Many ironies define the United States, but none is more harmful than this: We routinely silence the life-giving voices that can save us and amplify the death-dealing voices that can kill us.
The voices that can save us are those of oppressed and marginalized people. With no power or privilege to protect, they have nothing to lose by telling the truth about what our nation has been and is becoming.
The voices that can kill us are those of privileged Americans, many of whom deceive both themselves and others to protect their place on the ladder of success and political power.
They deceive us about an election they claim was stolen, about alleged voter fraud, about terrorists invading our southern border or the “people who love this country” storming the halls of Congress.
But deception is not confined to one political party or even to partisan politics. Deception, instead, is fully American, having defined the American story for more than 200 years. It has obscured racial injustice by denying the reality of racism. It has obscured economic injustice by claiming that anyone willing to work can succeed beyond their dreams. It serves the rich at the expense of the poor. It empowers whites and disempowers people of color. And it obscures American guilt on the world stage by proclaiming American innocence and the nobility of our cause.
The deceptive vision that does all this is the venerable idea of American exceptionalism.
“Deception is fully American, having defined the American story for more than 200 years.”
Almost 20 years ago, Robert N. Bellah — my teacher at UC Berkeley in 1975 and by any measure among the most influential thinkers of his time — declined, at least for a season, to write a foreword to my book, Myths America Lives By, a book that explored the stories in which the nation historically has found its meaning.
“The myths you identify are the only myths we have,” Bellah wrote, “but you have annihilated them. I want you to show that each of those stories, while often abused and misused, has redemptive power and potential for good.”
The myths about which I wrote stand at the heart of American exceptionalism:
- The myth of the Chosen Nation holds that God Almighty chose the United States for a special mission in the world.
- The myth of Nature’s Nation claims that while other nations are built on human ideals, the United States is rooted in the natural order, in God’s own design, in the way things are meant to be.
- The myth of the Christian Nation contends that the Christian religion informed the American founding and continues to shape the nation’s ideals and behavior.
- The myth of the Millennial Nation suggests that the United States, through the power of its democracy, will eventually lead the world into a golden age of freedom.
- The myth of the Innocent Nation contends that while other nations may have blood on their hands, the purity of its ideals renders the United States perpetually innocent.
Bellah convinced me that I needed to demonstrate the potential of the myths, so I made the requested changes, and he wrote a gracious foreword.
In 2012, nine years after that book appeared in print, a Black scholar named James Noel turned my world upside down. I had just given a lecture on the American myths at the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion when Noel kindly but firmly invited me to think more deeply.
“Professor,” he said, “you completely left out the most important of all the American myths.” “And what might that be?” I asked. “You left out,” he replied, “the defining American myth — the myth of white supremacy.”
As far as I knew, Bellah never had argued that white supremacy was one of the American myths, much less the driving American myth, and neither had I. But James Noel, who saw the nation through the eyes of blackness, helped me discern truths about my nation that I had never even considered.
“James Noel, who saw the nation through the eyes of blackness, helped me discern truths about my nation that I had never even considered.”
Over the months to come, I shared my newfound insights with scholars and ordinary Americans, both Black and white. The response from whites ranged from denial to bewilderment, but Blacks typically responded with a simple question: “What took you so long to figure this out?”
With affirmations like that, I approached my publisher about a second edition of Myths America Lives By — an edition that would place white supremacy front and center.
That second edition grappled with the question, “What would it mean for the doctrine of American exceptionalism if white supremacy were, indeed, the defining American myth?” It now seemed clear to me that white supremacy had colored and corrupted each of those myths.
But even in the second edition, I wondered, could we somehow divorce these myths from the doctrine of white supremacy? And if so, did they have at least some redemptive potential? I still could not free myself from the notion that at least some of the American myths might yet serve the nation well.
But that was before the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, inspired by one branch of the American government. The rioters implicitly embraced virtually all the American myths. They assaulted police on behalf of a nation that, in their view, was chosen to be white. They built a noose for Vice President Pence on the grounds that he had betrayed this whitened Christian nation. They hunted for Speaker Nancy Pelosi since, from their perspective, she had betrayed the white and natural order of things.
“The rioters implicitly embraced virtually all the American myths.”
The insurrection helped me finally to see that the doctrine of American exceptionalism, with all its constituent myths, is so entwined with whiteness that it never can serve all the American people. It can serve white people. It can serve rich people, even people of moderate means. But it will never serve people of color and it will never serve the poor.
I finally came to see why James Baldwin wrote in 1963 that “the American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling.”
And I finally saw why another Black scholar, Princeton’s Eddie Glaude, would claim that “the willingness of so many of our fellows to toss aside any semblance of commitment to democracy … exposes the idea of America as an outright lie.”
At the very least, it exposes the doctrine of American exceptionalism as an outright lie.
If there is hope for a meaningful American future, that hope will not be found in the American myths. We need not aspire to be God’s chosen nation. Nor need we claim that ours is a Christian nation — an impossible goal in any event. We need only aspire to fulfill the promise of the American Creed — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
If someday we come close to fulfilling that goal, we will have played a noble role on the world’s stage.
Richard T. Hughes is scholar in residence in the Center for Christianity and Scholarship at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., and author of Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning.
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