Published in the e-Journal: The Round Table Vol. I, Nr.2 ISSN 1844-2021
The Frontier, Manifest Destiny and National Religion: A Creation Myth of the USA
Aim and method
The idea of the West and Frontier has had great influence upon the ‘American mind’, society and culture. In order to gain a proper picture of this pertaining social construct one must look into various theories of culture, of power, of politics, and socialization in order to acquire a broad conceptual framework in which the intricate processes of mythmaking evolve and influence the worldviews of a people. When dealing with the idea of the west one should also consider different contestations, conflicts shared ideas related to it. This of course can not be the aim of a short paper like this but can form the topic of a more demanding and longer project. Therefore I will focus on the theoretical background of social myths in general, and the emergence of the so called common, or national religion of the country, a belief system that has a lot more to do with the secular idea of conquest and “westering” than with the realm of the sacred. The myth of the Frontier has always been present and has been reinforced throughout the centuries. The most influential disseminator of the story has of course been Hollywood. In my paper I intend to give a survey how religion and the ideology of Manifest Destiny intertwined and provided a creation narrative of the US. I will talk about myth and the need for mythmaking in general, then examine how the myth of the Frontier and westward expansion served as a creation myth and provided a narrative that formed the basis of the common American religion.
The West and the birth of an American social myth
Myth is a concept that has received much attention and has been defined by many scholars in the 20th century. The century is often referred to both as demythologized and the age of myth. The definitions given vary on the points they emphasise, but it is widely accepted by all that the concept is of pivotal importance in the study of not just literature and society but humanities in general. One definition of myth is: “a nation’s public culture embraces the collective myths surrounding its history and future promise. These myths are usually constructed through a selective interpretation of our national history, in which certain themes and events are emphasised and others are played down .... By providing an interpretation of the past these myths also articulate the precedents and ideals for the nation’s future. They set out the national priorities and tasks yet to be accomplished, and they envision the mission yet to be fulfilled”(Hunter 55). From hereafter I will use the term as defined above. The other main concept used frequently in this paper is that of religion. I will use the term as defined by Geertz in the following succinct formula: “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura or faculty that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz qtd. in Pals 244).
According to Turner’s widely accepted and immensely influential frontier thesis the encounter with the frontier not only gave excellent opportunity for Americans against which they could define themselves, but this encounter actually was the catalyst, the yeast in the process that forged Americans, and ultimately led to the coming of age of the American as a distinct nation. The frontier seems to have provided them with the very set of meanings through which they could relate to themselves and to the world. The nature of these meanings are harder to define, but we can agree with Bell’s definition that “These meanings specify a set of purposes or, like myth and ritual, explain the character of shared experiences, or deal with the transformations of nature through human powers of magic or techne”(Bell 146). One need not think of more dramatic transformation of nature using both human powers and equipment than the process through which the settlers reshaped the face of an entire continent driven by their supposed God given calling to rule the land. In this respect the US is prime territory for students of myth. A wide range of myth and counter-myths, stereotype and counter-stereotypes can be studied in American culture. There has been a strong affinity for truthseeking, legitimisation of both various different subcultures and the mainstream culture in the United States. Mythmaking processes or this peculiar reverence for myth in the American culture seems to be essential in the American experience.
“Americans seem to live and breathe and function by paradox; but in nothing are we so paradoxical as in our passionate belief in our own myths”(Steinbeck 33). Myths are an organic part of the world we live in, our concepts are shaped by the intellectual constructs like myths. Myths are hard facts of a given culture. Without understanding them we fail to understand the culture itself. Because culture too ”consists of the shared notions of civic virtue and the common ideals of the public good - what is best for the general happiness of the people and the welfare of the republic”, and “...is reflected in the shared standards by which the actions of individuals or communities with whom it deals are evaluated and judged as either good or evil, right or wrong, just or unjust”(Hunter 55). Cords and Gerster say the following in connection with American historical myths, “even through national myths may well emanate historical inaccuracies, their most important role is their persistent ability to pass for truth. Many historical myths, in short appear to be factually false and psychologically true at one and the same time; and their psychological truth is by far the more important aspect”( Cord & Gerster qtd. in Virágos, ”Versions” 70). From a pragmatic point of view the myth can be more valuable than facts. A great number of myths have been deconstructed their historical inaccuracies and bias unveiled. How is it possible that we are still struggling to understand them. According to Hodgson national myths are a must “merely in order to communicate with itself, to function as a conscious organism at all, a nation must distil and simplify [the chaotic infinitude of the experience and perceptions of millions alive and dead] into the ideas and slogans of public debate and politics. One of the essential agents in this crystallization of the national consciousness is myth”(Hodgson quoted inVirágos, ”Versions” 71).Definitions of myth have changed with the periods as well; however, one common element that all scholars underline is this very importance of social myth and ideology to provide cohesion against the centrifugal forces in a society. Even though these myths may not always be true, they serve a well defined social purpose of creating a sense of togetherness, and cultural unity. The more coherent the belief-system is, the better. On the other hand, cultural history proved us that we are wrong if we believe that social structures will collapse if the myths fail to stand up to a standard of minimum requirements in cohesion or common sense. They do not lend, themselves to deconstruction easily. In fact they can be recycled several times. And even when they seem to lose their grip as powerful national myths they can be altered and tend to resurface in popular culture. In the modern age it is no longer the gods which govern the world, but people are guided by myths. Modern myths are surrogate to those old certainties which used to govern human existence. Myths frame both individual and public time, they give sense to human existence.
Myths have the characteristic quality of not just claiming justification and to be considered as truth but they possess certain “emotional and volitional aspects”, they require “’the will to believe’ or ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ ... these tend to reinforce, sometimes even replace the so-called “rooted in reality” aspect of myth while the latter is still in its vital cycle” (Viragos, „Observations”138). This idea is kindred to the mechanism of self-justification expressed by Geertz when accepting the intrinsic rules view of a religion . “My world view tells me I must feel; this way, and my feelings tell me, in turn , that my world view must be right; there can be no mistake about it. ...there occurs ‘a symbolic fusion of ethos and world view’; what people want to do and feel they should do -their ethos- joins with their picture of the way the world actually is”(Pals 245).
There exists a mythmaking urge in every culture, but this faculty is prominent in the American social consciousness. According to N. Cords and P. Gerster: “Comparatively, it appears that American history is more myth-laden than that of any other Western nation”. Due to this American culture is permeated with myths, too. “ Myth systems are complex intellectual constructs which give a purpose for the national destiny and sense of direction for the nation. I am particularly interested here in “.... the creation of a national myth in the form of an interrelated cluster of ideas which have been variably labelled, for want of a better cliché, as a “national ideology,” “political religion,” “nationalistic theology,” “civil religion, “the religion of the republic, “or as “America’s mythique”(Clebsch qtd. in Virágos 1990:30). Mythmaking can follow a very intricate pattern from borrowing elements from different other mythical traditions as the Judaeo-Christian or Classical heritage, mutating, reinterpreting elements etc. The core of American messianism is the Bible-inspired ‘chosenness idea’ advocated by the Puritans of New England that God had “chosen” certain groups of people for salvation. The idea of Elect Nationhood was widely accepted by the people exactly because it was preaching the message they liked to hear. The folk understanding—or we may even call it religion—flattered the people because it was spreading the gospel that God had been waiting for the American people. Edwards had foreseen it as ‘the latter-day glory’ now begun in America. (Boorstin 78) They were told to have the God given chance of beginning the world all over again. There are of course other interrelated components to this myth which also have biblical origins they are ... the New Canaan, New Promised Land, American Jerusalem, the myth of American millennialism as a religious form of nationalism, then the myth of a redeemer nation, “tropes:”as JohnWinthrop’s ... “a city upon a hill,” the New World innocence etc.. America according to many American politicians has had not just the chance but the responsibility as well to be a major player in the world. The ideologically attuned optimistic ideas like “the Work and Progress ideal, Anglo-conformity, the universalist justification of the WASP norm, and a whole spate of national destiny and identity which may be grouped under the civil religion: ... “national ideology” “political religion,” “America’s mythique,” “religion of the republic” (Virágos, ’Presentitis’ 25). These ‘value-impregnated belief structures’ were beginning as early as the first settlements. John Adams worshipped the new settlements of America as the “opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.” (Tuveson 25) Through giving them a pseudo-religious veil many selfish and unjust tendencies can be observed to have acquired justification. Parts of myths were not acting alone, they reinforced each other instead to the point that their messages of patriotism and nationalism were synthesized and supported. In this process the difference between the secular idea of the US’s Manifest Destiny and the sacred realm were melted together. “America provides the raw material for world-transformation or is the theater for God’s greatest rescue work. Given such understandings, little that occurs in the public realm is exempt from the application of religious symbols” (Boorstin 78). Patricia Limerick points out that this Christian sense of mission mixed together with patriotism which was to form state religion of the US was born in the West. (Limerick 310). Moreover she also argues that “an imagined and factually unsubstantiated version of Western American history has become, for many believers, a sacred story” (Limerick 312).
Manifestations of community level
Many generations of Americans have perceived the US as “one nation, under God, indivisible with justice, and liberty for all”. What was the underlying myth that could support this idea against the existing contestations for long. Herberg suggests that Americans have a “common religion” and that is the “American Way of Life”. It is the American Way of Life that supplies American with an “overarching sense of unity” amid conflict. It provides a framework in which the crucial values of American existence are embedded. It serves as the operative faith of the people. The American Way of Life such not be seen as a mere materialistic approach to existence, but as “a spiritual structure of ideas and ideals in which ideas and ideals, aspirations and values, of beliefs and standards; it synthesizes all that commends itself to American as right, the good, and the true in actual life” (Herberg 75). Herberg’s definition appealing though but it is also quite simplistic since it neglects the fact that American values and beliefs have been disseminated as well as imposed on and certain aspects of the American Way of Life were unwanted and far from being happily embraced by a large extent of the American people. Even though the need for having a powerful symbol or a defining narrative story is ever present in American history. Finding an answer to Crévecoeur’s ever present question “What, then, is the American, this new man?” has never ceased to haunt historians and American Studies intellectuals. Russel Banks urges a concensus in order to find a plausible story that describes and dramatizes America’s origin. Otherwise, he warns us, America will perish. Since America’s story due to the country’s racial diversity could not have a racial-folkish basis like that of the German Niebelungenlied, and there are no other autochtonous ancient stories like the Greek’s Iliad that would give unity to the people and provide Americans with “ethical and methaphysical compasses” it seems to be evident to praise the American Way of Life as a plausible basis for consensus in the face of multiethnic, and multicultural, competing tales of origin which are in Bank’s opinion “ghettoized” creation stories. The idea of Manifest Destiny and triumph of the neo-European civilization over the wilderness of the New World may not be embraced a large number of American’s but the symbol of the American Way of Life as a common religion of different ethnic groups nevertheless has undeniably had great appeal to many Americans, may they be hyphenated in any way.
America’s involvement in various conflicts could be interpreted both as a noble effort to promote some basic human values as freedom from oppression, or conversely as an oppressive attempt to limit the self-determination of the people from different countries. Civil religion was actively employed to give explanations to the American public in order to support altruistic interventions it might have otherwise opposed. A number of informal practices have been developed which combine national patriotism with religion. The main function of these practices is to provide support for the dominant values of the nation represented by some short-hand reminders, symbols like the flag. These symbols of national identity are symbols which “express the meaning of citizenship and, therefore, the meaning of patriotism and disloyalty”(Hunter 55). To underline the very nature of these ceremonies many authors express the pseudo-religious nature of ceremonies. “It does it in an informal and less organised way what nationally organized churches did for European nations in earlier times” (Kearny 46). These practices are part of the national religion or civil religion and they are still performed by groups people mostly school-children everyday in the United States. They are meant to enforce patriotism, religious ideas, loyalty to the country. “The purpose of these songs and ceremonies is to proclaim God’s blessing on Americans”(Kearny 46).
Talking about public and civil religion Boorstin expresses the view that civil religion as a religion of civility and public manifestation of private religion in spite of all differences contributes to the formation of a national consensus: “One celebrates the America that could be(private),...the other celebrates the America that is (public), purged only of the individual faults which prevent the national religious covenant form becoming evident, and the American mission and destiny from becoming manifest in the world. .... American religious forces of both kinds contribute to elements of national consensus....personal and private religion more readily contributes to a national consensus through its support of the symbols of the political body. The flag, the pledge of allegiance to that flag with the words ‘under God’ later inserted, the words ‘In God We Trust’ as a motto on coins and currency, the presence of chaplains at legislatures and civic gatherings, the invocations and benedictions at gatherings of supporters of the American Way of Life - all these are more often in the hands of people who are officially described as seeking to rescue, reform and inspire individuals in a society which they have come basically to endorse”(Boorstin 77). The ideal of mission of America began to fade in the post-World War period. However; it has still been lingering on since the 1st World War up to the present -day political discourse. Though it is true that “the very notion of mission deteriorated into a mere diplomatic catchword resuscitated repeatedly for the past century, without emphatic sense of the once widely accepted mythic connotations. ... the destining myth became mere rhetoric...”(Virágos, „Myths”34).
Multiculturalism, the metaphor of the melting pot and the end of a myth?
The perennial cliché, “the American Melting Pot”, has already spawned bookshelves of publications. The question of whether felt ethnic differences will gradually vanish from the American scene is no longer a question. The theoretical debate is which other direction to turn to for a viable alternative because the confident forecast of a few decades ago, that the powerful forces of assimilation would grind down ethnic distinctions and mould a standardized American has not been borne out. “The Melting Pot, it turns out, contains, a lumpy stew and though ethnic groups may have thickened and enriched the All-American broth-except in the southeastern quadrant of the pot- the lumps will not cook away, at least not for a good many more years. We can now expect diversity to persevere for many years”( Zelinsky 32). There has appeared a new metaphor “The Boiling Pot” that suggests a truer picture of the present-day situation. But even this metaphor implies that the pot itself is of a certain shape and a certain substance; a pretty solid substance. The pot must not melt. However it seems that the whole concept has slowly melted away to give way for a new one: multiculturalism.
The strains put on the all inclusive vision of civil religion were too great. Bell argues that in the post-industrial condition cooperation is an only for the community, but when “many different groups want too many different things and are not prepared to bargain, then increased conflict or deadlock results”(Bell148).
“Now reality is becoming only the social world, excluding nature and things, and experienced primarily through the reciprocal consciousness of others, rather than some external reality. Society increasingly becomes a web of consciousness, a form of imagination to be realized as asocial construction”(Bell 149). Since it created too much anticipation it lost its appeal and power. In the 1960’s new counter-myths appeared. “America’s uneasy pluralism implied a confrontation of deeper nature - a competition to define social reality. Through the nineteenth and early twentieth century cultural discord was kindled, in general, by two competing tendencies. On one hand, there was the quest on the part of various minority cultures to carve out a space in American life where they could each live according to the imperatives of conscience and obligations of community without harassment or reprisal. Such a space would provide the base from which to expand their legitimate interests as a distinct moral community. On the other hand, there were the Protestants and largely Protestant-Based populism to ward off any challenges to retain the advantage in defining the habits and meaning of American culture (Hunter 39). These tendencies were centrifugal, eccentric, and divergent from core American values which created new sets of problems bound to lead to culture wars about education, family and media in which the adversaries in an increasingly multicultural environment, clash debating from very different moral platforms invoking different myths and icons, but with the same moral zeal. Hunter defines cultural conflict “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral; understanding” The differences in these conflicts are “basic commitments and beliefs that provides a source of identity, purpose, and togetherness for the people who live by them.”...”Our most fundamental ideas about who we are as Americans are now at odds (Hunter 42). The competing moral visions take expressions as “polarizing impulses or tendencies in American culture...[they] are institutionalized in different institutions and in public rhetoric, and now ordinary Americans relate to them” (Hunter 43). “The United States has always had a diverse population, but in the past few years the question of how to reconcile persistent racial and ethnic differences with the need for national unity and hopes for the fullfillment of our democratic ideals has been raised more insistently than ever before”(Fredrickson 859). A new phenomena has appeared called tribalism. After the failure to integrate the mostly African-Americans and create color blind society, the acceptance of the prospect that America may be permanently diverse, the idea of “multiculturalism” has gained increasing popularity. Nowaday “group membership ... ethnoracial identity provides a locus from which most Americans view the world and is a major determinant of whom they vote for, hire or promote, associate with, and welcome as neighbours”(Fredricson 859). One person’s lofty ideals may be insulting to another person. In this context “For people of color, for instance, the American heritage is more likely to evoke anger and sometimes shame than to be embraced as a source of pride.”( Virágos, „Myths”40). The most important attempt to resurrect some kind of national covenant came from Robert Bellah who, in order to counteract the centrifugal forces of contemporary America advocated the rekindling of civil religion in American life. In Bellah’s opinion America is heading for a fall. It is “on the very brink of a disaster, not only from international conflict but from the internal incoherence of our own society. What has gone wrong? How can we reverse the slide toward the abyss? ... What has failed at every level .. is integration: we have failed to remember ‘our community as members of the same body’, as John Winthorp put it.”( Bellah 5)
In the controversy generated over the origin and development of civil religion Gail Gehrig offers an overview of the concept from sociological point of view. Gehrig suggests five definitions, or models, of civil religion by tracing the intellectual history of the concept. There are five different definitions of civil religion prevalent in the literature: folk religion of the nation, nationalism, democratic faith, and Protestant civic Piety.
Folk religion has as its major functions the legitimization of cultural values, and social integration. Tocqueville expressed that a fusion of democratic and moral principles was expressed in the daily behavior of Americans of his day. Transcendental universal religion of the nation the most comprehensive model suggested by Bellah. Its gist is that it transcends ideas by which the society is both integrated and judged . Due to its prophetic capacities, this transcendental universal religion is capable of answering greater challenges to society than folk religion. Sidney Mead gave a synthesis of democratic and deistic values which challenge both sectarianism and national self-transcendence.
Robert Bellah’s sociological model of transcendent universal American civil religion was introduced in 1967. Bellah’s model proposes that civil religion exists as an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs, providing sources of cohesion and prophetic guidance through times of national crisis. He cites example of the unifying and prophetic manifestations of American civil religion throughout American history. In his later writings he notes that the symbols of American civil religion has also been misused for national self-reinforcement and self-transcendence though.
Religious Nationalism is also a corollary to civil religion as it represents a worldview in which the nation itself is glorified and adored, becoming self-transcendent.
The democratic faith model recalls the writings of philosophers and theologians who have tried to construct a humanistic philosophy based on the American ideals of justice, liberty and equality. They are the documents of conscious and dedicated pursuit of democracy.
Civic piety emphasises that the origin of American civil religion can be found in the fusion of the American and Protestant historical traditions.
American civil religion is looked upon as the religious symbol system which relates the citizen’s role and American’s society’s place in space, time, and history, to the conditions of ultimate existence and meaning. Coleman’s, American civil religion performs specialized religious functions which are not performed by any other institutions. Regionalized variations of civil religion can also be observed. There has been a centralizing pursuit for a national destiny and identity since the first group of immigrants arrived to the continent. Particular forms of ideation emanated from the American West and the South. Drawing attention to recent developments in American society and civil religion Guiness remarks that civil religion has always had two dimensions an ideological and an institutional one. Previously this distinction did not matter much because there was only one civil religion and its two dimensions were in harmony. But that is no longer the case. “There are two competing versions competing from rival power bases in different national institutions. The more conservative version, liberals fear, works through the presidency. The more liberal, conservatives fear , works through public schools. Thus if it still exists today, American religion is at odds with itself- a contradiction in terms for a civil religion.” (Guinness 224).
People have believed that all mythical thought had to be effaced before the splendor of what is true. However, each time new myths have arisen, or have begun anew, but in a form in which they were not recognized it any more. Scholars say that we are at the end of the age of ideological myth. The old Western myths have been effectively deconstructed. The old myths and heroes deserve the retirement, but what new myths and dreams will replace them is still not clear. Every creation story is greatly charged emotionally, but since they are faith-affirming narratives it does not really matter that there constantly appear evidence from the historical records which contest the validity these myths. Although it has been contested from many sides I believe that the myth of the Frontier and its religious worship will not stop to go through changes and adaptations for the needs of a new age and remain a potent social myth of the United States for a long time yet. What guise is this myth going to take next? The old but recycled myth of tomorrow is probably already crystallizing.
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