Feeding the market for American mythology

By Alan Bean

Two articles grabbed my attention this morning.  The first deals with fairy tales about the Christian origins of America; the second addresses civil war fairy tales (hint: it had nothing to do with slavery).

Every trained historian, regardless of personal ideology, knows that America was founded by Deists and high church Protestants who were desperate to save their fledgling nation from European-style religious wars.  Hence the separation of church and state.

Similarly, you would be hard pressed to find a single person who has studied American history at the graduate level who would argue that Southern slavery was irrelevant to the civil war.  Unfortunately, the sentimental attachment to Christian-America and the confederate Lost Cause is so passionate that elaborate mythologies arise unbidden to satisfy the demand. 

Over at Talk to Action, Chris Rodda begins a jaw-dropping post thusly:

While most eyes were on the Conservative Principles Political Action Committee conference in Iowa on Saturday, many of us who follow the religious right were more interested in another conference, also held in Iowa, on Thursday and Friday. This other conference was the Rediscover God in America conference, where all the same potential 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls that appeared at the Saturday’s Conservative Principles PAC conference told us what they really think — that America should be governed by biblical law.

Chris Rodda stumbled across Christian-America literature while casually surfing the web.  Appalled, she went looking for a good book dedicated to debunking the most egregious misinformation.  Unfortunately, the academy doesn’t consider this rapidly evolving mythology worthy of scholarly rebuttal; so Ms. Rodda decided to write her own book, tactfully titled, Liars for Jesus.  She has encountered so many whoppers out there that she will soon be releasing two supplemental volumes.

According to Rodda, the low point of the Conservative Principles Political Action Committee came when an ebullient Mike Huckabee expressed his fervent wish that every American could be forced at gunpoint to listen to pseudo-historian David Barton throw down his pearls of wisdom re: the founding of a Christian America. 

If you don’t believe Huckabee actually said that, Rodda has video evidence.

Which brings us to sociologist James W. Loewen’s piece in the Washington Post, “Five myths about why the South seceded.”  (Loewen is the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and co-editor, with Edward Sebesta, of “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.”)  Loewen begins by debunking the myth that the civil war wasn’t about slavery and then deconstructs several theories about what it purportedly was about.  Here’s the first section in its entirety:

1. The South seceded over states’ rights.

Confederate states did claim the right to secede, but no state claimed to be seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates opposed states’ rights — that is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery.

On Dec. 24, 1860, delegates at South Carolina’s secession convention adopted a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” It noted “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” and protested that Northern states had failed to “fulfill their constitutional obligations” by interfering with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage. Slavery, not states’ rights, birthed the Civil War.

South Carolina was further upset that New York no longer allowed “slavery transit.” In the past, if Charleston gentry wanted to spend August in the Hamptons, they could bring their cook along. No longer — and South Carolina’s delegates were outraged. In addition, they objected that New England states let black men vote and tolerated abolitionist societies. According to South Carolina, states should not have the right to let their citizens assemble and speak freely when what they said threatened slavery.

Other seceding states echoed South Carolina. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world,” proclaimed Mississippi in its own secession declaration, passed Jan. 9, 1861. “Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. . . . A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

The South’s opposition to states’ rights is not surprising. Until the Civil War, Southern presidents and lawmakers had dominated the federal government. The people in power in Washington always oppose states’ rights. Doing so preserves their own.

In a perfect world, people like James Loewen and Chris Rodda would lay out their evidence, make their arguments, and the myth makers would tuck their tails between their legs and slink away.  We don’t live in a perfect world.  In reality, professional liars like David Barton keep lying because millions of Americans will pay good money for lies.  If we want to believe the founding fathers were a gaggle of Bible-waving revivalist preachers, Barton delivers the goods. 

How sad that Republican presidential hopefuls are compelled to genuflect before a myth-peddlar like David Barton.

Please understand, I have nothing personal against David Barton.  I’m sure he is an engaging and affable individual who means well.  He’s no different from the preachers and politicians out there who are forced to choose between truth and advancement.  Barton He gets most of his ideas from secondary sources written in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries.  The market for pious national myths isn’t new.

Finally, we must admit that the “America-is-a-uniquely-Christian-nation” people and “the-Civil-War-had-nothing-to-do-with-slavery” people are bowling in the same ideological alley.  We can’t be a nation founded by worldly Deists that nearly came to grief when its most religious section refused to relinquish its love affair with human bondage.  We can’t be as broken and self-deluded as the rest of the world.  Surely, there must be one nation on earth that is too good for the grace of God.

If we can’t beat the mythologizers, perhaps we should join them.  Maybe the Parable of the Prodigal Son would serve as a fitting alternative to the Solomonic national myth that marches from glory to glory.  We have messed up, badly.  We have debauched ourselves in the far country.  Destitute and defeated, we feel the call of a home we can hardly remember. 

For broken people, that’s as good as it gets.

2 thoughts on “Feeding the market for American mythology

  1. I’ve been following the “Disunion” articles in Opinionator in NYT. It’s clear from those articles which contain primary sources re: secession that one of the major issues, if not the major issue, was slavery. This blog post confirms that. And of course it’s historical reconstruction to make the USA founded as a Christian nation. It’s not now. Never has been. Second President John Adams acknowledged that specifically when he signed the Treaty of Tripoli.

  2. Great article that I can use with other people. We need truth like this to be able to counter the strong and half-way intelligent lying myths so prevalent in today’s media, including so many books. Keep up your good and important work1

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