the 2000 presidential election campaign, George W. Bush famously
said that the United States needed a "more humble foreign policy."
During the 2004 presidential election campaign Bush's opponent,
John Kerry, argued – in essence – that America needed
to become a more humble empire. Bush (our "make the world safe
for democracy" president and recent convert to nation building)
disagreed with his rival, of course, at every turn. What a difference
four years can make – and, in this instance, definitely not
for the better.
In order to more fully understand America's movement toward and
open admittance of its renewed nationalism, militarism and imperialism,
it is important to look for "first causes." In his 2004
America Lives By, Richard T. Hughes does some "heavy
lifting" in this regard on our behalf.
Hughes, a Distinguished Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University,
argues persuasively that America's recent foreign policy misadventures
did not begin or end with the mendacious activities of the neoconservative
cabal surrounding the Bush administration. These calamitous policies
have far too much support among the American people in general for
us to so easily and totally blame them on such a sorry lot of pseudo-intellectuals
as the neoconservatives. Hughes – like Walt Kelly's cartoon character,
Pogo – has seen the real enemy and "it is us."
Hughes instructs us that the English word myth is derived
from the Greek word mythos, which literally means "story."
Our national myths become, then, the stories that we Americans tell
ourselves about the history, meaning, purpose and destiny of our
country. Although almost all of these stories are accepted with
blind faith (and, largely, in an unconscious manner), some are much
more grounded in reality, history and truth than others.
Perhaps the best example of what Hughes writes about is his description
of the myth of "America as the Chosen Nation." This was
a story that flowed out of the experiences of the first Pilgrim
settlers in Massachusetts. Their endeavors seemed to them to be
much like those of the Jewish people in ancient times who escaped
their oppressor, Pharaoh, miraculously crossed a sea and then established
a new nation in the land of Canaan. The Pilgrims, too, had escaped
an oppressor (the Church of England), had crossed not a sea but
a vast ocean and found their own Promised Land in America.
Hughes describes wonderfully how the myth of America as the Chosen
Nation became central to the story Americans tell themselves about
their country's founding, meaning and purpose. The fundamental reason
this story has won such wide acceptance over so many decades is
that "the Puritans told a focused, compelling and convincing
story that no other immigrant group could match. Yet, it was a story
with which many immigrant groups could identify. In numerous books,
treatises, and sermons, the Puritans told how God led them from
oppression into a promised land. Immigrants from all over Europe – and
from many other parts of the world – found this story immensely compelling
and adopted it as if were their very own." They did so, in
no small part, because the story was their own whether they were
landless Northern Europeans, the starving Irish, persecuted Jews
And – up to this point, at least – Hughes has no problem with the story
of America as a seemingly Chosen Nation. It is when versions of
this myth become absolutized that the author begins to point to
the dangers of taking the story too literally.
For example, at the end of the nineteenth century, politicians appealed
to the myth of the Chosen Nation to justify American invasions of
Cuba and the Philippines. Senator Orville Platt of Connecticut summarized
his beliefs by saying that, "the same force was behind our
army at Santiago and our ships in Manila Bay that was behind the
landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock…we have been chosen to
carry on and to carry forward this great work of uplifting humanity
on earth." Over one hundred years later Madeline Albright would
talk about the need for the world's "one indispensable nation"
to intervene in the former Yugoslavia and George W. Bush would describe
his invasion of Iraq as the penultimate example of the "forward
force of freedom" that only America can bring to the world.
Hughes goes on to discuss four other national stories that Americans
tell themselves: the myths of Nature's Nation, Christian Nation,
Millennial Nation and Innocent Nation. Most of these stories have
potential for good by complementing and sustaining the promise of
America as promulgated in our Declaration of Independence, "that
all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty
and pursuit of happiness." But if these stories are absolutized
in the manner described above regarding the myth of Chosen Nation,
trouble is sure to follow.
The myth of Nature's Nation says that the success of American democracy
and capitalism are the "natural" outcomes of the way the
world was originally created. Absolutizing this story, however,
has too often caused Americans to disdain (or even declare war on)
those who have instituted political economies of types different
than our own.
If Christianity is righteous and America is a Christian Nation,
the United States is by definition a righteous nation. Thus, the
myth of Christian Nation becomes a fairy tale that says whatever
behavior our country engages in on this planet, it must be behaving
righteously because America is the seat of righteousness in the
The belief that the United States could help usher in an age of
freedom that would eventually bless all the people of the world
has been held by Americans since the first successes of the early
national period that began with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.
This belief is at the foundation of the myth of Millennial Nation.
But this myth has always led to misery when America has tried to
coerce by force of arms others to be "free."
The United States as the Innocent Nation is the fifth and most useless
of the myths we use to tell the story of America to ourselves. Hughes
summarizes the situation nicely when he says that this is the only
myth that offers no redeeming qualities whatsoever "since it
is so completely grounded in self-delusion."
One of the author's purposes in writing this important book is to
"further the understanding of the power of religion in American
life." He goes on to note that every one of the myths "reflect
a powerful religious vision" as evidenced by the fact that
they are all tied in one way, shape or form to the experiences of
the Pilgrims in America, the First Great Awakening and the Second
Great Awakening. But you will have to read Hughes' book for yourself
(which is highly recommended) to get that part of this history.
The 2004 presidential election demonstrated once and for all that
these myths still have religious power in America. George W. Bush
is the perfect person – at least in the eyes of fifty-one percent
of Americans that voted in that election – to serve as America's
latest storyteller. This fact makes others of us long for him to
return to listening to grade school children read My Pet Goat.
It is an activity he is much better equipped to handle and so very,
very much less harmful to the rest of us.
Patriotism is love of one's country. Nationalism is a corruption
of this natural affection and replaces it with the worship of the
nation-state as a civil religion. As such, nationalism is a false
faith that represents the chasing after idols. But as the Chinese
say, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step."
Let our initial steps be to understand the "first causes"
of our civil religion and – should we choose to worship at its altar
in any way – to engage in its practices in the most humble manner
W. Tofte [send him mail] is
the manager of the BWIA Private Investment Fund and the author of
Principled and Grow Rich: Your Guide to Investing Successfully in
Both Bull and Bear Markets. He lives in Des Moines, Iowa.