June 18, 2001
Religion and the American Myth
-- Martin E. Marty
When librarians seek to catalog a new book entitled Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West, religion is probably not the first category that will spring to mind. But in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Ronald Wright looks at Patricia Nelson Limerick's new work and, believe it or not, it's all about public religion.
"I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1784, concerning wrongs done to Native Americans. Two centuries later, when American forces mistakenly downed a civilian airliner with great loss of life, "the first President Bush had this to say: 'I never apologize for the United States of America. I don't care what the facts are.'" Wright continues: "One is immediately struck by the transition in public discourse from flawed idealist to cynical bully."
But he finds something more disturbing and deep-seated at work here. "Jefferson's statement shows a respect for truth in history, a belief that the record matters, that a nation's deeds will be morally weighted. Bush asserts that the past can be wished away; whatever his words may reveal about himself, they expose his country's exceptional capacity for self-delusion. Perhaps no other modern nation is such a prisoner of its mythology, or so needs to be."
The American myth, as here defined, "is as impervious to fact as any religious dogma," especially in light of the nation's mistreatment of blacks, Indians, and others. Limerick tries to right things, speaking as she did in an earlier book of American "conquest," an uncongenial idea to most citizens. She sees the winning of the West as "an ugly, chaotic imperial expansion on a moral par with Belgium's Congo or Britain's Tasmania," and she cites texts about atrocities against Native Americans to make her case. We learn that Limerick is not a romantic who creates a new myth of the noble savage, but is instead a "conscientious and tough-minded" historian. (By the way Wright, finding plenty of flaws in her book, does not mythologize Limerick as a "noble historian.")
Wright loves paradoxes. For example: "The American conservative is a social Darwinist who does not believe Darwin." Forgetting about the record of Japan, and sometimes of Germany and many other places, Wright thinks that while other nations have horrors under their concrete, "reckoning with their pasts does not threaten their national being in the same way, because they do not believe themselves to be the End of History."
America can live with itself only by forgetting the past. Native America can live only by remembering. The acts of both are profoundly religious.