.S. Catholic Studies. I look forward to hearing from Jim Cullen again soon.