THE MYTHOLOGY OF HOPE AND CHANGE

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“America is the country of the future. It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.”  –  Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1844

In the beginning, the first British settlers along the Eastern seaboard of North America were fleeing from their homeland, and they had every reason to flee. Like all people, they wanted freedom to worship in their own way, make their own laws, govern themselves, keep the economic fruits of their labor, and have wide open opportunity for hard work to create more economic gain. They had none of these freedoms in the old world, where king, aristocracy, and church oppressed them in every aspect of their lives.  So, like the ancient Israelites in the Book of Exodus (and using the Bible quite consciously as their guide to life), this New Israel bravely crossed the sea, moving from the Old World of slavery to the New World of freedom.

That’s how the story of hope and change begins. Since myth creates its own time frame, a sort of eternal present in which everyone can constantly reenact the founding events, it is best recited in the present tense. In that sense, we Americans are all (if we embrace the story) always arriving in a New World.

The New World has its biblical prototypes, too. It is a wilderness, a state of pure nature. The wilderness is interpreted through two very different biblical images. On the one hand it is a Garden of Eden, offering endless natural bounty and infinitely lush growth guided by the orderly, harmonious laws of nature.  It is God’s land, a land of perfection. Here amid this natural perfection we can, for the first time, create an equally orderly, harmonious society, free from the taint of sin. Simply arriving and remaining in the New World is itself a salvific act. All people living in the New World thus enjoy a privileged status unavailable to people anywhere else.

(Until relatively recent the dominant version of the myth reserved this privilege exclusively for white people. The gradual and still incomplete extension of the privilege to people of all ethnicities and skin colors is one very important example of how national myths, even those on the broadest scale, can change.)

Although the New World is imagined as a Garden of Eden, at the very same time it is also imagined as a howling wilderness, a chaotic place filled with the terror of suffering and death. As such, it must be tamed and conquered; humans have to impose their rational order upon the intrinsic irrationality of the wilderness. This is the unique privilege granted to the residents of the New World, the New Israel. But it also involves obligation. Taming the wilderness is an arduous project requiring skill, strength, wisdom, and courage. It is a test of the mettle — which is understood, at the same time, as the virtue — of the settlers. They can enjoy all the freedom and Edenic joy the New World promised only if they can pass the test.

These two rather opposite images of wilderness correlate with two opposing assumptions about human nature. If the wilderness is a Garden of Eden, then its residents are all Adam and Eve before the fall: morally pure and innocent, free from conflict, simply doing what comes naturally and finding that it all works out for the best. “The belief in old world corruption and new world innocence [is] a deep and persistent trait of the american mind,” as Henry Steele Commager put it. In Robert Bellah’s words, the ideal of “a tensionless harmony of moral and religious idealism and the quest for economic success required a peculiarly innocent conception of human life.”[i]

On the other hand, if the wilderness is a dark chaos to be conquered, a place of trial and travail, it reflects a correspondingly dark side of human nature: all the wild impulses, unrestrained desires, and irrational thoughts that must be tamed by the strenuous efforts of the rational will. The most influential spokesman for this perspective in recent American history was the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who did most to revive the old Christian notion of original sin in a modern form. Because people are innately selfish and greedy, Niebuhr claimed, “society is in a perpetual state of war.” Augustine of Hippo got it right when he wrote that this world’s “ruler is the devil, that it was built by Cain [the first murderer, in the Bible] and that its peace is secured by strife. That is a very realistic interpretation of the realities of social life.”[ii]

In the mythology of hope and change, then, Americans are like the wilderness — both innately good and innately evil; both naturally virtuous and, at the same time, always striving to be virtuous but having very limited success. They want to help each other and create a perfect community, but they each care only about themselves and their own limited circle of family and friends, ignoring the needs of the wider community. So they live together in effortless harmony and order, yet they must constantly cope with the chaos created by freely indulging their conflicting desires.

Ambivalence about human nature is reflected in the variety of different kinds of Americans who go into the wilderness. Some are trying to escape civilization, either to escape its moral rules (for example, the outlaw gang hiding in the hills), to live a more perfectly moral life (like Cooper’s Hawkeye), or to gain an amoral, Edenic innocence and freedom (like Twain’s Huck Finn.)

More commonly, though, those who are escaping from civilization head into the wilderness to transform more and more of it into an orderly, civilized, virtuous community. They become pioneers, drawn toward the wilderness but resolving its paradoxical meaning by turning its allure into a commitment to tame and thus abolish it. As soon as the first white immigrants arrived on the New World’s wild shore they began pushing back the wilderness. Those first pioneers created a mythic precedent, a mythic present that is still enacted in myriad ways every day.

There are obviously profound tensions in the mythology of hope and change, which make it both confusing and a source of rich creativity. With a foundational narrative so multivalent and ambiguous, Americans have had an understandably frustrating time feeling confident that they have any single unifying national identity. So they have tried, and still try, to weave endless variations on this narrative in order to harmonize, overcome, or ignore its fundamental internal paradoxes.

TAMING THE FRONTIER

All these paradoxes have appeared most clearly and been dealt with most creatively along one mythic line: the frontier.

The mythic frontier should not be confused with the literal frontier made so famous and controversial by Frederick Jackson Turner.  The literal frontier is, at any given time, a vaguely defined patchwork of zones of varying size and quality, where many different kinds of people and socioeconomic forces blend in unpredictable ways.

The mythic frontier, on the other hand, is imagined as a single, clearly defined line separating civilization, order, and virtue from wilderness, chaos, and sin. And it divides east from west. Although historically the frontier moved to the north and the south as well as the west, the pioneers’ fundamental orientation was toward the west, turning their backs on the evils of the Old World. “Eastward I go only by force,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “but westward I go free. Mankind progresses from East to West.”[iii]

The westward imperative remains the central geographical metaphor in the mythology of hope and change: “Westward, ho!” “Go west, young man.” America is more than the land on which this movement unfolds. America is itself the process — the project — of westward movement.

As the pioneers move westward, they must overcome a daunting series of obstacles, which the mythology reduces to a single obstacle, conflating the wilderness itself, the people who inhabit it, and the evil they are said to embody. So the frontier as a single line creates an absolute dichotomy between good and evil. James Morone finds an enduring, familiar theme: “We’ve seen the Americans face a long string of foreign enemies. From the Pequots (in 1636) to the communists (circa 1956), they all seemed to embody ‘a form of Satan in action.’”

As Morone’s quick overview implies, the mythic frontier was once confined to the North American continent but long ago became more mobile and global.  By the 20th century it could appear anywhere at any time. As in the cold war era so again in an age of “global war on terror,” it is everywhere at all times.

The frontier has an inescapably religious dimension, Ernest Tuveson argues, because America’s mythic project is based so much on the culminating book of the Christian Bible, the Book of Revelation: “The course of all history was seen as a great series of struggles, in which the prince of darkness is progressively defeated, according to a preconceived plan.”[iv] The enduring influence of the Bible on American culture certainly played a role in making this dualistic view of history so central to so many of the nation’s myths.

But the dualism arises primarily from the inner logic of the mythology itself. A closer look at that logic shows why:

The sense of possibility inherent in the word hope depends on remaining open to change. And change is inevitable, whether we like it or not. Yet many people do not like change of any significant magnitude, because it tends to erode the familiar structures of life, creating anxiety. The uncertainties at the heart of the  nation’s myths — the narratives that are supposed to provide the most dependable structure — and the need to hold those uncertainties at bay are equally permanent and disturbing facts of American life.

So anxiety is a constant feature of American history.  Historians have invoked it to explain virtually everything that has happened in the United States, from the 17th century Puritan laments about their so-called “declination” to the rise of Reaganite conservatism.

Historians have often been less explicit, though, about how the process works. The loss of structure creates anxiety because it seems to erase clearly defined boundaries. Since the old structural boundaries can rarely be restored in their original form, and new structures with new unfamiliar boundaries are precisely the source of anxiety, the most common solution is to create new myths and symbolic structures that seem to offer the kind of clearly defined boundaries that (supposedly) used to give Americans a firm, dependable pattern of life.

For this purpose, the most reassuring boundary of all is some form of clear-cut division between “us” and “them.” The anxiety is often expressed as some form of the lament, “The America I have always known is disappearing,” which easily becomes, “They are taking away my America.” For mythic purposes, it matters not who “they” are; any group easily labeled as “other” will do. Blaming some “other” for the very fact of change itself offers a sense of structure and predictable order in life.

This process is an essential part of the American project, as defined by the mythology of hope and change, precisely because the mythology is so multivalent and even contradictory on so many other points. Since it does not offer any single, clear-cut, positive quality as the distinguishing mark of America and Americans, it must also offer a convenient way to avoid facing this glaring absence.

By insisting on an evil “other” that must constantly be resisted, the mythology says, in effect: We may not know for sure who or what we Americans are, but whatever else we may be, we are definitely the opposite of the evil that we confront most clearly at the frontier.  That external evil “other” is necessary to define “us” as good. The evil must be savage and chaotic so that “we,” the Americans, can feel assured that we are creating, and will continue to live in, civilized order.

This mythically created sense of identity, however unstable, is especially valuable in the United States, where there is no single ethnic heritage, no sense that all the inhabitants are somehow naturally bound together by ties that go back to time immemorial.  On the contrary, some national myths celebrate the fact that the United States was an intentional creation and, more ambivalently, acknowledge (sometimes even celebrate) the nation as a “melting pot” of so many ethnicities. These sources of uncertainty and diversity in the national identity make it even more important to have some “other” against which to pit the proclaimed virtue of being an American — one of “us” — and an active participant in the American project.

In this dualistic vision, Americans must sooner or later commit violence because they face violent foes menacing from the wilderness. Innocents propelled into mortal conflict through no choice of their own must fight against savage enemies who would take away human liberty. Americans have, by definition, no selfish motives; they fight only to protect good people everywhere and to save civilization itself. Since they are fighting for God and good, whatever violence they perpetrate is fully justified. So they can do violence without losing their innate virtue. Their sacrifices purify and ennoble them; they gain what Richard Slotkin calls “regeneration through violence.”[v]

In many versions of this story, the U.S., with its exceptional status and qualities, must do the job of salvation alone. Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence describe this as “the redemption of paradise by lone crusaders. … A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil. … a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisal condition.”[vi] The U.S., like a real western hero, will accept allies but ultimately will see the job through alone if need be. It relies on its own moral certainty, like the Lone Ranger, who knows evil when he sees it and, whenever he sees it, destroys it — by any means necessary.

As they tame the wilderness the pioneers, despite whatever violence they may endure and inflict, import the Edenic qualities of that wilderness into their civilization. Henry Nash Smith has shown that the image of the frontier as “an agricultural paradise in the west, embodying group memories of an earlier, a simpler, and, it was believed, a happier state of society, long survived as a force in American thought and politics.”[vii] In many ways, it still survives.

The frontier can become a paradise because all the obstacles on the frontier, as well as the enemies lurking beyond it, prove to be a blessing in disguise. They force the pioneers to summon up all their own powers of virtuous rationality, to work as hard as they can, and thus to commit themselves to improving themselves and their community.

By pushing the frontier ever westward, the pioneers also create a new and more virtuous life for those who have previously lived in the darkness of the wild. The pioneers incorporate them into civilization, bringing reason, virtue, and liberty to people who had never tasted its fruits.  In the mythic present, the west and settlements along the frontier always have this paradisaical meaning. America is, in Tuveson’s phrase, the “redeemer nation,” the one and only nation destined to lead the whole world to a state of perfection.

SPACE AND TIME

Does the mythology of hope and change really allow for the possibility of perfection, though?  Is there actually an end to this project? Here is another fundamental set of tensions in the mythology of hope and change.

The biblical prototype for the New Israel clearly does promise an end: the Kingdom of God, the millennium, a state of unending perfection. In many versions of the American mythology of hope and change, too, there is a promise that the process will surely come to an end, the project will be fulfilled, and Americans will inevitably create a Kingdom of God on Earth. As John F. Wilson observes, throughout U.S. history “a resolution is repeatedly believed to be at hand to that one special evil which, when overcome, will permit a long-anticipated … era to be ushered in.” Tuveson points out that the longing for this resolution is strongest in times of conflict: “After the war had been won, and evil conquered,” most Americans have assumed, “a permanent era of peace and prosperity would begin.”[viii]

Since myth creates its own eternal present, though, in a sense we are always living on the brink of that critical turning point. The frontier thus exists in time as well as space. Not only is it the place where civilization tames the wilderness; it is the present moment, when the past meets, and is transformed into, a perfect future. So America is a project of moving simultaneously through time and space. More precisely, the two movements are two different perspectives for viewing, or two different ways of describing, the same movement, the same project. To go west is to progress toward millennium, and vice versa.

Yet the Bible holds out the Kingdom of God only as a distant goal. There is no fixed time frame attached to the millennial promise. Even among those who hold on to the promise of a glorious finale to the American project, relatively few claim to know for sure when that time will come. Moreover, the Bible demands that people prove themselves worthy in order to earn the Kingdom and casts serious doubt on their ability to do so. And who can ever be sure that they have earned perfection? For all practical purposes, then, Bible readers must assume that America can and should keep on creating a better and better future forever.

This sense of an endless project has been powerfully reinforced by the cultural impact of the Enlightenment, which saw the possibility of endless progress as a secular blessing. For all these reasons, the American project of moving toward the millennium must move into a future that is indefinite and infinite.

Then there is another, more basic, reason: The logic of the mythology itself leads inescapably to such an open-ended view of the future. As long as Americans rely on the mythology of hope and change to give meaning to their national life, they must go on pursuing innovations and creating changes that erase old familiar boundary lines. Progress, and the process of good overcoming evil, must go on unceasingly; the American project must be enacted continually. How else can Americans prove their virtue, their resolve, and their patriotism? And the more fronts on which the project is enacted, making the proof evident, the better.

So the promised utopian end state, with its perfectly predictable order, is bound to be elusive and illusory.  Once again, the mythology proves to be internally paradoxical — some might say contradictory. It undermines the very sense of structure and meaning it is supposed to create.

But the Biblically rooted vision of a Kingdom of God and its secular equivalent, a utopian paradise, are essential elements of the American mythic tradition. So the answer to the question “Is there an end?” must be both yes and no — which leads to another paradox. The millennial goal is typically described as (in Wilson’s words) a “presumably static era,” a time so perfect that nothing can or need change, thus a time without the possibility of conflict. So “the framework of meaning is one in which the [dynamic] process of realizing a goal contradicts the [static] content of that goal.” Images of intensely dynamic, even apocalyptic, change are embraced as a route to the end of all change.[ix]

The mythology of hope and change has its own resources for resolving, or at least mitigating, this paradox. Thomas Jefferson’s “empire for liberty” is the classic expression of a perfect synthesis between dynamic growth and the stasis of an Edenic community. It is a vision of America as a constantly expanding realm of modest landowners who all understand why they must restrain their selfish impulses for the good of the community. Thus as their nation grows dynamically it remains a harmonious, stable, well-ordered society. The geographical size of the community grows. So does the scientific and technological knowledge that allows it to pursue ever greater happiness. From a social and moral perspective, though, nothing essential ever changes. Like a geometrical tapestry as it is woven, it grows ever larger yet its structure remains the same.

However, the Jeffersonian ideal can never be fully realized. In this process of ever-expanding order, Americans must continually root out every vestige of wilderness, all chaos and evil, within their midst. And the internal logic of the mythology makes this task impossible. Although the evil the pioneers confront at the frontier is “out there,” on the other side of the moral dividing line, some correlated evil is always found inside America as well: “traitors in our midst,” eager to help “the other side.”

Evil must exist inside the nation. How else could Americans demonstrate their ability to improve and purify their nation, which is an essential mark of the progress at the heart of the mythology of hope and change? In that sense the paradox Wilson identifies is ever-present. There cannot be hope for perfection without the dynamism of constant internal improvement, which means change. The real can never match the ideal.

In the tradition of the jeremiad — the indictment of American society for failing to live up to its own standard of perfection — the inner evil becomes a representation of original sin, an embodiment of the evil within every person.  Like the wilderness beyond its frontier, the New Israel is both perfect and imperfect. Yet in the temporal framework the dominant biblical prototype comes from the New Testament, as read by so many Christian theologians: We are both already redeemed and not yet redeemed.

This is bound to be, for many, a frustrating conclusion. Everything ought to be right, yet somehow some things (frequently many things) have gone wrong.  The inevitable imperfections are, like original sin, human failings; they ought to, and frequently do, provoke a sense of guilt: Someone must be responsible.

If Americans are already living in an Edenic Kingdom of God on earth, though, the guilt cannot be their own. Once again, someone else must be to blame, either outsiders or those who live among us but are not “real Americans,” or, most commonly, a conspiracy between the two. The external and internal “others” are the wilderness — the barrier to progress — that must be overcome if we are to attain the final goal of perfection.

Yet the mythology of hope and change demands pursuit of a perfection that can never be attained. So the evildoers can never be fully overcome. The struggle to defeat them must go on forever. This is the project that the mythology calls “America.”


[i]. Ernest Tuveson, Redeemer Nation, viii; Robert Bellah,The Broken Covenant, 81.

[ii]. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 19, 70.

[iii] James M. McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom, 41-42

[iv]. Ernest Tuveson, Redeemer Nation, viii, x; James Morone, Hellfire Nation, 464.

[v]. Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence.

[vi]. Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, American Monomyth, 178, xx.

[vii]. Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: : the American West as Symbol and Myth, 139.

[viii] John F. Wilson, Public Religion in American Culture, 106; Tuveson, Redeemer Nation, 214.

[ix]. Wilson, Public Religion, 108.

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