During 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 book, Myths 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 or whomever.
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 world.
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 possible.
January 18, 2005