Discovering the American Myth of Origin

(This is a synthesis paper I wrote for my “Faith and Dominant American Culture” class. It was supposed to be a synthesis paper, not a research paper: a way of showing that we have appropriated the knowledge that we have accumulated throughout the first half of the course, so don’t expect an extensive treatment of the points I make in the paper. The paper is simply supposed to pose questions that we should answer by the end of the course through a final research paper. The class has been mainly based on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Russell Kirk’s The Roots of American Order and Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart.)

Introduction

When we look at America today as a people of faith, we often find ourselves overwhelmed wondering how it is that we have come the point where we are today. We witness an increasing number of divorces, single-parent families, cohabiting couples, premarital sexual relations among young people, and a nation divided by issues such as abortion, assisted suicide, torture, and the definition of the institution of marriage in our society. All these issues are in addition to chronic consumerism and a growing economic gap between the rich and the poor. Christians are called to make the Gospel message known to all, but with such bleak circumstances and a culture that often seems ambivalent to Christianity and religion altogether, the prospects of successfully transforming the world with the saving love of Christ do not look too promising. Christians of all ages have lived through difficult times and even hostile communities. But history tells us of Christians who, because of their steady faith, incessant hope, and self-giving love, proved successful in the long term. For example, even in the midst of the frustration that is palpable in several of St. Paul’s letters, he nevertheless pleads incessantly with the people of Corinth so that they may leave their old immoral ways behind and act according to the Gospel. Or in the middle of Roman persecution, Justin Martyr still appeals to the Roman Emperor saying that Christians were his “allies in promoting peace.” [1] Their success, moreover, can also be attributed to how well they knew their audience—their values, problems, and concerns—because that knowledge made them more effective evangelists. It is in the example of these men and women that has left such an imprint in the secular world—the imprint of Christ—and the Church that we should ultimately look up to so we can do the same in America.

For the most part, American cultural trends and general patterns of behavior go unquestioned, or at least unexamined, as if they were simply an inescapable plethora of different expressions of our core identity as Americans. But what exactly is the American identity? What are its roots? And if such cultural trends are just unavoidable consequences of our identity, how are we as Catholics going to weave the message of the Gospel into the fiber of American society? In an attempt to answer these questions, as mentioned above, it is imperative for us to do what apologists like Paul and Justin did in their own time: learn our audience. We need to first learn and define the roots of the core values that make up American culture.

Culture and Myth

First, let us define the term “culture.” Culture is a way of life held in common by a group of people in which they share a window that gives them a vision of God, the world, and the human person. But cultures are human constructs that are based on an underlying myth that contains a humanly created view of the world. These myths are human attempts to understand the truth about God, the world, and human beings. As man-made structures, they contain inherent limitations and distortions. Thus, they reveal glimpses of truth, but also conceal fundamental aspects of that same truth. If all cultures are governed by their respective myths, then what is the myth that makes up American culture?

Roots of the American Myth

American order, Russell Kirk rightly states, “was not founded upon ideology,” nor was it manufactured. Rather it grew from the influence of many cultural strands. [2] From the Law and the Prophets, the first American settlers learned about the notion of a covenant. From the Greeks, the Founding Fathers learned the struggles associated with building a healthy society. From the Romans, they received their articulation of natural law, the concept of a republic, and the virtue of separation of powers. From England and the Enlightenment, they acquired their concepts of individual rights and common law. The founding documents of America, namely the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, synthesize in themselves these influences. If we wish to definitively identify the American myth of origin, we need to go back to the Declaration of Independence that contains the presumptions upon which the country was founded.

In the first few lines of this document we can find a consensus among the American founders with regard to the following beliefs: 1) the existence of a God; 2) natural law as the foundation that binds the nation together; 3) a Lockean understanding of the human person that is highly individualistic; 4) a government that is based on the consent of the people. For the sake of brevity, my focus for understanding American culture and its myth of origin will be narrowed primarily to the influence of Locke’s ideas on the American consciousness and their lasting impact in how we articulate the concept of the self.

John Locke and the Individual Rights ethos

A close study of John Locke’s influence on the Founding Fathers and ultimately the resurgence of his ideas in the founding documents is appealing, but it would be too extensive of an undertaking for this paper. I will only point out briefly the tenets of John Locke’s political thought, especially his notions of individual rights and social cotract. However, it is worth pointing out that Locke’s individualism is not restricted to his political theory, but rather permeates his entire philosophical thought. For, indeed, even his epistemology takes as its starting point the internal investigation of the ideas of the knowing subject.

Locke believed that because there is a natural moral law that could be discovered through reason, man has natural rights to preserve himself, defend his life, as well as a right to his freedom and right of property.[3] In order to preserve these rights, it is in the best interest of the individual to form an organized society. The state, then, is a necessary evil, according to Locke. Its existence is not ideal, but it is only through a judicial system that is recognized by all that the protection of individual rights can be guaranteed.[4] The only reason why men should join together in forming a society, according to Locke, is to ensure the preservation of their individual rights. Conceptually, in Locke’s view, the individual is defined prior to society to the extent that the latter becomes subservient to the individual rather than the individual being conceived as part of a larger whole and contributing to the good of the whole. This ethos of individual rights stands in contrast to the classical natural law tradition that has a more organic view of society. However, as Brian Bix points out, even a natural law theorist like Aquinas “still refers to individual rights—for example, to choose a vocation, to choose whether and whom to marry, and whether to subscribe to a particular religious faith.” [5] However, the specific examples of “individual rights” that Aquinas refers to do not isolate the individual from society in the way that the natural rights tradition does.

A proper understanding of the individual rights ethos to which Locke subscribed helps us grasp the roots of the American myth that constitutes the American identity I referenced above. Thus, it would be fair to say that the American myth of origin is essentially Lockean [6] and fundamentally about the individual. It is the notion of the highly independent individual that “obscures personal reality, social reality, and particularly the moral reality that links the person and society.” [7] Without a cultural tradition or social institutions to serve as references for understanding what is “good” or “right,” the individual only has himself to serve as the moral compass, which leads even further to a denial of objective morality because the individual now stands as the ultimate arbiter of his own decisions and actions.

Consequences of the Individual Rights ethos

On a more concrete level, I would like to use three examples that describe how this ethos manifests itself in issues that are familiar to most Americans: abortion, lust, and consumerism. [8] Abortion was defined as constitutional in the United States on grounds that it protected a woman’s natural right to privacy. This can only be possible in a society and a legislative and judicial system that places the individual as the beginning and the end—as the “center of action” and of obligation, which leads him to disregard others completely, in this case, the life of the unborn baby. Another example can be seen in the growing promiscuity among young people and even among adults that seems to be mainly driven by the endless search for pleasure. When the individual becomes his own judge and his actions are solely directed on the basis of his own interests, he does not see any need in establishing a fruitful relationship with the other if there is no immediate benefit for him. As a result, he disregards the other and searches endlessly and aimlessly for “others” until his desires are (supposedly) fulfilled. We can observe a similar pattern of behavior in consumerism. As William Cavanaugh rightly points out: “Consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.” [9] When the individual has no moral compass that in the past was provided by tradition and social institutions, he inevitably conforms to the reigning societal trends; in this case, he sets levels of income and consumption as his own standards of behavior. Here lies one of the main ambiguities of American individualism: While the individual thinks that he is truly free when he frees himself from the restricting fetters of tradition, he is in reality conforming to the fetters of arbitrary mainstream social and cultural trends.

Conclusion

Individualism is entrenched in the American consciousness because it is part of the history of who we are as a people. As Bellah argues, we cannot escape individualism, because that would “mean for us to abandon our deepest identity.” [10] If that is the case, how can individualism be put to work toward the common good? If, as we have seen, the individual rights ethos stands as the American myth, then Christianity can fully uncover the truths that are concealed by this myth given its human origins and ultimately complement its views of God, human beings, and the world. The Christian faith can make these truths known to man, because God Himself, through the Incarnation, has revealed them to the Church. The question is how can we concretely—at the parish and local community levels—make these truths known to those who already believe but also to those who do not yet believe? My hope is to answer this question, at least in part, toward the end of the course.


[1] Justin Martyr, The First Apology, 4th Edition, ed. D.D., Alexander and Donaldson, LL.D., James Roberts, Vol. 1, 10 vols. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004), 166.

[2] Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, 4th edition (Wilmington: ISI, 2003), 9.

[3] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. V, IX vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 129.

[4] Ibid., 131.

[5] Brian Bix, “Natural Law: The Modern Tradition,” in Oxford Handbook of Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law, eds. Jules Coleman and Scott Shapiro (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 69.

[6] Influences of other figures such as Montesquieu, Hobbes, Burlamaqui, among others, should not be overlooked. However, Locke stands as the crucial figure when speaking of who influenced the Founding Fathers on the notion of individual rights.

[7] Robert Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, 3rd Edition (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2008), 80.

[8] I develop these examples somewhat differently, but David Schindler initially outlined them in his discussion of rights in the liberal tradition. See David Schindler, “Nature, Grace, and Culture: On the Meaning of Secularization” in Catholicism and Secularization in America, ed. David Schindler (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1990), 17-19.

[9] William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 34.

[10] Bellah, 142.

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  • “Individualism is entrenched in the American consciousness because it is part of the history of who we are as a people. As Bellah argues, we cannot escape individualism, because that would ‘mean for us to abandon our deepest identity.'”

    I would rather say we should embrace the truth within individualism, and we can’t escape that, but we can and should escape the errors of individualism. Will this be something you will be working on next, to show how individualism can be turned, from its own depths, into personalism?

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  • TeutonicTim

    Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.

    And that’s not from “Lockean” writing…