America

National Myth

In the recently released movie The Avengers, there is a scene where Captain America and Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D.S. are on an aircraft talking. The agent was filling Captain America in on what’s been going on and also talking about the past. He commented that his uniform had undergone a little modification. Somewhat startled that they had brought his uniform back, the Captain asked “The uniform? Aren’t the stars and stripes a little… old fashioned?” In response, the Agent Coulson replied: “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.”

Captain America

I think that’s a great statement about the United States today. Once in a while we need a little old-fashioned. A German immigrant I knew shared an interesting thing he had observed here—that the US is following Germany in a cultural theme, but was a few years behind. What was that theme? The theme was viewing patriotism as a bad thing.

He explained that the Germans looked back at the history with the Nazi’s and Hitler, both world wars, etc. and viewed being patriotic as supportive of what Germany did during those times. Patriotism became viewed as bad because of bad choices the country had made in the past and potential to repeat them in the future. They chose to shove aside the great achievements their country and people had made and do make because of the bad parts of their past.

Similarly in the US, we have made and continue to make choices that are not in line with our ideals or what is right: Corrupt government, wars, shoving other countries around purely to achieve our interests, etc. have broken people’s faith in their government and country here. Joseph Smith taught that: “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39). Since the U.S.A. is the world’s only remaining superpower at the moment, we have exercised unrighteous dominion: supporting brutal dictators and terrorist organizations in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua; deposing the democratically-elected government in Iran during the 50’s and supported an increasingly autocratic monarch there until revolution drove the shah out, placing the brutal theocratic republic we face today in power; secretly bombing and invading the neutral countries of Laos and Cambodia to support a corrupt Southern Vietnamese government; and so on, and so forth. Within our own boarders we’ve felt the effects of corruption on a national to local level, ranging from the Watergate scandal to misuse of tax money.

These are all things that we should not be proud of. Yet, there is much to be proud of in our heritage and people. America is liberty, freedom, opportunity, and democracy. It is the Revolutionary War, the settling of the great American West, liberating countries during the World Wars, and establishing a new way of governing a people. It is also, however, used car lots, a fifteen-trillion-dollar national debt, and international bullying. We need to support our country, be involved in its government, and embrace the good parts of our culture and heritage, but we also need balance and control in how we view ourselves in relation to the rest of mankind.

A little bit of old-fashioned views might be necessary to build such patriotism. In looking at our past, we have a great history and a great national myth. Now, I do not mean to be degrading when I say national myth. A national myth is an inspiring narrative or anecdote about a nation’s past. They’re generally made up of a selective history (often dramatized) mixed with folklore that serve to explain the existence of the country or people and affirm a set of national values. Like most folklore, national myths serve important purposes such as uniting a diverse people, teaching and enforcing a set of cultural values and ideals, and explaining our origin. Most peoples or nations have one. For example, the Mormons find theirs in the saga of Joseph Smith’s life and the epic exodus of the pioneers to the Mountain West. Many elements are true, but some have been exaggerated or have had some elements of myth creep in over time and mix with what really happened.

Symbols are a part of national myths–the bald eagle, Statue of Liberty, Stars and Stripes, Liberty Bell, and so forth are some of ours

If you ask someone who grew up in the United States where their country came from, you’ll probably hear about how in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, discovering America. Then, the Pilgrims came from England to practice their religion, and after a hundred years or so, the colonists declared independence from England so they could truly have freedom and protect the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You might hear about more specifics, especially with such characters as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, etc. These stories are based very much in truth. Like I said, though, some inaccuracies, dramatization, or selectivity attends our epic. Yet, there is value in this myth in the lessons and values it teaches.

We’ll look at one example, starting with the Pilgrims. We often talk of them as the settlers of North America—how they left England to escape persecution for their religion and spent some time in the Netherlands. Then, fearing that their children would be more Dutch than English, they travelled across the sea on the Mayflower and settled at Plymouth, setting up a society where they created their own government and practiced their religion freely.

What’s truth and myth with this? The Pilgrims did travel to escape religious persecution and live as they pleased, and they were the first to successfully settle New England. They did, however, carry with them the idea that government and religion ought to be interconnected. John Winthrop (Massachusetts Colony’s first governor) declared that “we shall be as a City upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our god in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” Believing that they needed to be righteous to fulfill this dream, they enforced their Puritan religion in the colony. When Roger Williams called for freedom in the sense of being free to choose what to do rather than to be just free from sin he was cast out and established the Rhode Island colony. People were allowed freedom there, but it was looked upon as “the Lord’s debris.” John Winthrop called the freedom Roger Williams spoke of a “‘natural corrupt liberty’ which was ‘common to man with beasts and other creatures’ and needed to be severely limited by the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. For true Christians, he said, moral liberty, that is the liberty to do what is ‘good, just, and honest,’ which comes from faith in Christ, was the only liberty worth taking seriously” (Paul F. Boller, Jr., Not So! [Oxford University Press, Inc. New York, New York, 1995], 15).

Further, while the Pilgrims founded the first colony to succeed in New England, it was not the first colony settled by the English in what makes up the U.S. today. The Pilgrims came over to Plymouth in 1620 and the Massachusetts Bay Colony was settled in 1629. The first major attempt to settle in America was around forty years earlier in 1585 at Roanoke Island, but they abandoned the attempt after a terrible winter. A second attempt during 1587 in the same place disappeared before Englanders visited the island again. The first attempt to stand was Jamestown, settled in Virginia during 1607 (about the time the Pilgrims were going to the Netherlands). By the time the first Pilgrims came to America, Jamestown had survived (barely), become established and was on its way to success in the tobacco business.

What can we learn from this about our ideals, though? For one, freedom—particularly religious freedom—is something that we value, even though it has been a gradual process to achieve true religious freedom. In choosing to focus on the idealistic Puritans rather than Jamestown—the group that came first, but was primarily focused on land and money—we show our desire to follow a higher ideal—setting up a light to the world rooted in God and allowing the freedom the Pilgrims had desired for themselves. Perhaps the ideas of money, land, and opportunity are just as deeply rooted in our psyche, but we desire the higher road.

The theme of being rooted in God recurs in our national myth. Looking more towards the Revolution era that we will be celebrating this week, there are accounts of George Washington praying at Valley Forge. There is a charming story of a Quaker who overheard “the sound of a human voice, which, as he advanced, increased on his ear; and at length became like the voice of one speaking much in earnest” and when he came closer saw “the commander in chief of the American armies on his knees in prayer” (M. L. Weems, The Life of George Washington [29th ed., Frankford near Philadelphia, 1826], 184). This was written by Mason Locke Weems not long after Washington’s death—the same author who created the tale of the cherry tree. The idea has expanded and been built upon (as all good stories are). While we may never know for sure what really happened, study has shown that George Washington was a deist—he believed in a God, but not necessarily religion. He did believe that religion was a good way to teach and enforce morality, but wasn’t overly religious himself (Paul F. Boller, Jr., Not So! Popular Myths About America from Columbus to Clinton [New York, 1995], 29-32). The reason the story has taken such a deep hold, however, is that it enforces an ideal the American people have embraced for a long time—that communion with God is an important part of our lives and a foundation our nation should be built upon. Further, the story drives home the idea that God had a hand in the founding of our country.

The Prayer at Valley Forge by Arnold Friberg

While separation of religion and state is important, it doesn’t mean religion should be removed from the public arena. Tolerance isn’t the removal of all that goes against the most liberal viewpoint: it is allowing everyone to express their thoughts and feelings (short of actual harm being inflicted) and respecting their right to believe that way, even if we disagree.

In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson said that life, liberty, and happiness were unalienable rights endowed on people by their Creator. Take God out of the equation and what makes those rights (or any rights) unalienable? Belief in God and religion are the undergirding that holds society in order, and particularly one that allows such freedom. A French writer who investigated the US system in the 1830’s observed: “liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith…. Religion is… the companion of liberty in all its battles and its triumphs; the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its claims. The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law and the surest pledge of freedom” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm).

Along those same lines, President David O. McKay stated: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that in his life and teachings Jesus Christ reveals a standard of personal living and of social relations that, if fully embodied in individual lives and in human institutions, would not only ameliorate the present ills of society, but would also bring happiness and peace to mankind.

“If it be said that . . . so-called Christian nations have failed to achieve such a goal, we answer that all failure to do so may be found in the fact that they have failed to apply the principles and teachings of true Christianity” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay [2003], 3). A belief in God will be necessary to fix the societal ills we face. I have always wished we  could change things from the top down—the government fixing our problems and our people—but I’ve realized that it takes individual changes—everyone has to do their part, or the nation’s problems won’t be fixed. In Democracy, the government is an expression of the people. If the people are corrupt, the government will be too. If the people cannot live within their means, why would the government of the people be any different? I realized that missionary work and helping individuals will be more effective than being elected to office and making laws in the end.

Looking back to The Avengers, Captain America has been used to depict the traditional American beliefs. In the movie there is a scene where he is told by the Black Widow that Thor and Loki are pretty much Gods, and he responds “Ma’am, there’s only one God, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” So, as Captain America and our national myth express, God is and should be part of the American people. That’s why we have “in God we trust” on our coins, after all.

Asides from teaching a system of values to its people, what is one of the main advantages of a national myth? It unifies a people. In such cases as Italy and Germany—countries created in the late 1800’s out of a large area of smaller states with linguistic and historical ties to each other—they were not united at first. They had been separate countries for over a thousand years and had developed many differences from each other. Creating national myths for them helped bring them together. Similarly, for the US, one of the founding fathers reportedly said that to bring the states together at first was like getting thirteen clocks to tick at the same time. The national myth has helped unite us. Further, the part of the Pilgrims’ story became more entrenched as the founding myth when Thanksgiving was created as a holiday. When and why did that take place? The Civil War era: Sarah Josepha Hale had been working on making it a holiday for decades, but it was accepted by President Lincoln during 1863 to help unify the country again.

Thanksgiving at an elementary school. E Pluribus Unum.

The national myth works not only to unify a nation initially coming from diverse backgrounds, but also helps bring people into the nation’s culture who have recently immigrated. In the photo above you see several ethnicities—Caucasian, African American, Asian, perhaps Latino or Native American—gathered together celebrating the Pilgrims during Thanksgiving. Though the founding myth they are all brought together under one idea, whether or not their ancestors actually took part in it.

So, those who are of the United States ought to be patriotic—to love our country and what we stand for. At the same time, we need balance—to recognize that we are one country of many in the world, all of which have good and bad to them just as we do. We are all children of God and need to embrace each other as such. Within our own country, we need to embrace and worship God for things to go well. As we do so, we will have greater unity even among diversity. The Stars and Stripes are not so old-fashioned that they cannot be loved.

Now, to close, I would like to insert a poem that I wrote a number of years ago as part of a choral arrangement which contains my feelings on the subject:

Though thy ways and laws are not always perfect,

I love thee, my homeland, the place of my naissance.

Though to foreign lands I go and may respect

Thou my home shall always be without pretense.

Whether I’m home or abroad, I shall see thee life-long

As my Motherland, my homeland, the place I belong.

Homeland, the country that I love, accept me as thy child;

I give you the best I have, serving through pain and trial.

May your pow’r be bound by mercy, let compassion guide thy sword,

By thy courage may freedom, life, and justice be spurred.

Homeland, the country that I love, look to God above,

For in His ways there’s happiness, and in His arms there’s love.

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