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Myths America Lives By Paperback – June 15, 2004
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About the Author
Recipient of the National Humanities Medal, Robert N. Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley. Richard Madsen is Professor of Sociology, University of California, San Diego. William M. Sullivan is Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Ann Swidler is Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley. Steven M. Tipton is Professor of Sociology and Religion at Emory University and the Candler School of Theology.
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Myths, Hughes reminds us, is not so much a fable or falsehood, as it is a story, a kind of poetry, about events and situations that have great significance both for those involved and those that follow. Myths are, in fact, essential truths for the members of a cultural group who hold them, enact them, or perceive them. They are sometimes expressed in diffuse ideologies, but in literate societies like the United States they are also embedded in historical stories about our past.
First, Hughes explores the myth of the United States as a chosen nation. It is no secret that the Puritan immigrants to America from England viewed themselves as God's elect favored above all others. It is less well known that a sense of "chosen-ness" motivated others who came to America and this sense of exceptionalism has found expression throughout the nation's history. The United States is a new "land of Canaan," to use a religious conception, but this sense need not be solely expressed in religious tones. While Hughes focuses on religious conceptions, he notes that America as a land of opportunity where all may achieve their proper rewards through diligence and hard work is a part of this belief as well.
Central to this sense of "chosen-ness" is the idea of a national covenant in which the inhabitants live justly and are rewarded as a result. At it's best, this myth calls on Americans to shoulder responsibilities that reflect what Hughes calls our national creed: "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." Sometimes, perhaps even many times, in our national history, the American civilization has reflected this creed well and in so doing earned the respect and admiration of the world. At other times, and perhaps increasingly as time has passed, Americans have absolutized the myth of the chosen nation and used it to justify the wealth, privilege, and power of the nation as appropriate despite the disparities with other cultures.
The second myth that Hughes discusses is America as Nature's Nation. The result of Enlightenment thinking in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this myth suggests that the natural order of things is for all humans to be free and have liberty to do as they wish. At its most idealistic this myth affirms the American creed better than any other concept held by inhabitants of the United States. Absolutized, in Hughes' parlance, it "might suggest that whatever foreign policies America might put in place are by definition just and right, regardless of their impact on marginalized people, and that the rectitude of those policies should be self-evident to all the people of the world" (p. 193).
Third, Hughes explores the myth of America as a Christian nation. He affirms that it was the avowed intention of the founders to create a fully secular government without Christian overtones. He expends considerable effort to demonstrate this position, yet over time the myth has become almost de rigueur. This is not an entirely bad development, Hughes believes, for at its best it calls Americans to adhere to Judeo-Christian virtues. At its worst, it could allow Americans to view any policy the nation implemented as somehow righteous and just, fully reflective of Christian teachings.
Fourth, the author considers the myth of a millennial nation. This sense of creating a perfect society, anticipating the return of Christ in glory, has been present in American society from the very first. It also suggests that it is incumbent on those a part of this nation to further justice, equality, and liberty both inside and outside the confines of the United States. In many instances this is a positive set of attributes, as Hughes notes, but it might also be used to justify efforts "to export and impose its cultural and economics values throughout the world, regardless of the impact those policies might have on poor and dispossessed people in other parts of the world" (p. 193).
Finally, the author comments on the myth of the innocent nation. Completely without justification, the United States has come to believe that whatever it does is just and righteous, and that it is locked in a desperate struggle with evil. This may be seen in virtually all periods of American history but it is especially present in the great struggles of the twentieth century. World Wars I and II especially led Americans to believe they were fighting for the survival of all that was good against forces of evil. But it also may be seen in the cold war against the Soviet Union, and in the aftermath of 9/11 in the global war on terrorism. This is an unfortunate development, according to the author. He notes, "the world does not, in fact, divide as neatly between good and evil as the myth of America as the Innocent Nation might suggest. Just how difficult it is for Americans to realize this truth became apparent in the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as Americans once again divided the world into rigid categories of good and evil, with America standing clearly and unambiguously on the side of the right..." (p. 186).
There is much to praise and little to criticize in this important book. It is highly recommended as a statement of American values, conceived at the birth of the nation and extending to the present. The work also presents critiques of these myths from a variety of perspectives. It offers a useful analysis of how Americans view the world and why they tend to see it as they do.
The result is a reflective work of engaging analysis into what the forces were that forged our identity and how today these forces still influence our culture. Hughes' book is extremely thorough, well-researched and should stand up to the most critical academic rigor.
Whether you are an American Christian or an American trying to understand American Christianity, this book raises issues of fundamental importance to understanding what our nation is (and is not) and why.