Cultures are founded upon myths, narratives which depict the shared self-perceptions and values of a people. They are the very fabric of a civilization., a unifying influence, and are essential to a nation like the United States – one consisting of millions of immigrants who have relocated to these shores from myriad cultures on all continents.
As necessary as myths are to the formation of a culture, there is no guarantee that the myth is in fact beneficial to the culture in every respect. Its unifying power aside, mythic narratives are as capable of being destructive as they are being beneficial. Such is the case with the notion of American exceptionalism.
The birth of the myth of exceptionalism can be found aboard the Arbella, the British ship chartered to bring a group of Puritan dissenters to the coastal village of Boston in 1630. In his final pep talk to his people before disembarking in Boston harbor, Puritan leader John Winthrop claimed for his own the Old Testament mythology of “the chosen people”. The voyagers, he said, were not just any people. Like the Israelites before them, they were special – chosen by God, in this instance, to establish His province here in the New World:
“We shall find that the God of Israel is among us … He shall make us a
praise and glory … for we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a
Hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”
The narrative is clear. America is different. America has been chosen by God to set an example for the rest of the world to emulate. It is an awesome responsibility if it is true. The problem is that saying it does not make it so. The clergy who led the early theocracy in New England made sure that the narrative was not challenged and that the people saw their role in its proper light. Those who disagreed were quickly shown the door.
The benefits of this particular myth are fairly obvious. Religious moral virtue (as opposed to secular moral virtue) is to be the backbone of the society – a society of laws handed down by an authoritarian God. Industriousness, ingenuity, self-discipline, respect for authority, love of family, community-centeredness all assured the ultimate survival and success of the colony – a success which the people would come to attribute to Divine Providence rather than to themselves as the natural product of their own efforts.
Over the centuries, the narrative has depicted the history of a nation whose unparalleled material success, resilient and functional government, and international political clout are thought to be divinely inspired – the Old Testament’s promised land of milk and honey in final fruition. God looks over the United States, His very own creation, and is well pleased. Only Divine Providence, the story goes, could account for such an extraordinary civilization. One can’t help remembering the words of Joe Louis, heavyweight champion of the world and grandson of slaves, who ignored the poverty and abhorrent injustice his family had suffered when he enlisted in the U.S. Army during WWII. In assessing the nation’s chances of defeating the Third Reich, he made millions of white Americans proud when he proclaimed confidently, “We are going to win because we are on God’s side.” Like millions of others in their own way, he made no effort to explain the providential God’s necessary complicity in slavery and other American moral failures. Nor did he consider that God might favor other Christian-dominated countries. Axis powers Germany and Italy, for instance. Once a myth becomes rooted, it is universally assumed within the society. Reflection, it seems, is no longer necessary. This a huge mistake and we continue to repeat it in our current affairs.
The presumption of the myth that Americans are God’s chosen people has accounted for the moral acceptance of countless injustices: Manifest Destiny, the violent and legislated near annihilation of Native American tribes, slavery, women’s rights, ubiquitous imperialism, and the continuous military incursions into sovereign nations who, we believe, can benefit from our forms of democracy, capitalism, consumerism, law, and, yes, religion. (If the reader questions the link between the American brand of Christianity and the U.S.military dominance of the world, look into the degree of Christian proselytizing going on at the Air Force, Naval, and MilitaryAcademies.)
That we are “a Christian nation” is a widely accepted fact across broad swaths of the nation. Such is the power of myth, that the public remains comfortably, historically ignorant of our 18th Century founders’ efforts and successes in establishing the world’s first secular democracy. That we are a “Christian nation” cannot be further from the truth and yet the perception prevails. It is not difficult, then, to understand the willingness of much of the nation to support policies that can be framed as religious/moral in nature – from the invasion of sovereign Muslim states like Iraq to the recognition of human and civil rights for homosexuals.
For political strategists with a fundamental understanding of the power of cultural myths like “a City on a Hill”, it doesn’t take much to lead large masses of people into political or moral black holes which benefit only a handful of elites. Who they are, we probably don’t know exactly; but tens of thousands of dead and severely injured young veterans are the evidence – the necessary fodder to maintain the myth of American moral and cultural superiority. We all need to look critically at the City we have built and determine if its foundation is sound, truthful, and just.