“Myths America Lives By” Book ReviewBy
A review of Richard Hughes’s book Myths America Lives By.
Richard Hughes’s seminal book can be roughly described as exploding the myths in the American national subconscious, but this does not do the book justice. In fact, Hughes says there are elements of each “Myth America Lives By” worth preserving (except the myth of the innocent nation). Through observing the responses of minority voices who were often disenfranchised and oppressed, such as African Americans and Native Americans, we can appreciate how absolutizing the good parts of America’s foundational myths can actually subvert the American creed, that “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.” I would certainly agree with this assessment, but in my view Hughes skews some of the issues and does not offer a reasonable solution to the problems at hand. I will explore these notions later, but first let us review the fundamental myths and outgrowths of myths explained in Myths America Lives By.
The “myth of the chosen nation” initially emerged among the Puritans. They believed that God had chosen them to “love brotherly without dissimulation” and to “bear one another’s burdens.” To them, chosenness meant “chosen for the good of the neighbor.” The myth was rooted in the history of the Israelites, who were called out of Egypt to live in covenant relationship with God. Insofar as their practice was consistent with these principles, this understanding was good. But even the Puritans broke with this myth by effectively stealing the property of Native Americans where they settled. (Not all of them did this, of course, we know that some Puritans legitimately purchased the land.) The myth of the chosen nation continued into the founding era and eventually was absolutized into a myth that gave special moral license to those with power to oppress others. (Hughes notes slavery as the key example, I would also say the government itself was responsible for perpetuating the system.) When one believes that chosenness implies responsibility toward others, then peace results. But when it implies receiving license that makes one fundamentally better than others, it becomes dehumanizing.
The “myth of nature’s nation” essentially states that the way things are in America are the way things were meant to be. On some level, it has always been recognized that the political structures of Europe had an effect upon American governance, but a popular belief was that the Founding Fathers had exploited a design directly from nature itself, rooted in the mind of God. Indeed, the American creed maintains that its truth is self-evident, requiring no formal proof. Thomas Paine can thusly say that, “We are brought at once to the point of seeing government begin, as if we had lived in the beginning of time. The real volume, not of history, but of facts, is directly here before us, unmutilated by contrivance, or the errors of tradition.” In other words, this government is exactly the type God intended in the act of creation.
The problems with this myth were quite apparent to African-American slaves, who obviously were not originally included within the “all men” who were “created equal.” Indeed, once this myth becomes ingrained enough, the myth of nature’s nation becomes not a dynamic state of conforming to what nature’s nation should be but rather that whatever we do is legitimized because, of course, we are nature’s nation – it’s the way it was meant to be. Those who adopt this idea, says Carl Becker, “do not know that the ‘man in general’ they are looking for is just their own image, that the principles they are bound to find are the very ones they start out with. That is the trick they play on the dead.”
The “myth of the Christian nation” can mean many things. One could see this as a logical extension when coupled with the myth of nature’s nation. However, many conservative Christians seem to think that the Federal Government itself is founded strictly on Christian principles. Even though there is some basis for this thinking, it belies the fundamental structure of the Constitution, which basically forbids the establishment of a national church through the “separation of church and state.” The purpose of American governance is (or at least was intended to be) that only those actions that are specifically injurious to others should be restricted and criminalized. This is consistent with Christian virtue, but some desire more control from the government over certain activities Christians deem immoral (for example, the Temperance Movement).
There are some inherent problems with the above theory, but the most apparent one should be obvious: If America were truly a Christian nation, how could the institution of slavery survive? This criticism was readily apparent to many black slaves and abolitionists. David Walker, a devout Christian and African-American, once asked, “In the name of the Lord, of what kind can your religion be? Can it be that which was preached by our Lord Jesus Christ from Heaven? I believe you cannot be so wicked as to tell him that his Gospel was that of [racial] discrimination.” I cannot think of a better denouncement of the evil Walker experienced.
The “myth of the millennial nation” suggests that the United States would illuminate the world with truth, justice, goodness, and democratic government, and would thereby usher in a final golden age for all humankind. The origin of this myth, besides Scripture itself, is in the Great Awakening. Many Americans, including prominent minister Jonathan Edwards, believed that the revivals were the beginning of the millennial age foretold in Scripture. Though that millennial vision faded, the Revolution and birth of the United States “fanned the millennial imagination as nothing had before.” Eventually, the absolutizing of the millennial nation led to the doctrine of manifest destiny. In other words, a nation that was a Christian nation, following the God of Scripture faithfully, and nature’s nation, following the natural order of things, would by extension have the right to extend its influence not only by example, but also by force. The Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, and the treatment of Native Americans easily displays how the millennial nation myth can go wrong.
Hughes then addresses what I believe to be significant weakness in the book, the mythic dimensions of American capitalism. He paints the industrialization period as nothing short of a tragedy, with the greedy capitalists bearing down upon workers who couldn’t possibly have any other choice but work for meager wages in pathetic conditions. His analysis basically supposes that the four primary myths contribute into the myth that capitalism is rewards the strong in a pseudo-darwinistic fashion and thus oppresses the weak. (But then again he doesn’t quite despise the market entirely, just what he thinks is the laissez-faire market.) While he has a point that certain employers did indeed mistreat people, I think he overstates the case and directs his ire to the wrong culprit. I will elaborate further in future comments.
The “myth of the innocent nation” is the final myth addressed in the book. Basically, it is the convergence of the myth of the Christian nation and the myth of the millennial nation. In other words, since America was a Christian nation and would herald the golden age of humanity, it could do no wrong. Never mind that the United States has been quite the exporter of violence and imperialism most of the twentieth century. I completely agree with Hughes’s conclusion about this myth – it has absolutely no redeeming value. But once again, I think there is a subtle misdirection from the primary culprit.
Myths America Lives By is a very interesting explanation of American history and is quite relevant for American Christendom today. It certainly accomplishes its goal of convincing the reader that these myths are indeed present in the background of American culture, political rhetoric, and public policy. Furthermore, the negative implications of what happens when the myths are absolutized are made abundantly clear. Especially in the case of the innocent nation, there is very little redeeming value in taking these myths too far. However, it is unclear to me exactly how he proposes to fix these problems. A description of how to move beyond the problems these myths cause would have made Hughes’s arguments stronger. Just saying “don’t absolutize the myths” is not enough. However, perhaps I am being too hard on Hughes. Perhaps awareness alone is the primary goal of the book, in which case he does an admirable job.
The fact is, in every case there is a clear culprit who propagates and executes the absolutized myth that subverts the American creed. In every case there is a definite entity that inevitably causes harm because of the extensive reach of its power. This enemy of the American creed is the Federal Government itself. In fact, Hughes could have exploded another myth with very little redeeming value – the myth of democracy itself. For how can one expect human rights to be respected when one can just as easily institute slavery with the stroke of Congress’s pen as abolish it? Ben Franklin was absolutely right, democracy is “two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner,” and perhaps even Franklin should have taken himself more seriously in that statement. The myths explored in Hughes’s book explode even more if one seriously considers the idea that national democracy itself is a myth. (An excellent treatment of this subject is Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s book Democracy: The God That Failed.)
I do not think Hughes goes far enough repudiating the chosen nation myth. I would tend to agree with the assessment of Roger Williams, that the Jews were the only chosen nation. Now, the church continues this legacy, not a country. How could a government, an institution that perpetuates its existence through the use of force, ever lay claim to Israel’s legacy? Only by direct command by God or convoluted Scripture interpretation. In my opinion, it would be better to take an extreme Anabaptist approach than to accept the notion that America is chosen by God to be the New Israel.
The myth of nature’s nation is more palatable to me, mainly because I have a great affinity for natural law. I believe it is possible to avoid the trap Carl Becker warns about; reason can rise above and beyond circumstances. The work of Murray Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty (free via Mises.org) is one example, so is Linda and Morris Tannehill’s book The Market for Liberty (free via Mises.org). One could write volumes on the importance – or in some scholars’ views, the non-importance – of natural law, but I have neither the time nor space in this paper to explore this further.
The myth of the Christian nation and millennial nation seem to me to be more easily disposed of once one can no longer look at America as the chosen nation. But there’s more to it than just that. In part, one must realize that the state is not the kingdom of God. Jesus once said “my kingdom is not of this world.” In other words, if one thinks that civil government will usher in the kingdom, he is sorely mistaken. The church is where God has established himself, not on any civil throne. We cannot expect that an institution founded on force will bring forward the kingdom. Quoting Jesus once again: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luke 22: 25,26)
I’m not particularly fond of Hughes’s explanation of what he calls “laissez-faire capitalism.” It almost appears as though he does not desire to discover the root cause of the problem, but rather wants to pass the blame around so we can all drink of it in some egalitarian guilt-fest. To a significant extent, Hughes misrepresents the industrialization period. Thomas DiLorenzo’s How Capitalism Saved America provides a useful account of what actually happened to the working class during the industrialization period. In fact, it turns out that capitalism tended to actually increase the standard of living for factory workers during that time: “Wages did in fact rise steadily in the 19th century… Between 1860 and 1890, during what economists call the ‘second industrial revolution,’ real wages – that is, wages adjusted for inflation – increased by 50 percent in America.” True, working conditions were poor by today’s standards at times, but they were actually better off than they were before. No one forced people to leave their farms, poorhouses, or the streets. The accumulation of capital, formation of factories, and industrialization allowed those with the desire to work to find new ways to earn a living. Furthermore, capitalism is not the strong preying upon the weak. In reality, it is capitalism that allows those with very little marketable skills to work and to live profitably. Indeed, the most significant problems within the economy occurred only once the state began the march towards interventionism in the market. Industrial regulations has put more people out of work and on the streets than any outsourcing ever has.
As I’ve stated before, Hughes doesn’t hit the source of the problem – the state itself. And because he doesn’t identify the most significant source, there is no significant solution. However, I would say that there is a sure-fire way of ensuring the American creed can be available to all, a solution that deals with the problem from its source – reduce the power of the State. The market can and will work equitably, and with complete economic and political freedom churches can work to improve social issues in ways no government could ever accomplish.
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