The Myth of America

The best reason for the serious study of history is that virtually everyone uses the past in everyday discourse. But the historical record on which they draw is abundantly littered with myths, half-truths, and folk history; historians can, or should, provide a corrective for this. This remark applies particularly to the history of Christianity and of the Christian church, which represents a familiar component of popular knowledge, part of “what everybody knows.” Whatever the religious beliefs of a given audience, a majority of people, whether in private or public life, feels comfortable referring to aspects of that history, and particularly to great institutions or events, like the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the persecution of witches. Media accounts regularly draw on a standard body of assumptions and beliefs about Christian history, which is seen as a barely relieved saga of intolerance and obscurantism.

Philip Jenkins. The Lost History of Christianity (p. 43).

I absolutely love this quote, in part because I do have some amount of academic training in history, partially because it reminds me I only have some amount of academic training, and mostly because it underscores much of what is wrong in American political discussion. Whether or not we realize it, much of our political framework is built upon our understanding of American history. This understanding of history is woven tightly into each person’s American Mythology. It is important to understand when I say mythology I mean simply a story which helps a person understand the world. An American Mythology is the stories which are constructed into an overarching idea of what America is, what are its ideals, and how we are supposed to act to further the nation. And like it or not, religion, particularly Christianity feeds into this mythology. And as Jenkins says most people without training in the subject have an extremely narrow and cloudy picture of the history of Christianity.

I find that in America there are two basic groups of people, those who overemphasize America’s Christian heritage and those who over-secularize American history. Each of these views grabs on to a few stories or personalities in American history and uses them to construct a picture of America which emphasizes the traits they want to see. But often the individuals never realize they have a distorted picture of history and never confront the reality of their biases (to some degree even scholars do this, but the best scholars are willing to confront their own biases and look past them.)

Christians often cite Plymouth Colony, George Washington, & Patrick Henry as examples of the Christian faith founding America. They also implicitly look to Cotton Mather’s idea that somehow this nation has formed a covenant with God, thus we are a Christian nation fallen away into idolatry like the Israel of old. The problem is, even granted these examples, for every Plymouth there was a Virginia Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony established purely for profit. For every Washington and Henry there was a Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson who were Enlightenment Deists. Jefferson and James Madison were the two men whose ideals most directly shaped our government and neither was a determined Christian. (Admittedly, I know little about Madison’s religious beliefs, but from what I understand he was not active in any church and read, like others of his time and station, many deist works. What I have read form/of him shows little distinctly Christian flavor.)

But the secularists are not altogether right either, when Jefferson penned, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….” he may have thought of an impersonal deist god but many in America read a distinctly Christian God. Thanks in part to the wildness of the continent, wave after wave of religious (and mostly Christian) fervor swept across the country. It must even be admitted that many of the Enlightenment morals which are still so highly prized in this nation are Christian morals (or at least watered down versions).

My study of history has led me to an understanding of America as a paradox. A nation continually looking toward great ideals an constantly falling away. Where a war machine tries to destroy while Christian missionaries try to save. A nation where secular individuals cling to and trumpet religious language in attempts to win over people, while deeply religious people work quietly valuing Christian language too much to waste it in government. A nation called a melting-pot with sub-cultures resistant to melting. I own that I am not free of my own biases and I too have created an American Mythology to help me guide my interaction with this nation. I also admit that now I am trying to shape my understanding of the American Myth in relation to Christian ideals. to do this I ask how the ideals of the nation, as I understand them, reflect Christian ideals. I then ask how is America living out these ideals in public life?

I think practical illustrations would help here. On immigration, I take Jefferson’s words (quoted above) seriously and that is my starting point. I also consider John F. Kennedy’s line that we are “A Nation of Immigrants”, meaning at some point all of my ancestors intentionally came to this land because they caw potential for a better life. I also think the poem New Colossus stands for the American ideal.

Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command… Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

All of this forms my starting point for how we treat immigrants, particularly those who are seeking asylum. Do I think we should eliminate all laws and impose completely free and open borders? No. But it is strange that it costs tens of thousands of dollars to go through the “legal” channels and we say, “give us your poor”. I have come to understand this nation as one which tries to make more room for those who want to throw their lot in with us. I also admit that some of my source material is built from 19th century sources which saw America as a vast frontier with plenty of room. And I recognize that I am not working in a job which might become threatened if immigration is more open. But, I hope it is clear on what grounds I built my logic, what parts of the American Myth I allow to shape my thinking and then I recognize that our ideal is at conflict with our practice.Because I understand what parts of the American story make up my logic, and where other narratives come into tension with my own I can now have a more intelligent discussion about the issue.

Another example is abortion where those same words of Jefferson form my grounding (at least legally). But I also recognize that my opinions are not simply shaped by America, they are shaped by my attempt to live in Jesus’ Kingdom. I say this because I recognize the inconsistency of a slaveholder saying every person has a right to life and the inconsistency did not end with Jefferson, Americans throughout our history have shown a lack of respect for Life. America has historically implicitly qualified the “right to Life”, extending it to some, but not all. So my Christian ideal rubs against this because Jesus’ ideal is an unconditional “right to Life”. There my ideal is founded not on America’s stated or unstated beliefs but on Jesus and his Kingdom. Just like above I take the American ideal as my goal and starting point for conversation, recognizing that in terms of actual history America has fallen short of the ideal in a number of ways. I must remember all of the times we have fallen short and listen to others who want to hold closer to the realism of American life than the ideal we espouse.

There are also issues like civil rights for homosexuals (i.e. civil marriage), here I begin by recognizing that though Christians have always played a large part in the public discourse in American it is not a nation of and for Christians. We have always been accepting of allowing others into our midst. Obviously, we allowed Deists to write our most important founding documents; though there are definitely points at which Jefferson, Madison , and others drew on Christian morals much of our government was modeled on Rome as well.. Understanding these origins allows me to recognize the American government is in no way equivalent to the Church, meaning institutions, like marriage, are intrinsically separate from their Christian counterpart. The marriage license issued by the state in no way corresponds to the Christian sacrament My notion is that since Jefferson and others modeled the government on a Roman model, when it comes to civil marriage I suggest that the government simply adopt the concept of a “household”. This would be a legally composed unit based around one or more adults, with no sexual overtones, comprised for mutual economic and security benefits. This does not violate any Christian conviction since the state is not dealing with the sacred concept of marriage preformed by clergy. It is only when one mistakenly sees the American government as founded solely on Christian principles that one needs to “defend marriage against such threats”. As I said in a previous post, the law is the minimum standard, I can believe there is more to marriage than acknowledged by the American state, but does that mean everyone (even those who do not hold my moral values) should be forced to hold to those same standards? [the previous post is here and this paragraph in no way speaks to the questions of sexuality and marriage being discussed in many Christian denominations, I am not comfortable speaking to those right now.]

As I approach the political sphere I recognize that others have different, and sometimes competing, American Mythologies they highlight different stories. I have friends whose primary narrative is influenced by slavery and Jim Crow, or economic manipulation, or American wars (narratives which I did not bring up here). Each one of these narratives impacts that person’s Mythology and as I come together with them I must seek to understand how these narratives impact their lives. Much of this is done subconsciously, and is automatically influenced by the narrative in my head. I often have knee-jerk reactions to the simplistic Christian America Mythology because I have studied American Religious History; but if I control myself and understand my biases I can have a productive dialogue.

Most people will not have the opportunity to peruse academic study of American history like I’ve had; but this does not mean they are relegated to an inferior status. On the contrary, being humble about one knows and does not know and open honest discussion about motivations is all that is necessary in overcoming many of our political roadblocks.

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