Ira Chernus  


Myths America Lives By By Richard T Hughes. Foreword by Robert Bellah.

University of Illinois Press, 2003. xv + 203 pages. $29.95.

Here is a very rare bird indeed: a new book on U.S. civil religion, written by a credentialed scholar in the academic study of religion. People still write about U.S. civil religion. But the academic study of religion largely abandoned this subject years ago, and with good reason. It had become something of a prison.

The "we" of the civil religion literature, offered as a representation of all Americans, too often represented the views of an elite group, consisting mainly of wealthy white men. Writers on "our" civil religion seemed unable to break out of the prejudicial premise that this elite represented the views of the entire nation. No matter how much the literature called "our" civil religion into question, somehow "we" always ended up having a core of ideals and values that gave "us" a privileged place in the forefront of humanity. Once these biases were widely recognized, everything written on U.S. civil religion became deservedly suspect.

Richard Hughes’ book stands squarely in that suspect tradition. The acknowledgments are primarily to pillars of the establishment: Sidney Mead, Martin Marty, Conrad Cherry, and Robert Bellah, who also wrote the preface. Hughes’ text and Bellah’s preface both steer clear of the words civil religion. Yet the "myths" they write about are the meat of what was once so widely discussed under that rubric. So a reviewer must ask whether Hughes has moved the tradition of U.S. civil religion studies beyond its self-imposed limits.

The short answer is yes, but not as far as he seems to think.

Hughes says at the outset that his primary goal is to open up our understanding of U.S. civil religion to voices that were previously marginalized. He allows African-American voices, both male and female, to stand for all the marginalized groups. And he endorses Bellah’s suggestion that these can stand for the marginalized all over the world, not just in the U.S.

Hughes offers six major chapters, each chapter devoted to one "myth": the chosen people, nature’s nation, the Christian nation, millennialism (including manifest destiny), capitalism, and American innocence. Each chapter includes a critical perspective gleaned from the words of African-Americans on the subject at hand. Yet the sections on African-American views are relatively short (between 15% and 25% of each chapter). So it is hard to see why Hughes claims that this is the central theme of his book.

In the bulk of the book, devoted to white American views, he does offer many critical comments and caveats about the dangerous policies that American myths have legitimated and still legitimate. These cautionary passages make the book well worth putting in the hands of students and the public at large.

Hughes also deserves praise for compressing so much valuable history — political and social as well as religious—into so few pages, in such readable form. From Henry the Eighth to September 11, nearly every episode important to the understanding of U.S. civil religion is briefly discussed, in admirably precise and concise ways. If you want one recent book that covers most of the bases in the field of civil religion at an introductory level, this is it. The author’s many warnings about the dangers of absolutizing our myths make the book even more worthwhile.

Ultimately, though, Hughes fails to take his own warnings seriously enough. Neither his own words nor those of African-Americans ever quite allow him to break out of the prison that has kept the study of U.S. civil religion locked up for so many years. Those who might have hoped for a genuinely new direction in the study of civil religion, coming from within religious studies, will be disappointed by this book.

The crux of the problem is evident in Bellah’s Preface. "Our" myths need special scrutiny now, he argues, because "the role of world empire has been thrust upon us. … Everyone in the world today has two nationalities—the one they were born with and the American. … Chosen it seems we are, if not by God then by geopolitics. … Chosenness today is our burden, and we must think long and hard about how to bear it" (xii). Bellah admits that his own and Hughes’ thinking about it are hardly value-free: "Richard Hughes writes as a Christian and so do I" (xii). He closes his Preface with a question he says all Christians must face: To what extent can we help America become a responsible empire and to what extent must we stand against empire altogether?

In his Conclusion, Hughes restates this question as one that all of "us" must face, Christian and non-Christian alike. Yet he never answers or really grapples with the question. He merely restates Bellah’s claim that empire has been thrust upon us. Perhaps he realizes that Bellah has already answered the question. If empire has been thrust upon us by some world-historical process (and perhaps by God), then we must become a responsible empire. Standing against empire would be futile (and perhaps ungodly).

All of Hughes’ book is, by implication, a call to responsible empire. He lays out his recommended path clearly enough. It begins with the Jeffersonian belief that all men (and women too, of course) are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is one of "our" myths, Hughes says. But this one is so fundamental and unchallengeable, it alone rises about the level of myth and stands as "the American Creed" (2). Too much cynicism about the American Creed would strip the nation of any meaningful myths, he argues, and put it "in peril of disintegration. … Here we find the enduring problem that the fundamentalists of the left, who can find no good in America whatsoever, have posed" (4). Yet fundamentalists of the right are equally dangerous, Hughes quickly adds, because they absolutize not only the Creed, but the other myths that have emerged in its wake.

He concludes by advocating a middle way between cynicism and self-righteousness. Americans must not "scuttle their national myths," but embrace them "in their highest and noblest form … with extraordinary humility. … In this way, their national myths might yet sustain the promise of the American Creed." This was the dominant tone of most of the writing on U.S. civil religion in the late 1960s and 1970s. Ultimately, then, Hughes and the tradition he represents remain imprisoned in the unquestioned premise that "we" are indeed a chosen people, because "our" highest ideals are the highest that humanity has yet attained and perhaps might ever attain.

Hughes and the tradition also remain committed to a particular style of Christian faith. Although Hughes notes the roots of his own faith in Luther and the early Anabaptists, Reinhold Niebuhr is the one theologian he consistently invokes as his inspiration. The Niebuhrian brand of Christianity plays the dominant, or at least the most obvious, role in these pages, beginning with Bellah’s warning that humility "is essential if we are to avoid the many disasters that await us" (xii). Throughout the book, Hughes often points out and indeed relishes the irony of virtues turning into vices because they are held self-righteously, without humility.

This leaves the study of civil religion tied in the same logical knot that has always plagued it. Faithful to its American roots, it summons all of us to live up to the highest Jeffersonian ideals. Yet faithful to its Niebuhrian roots, it tells us that even the greatest nation must be humble and ironic, because (in Hughes’ words) all of human existence in "ordinary history" is dominated by "evil, suffering, and death."

The advocates of civil religion as a moral call cannot have it both ways. If Niebuhr was right, then the moral call is futile and even fraudulent. In the realm of national life, above all, man is truly a wolf to man. There is no reason to imagine that any nation can ever live up to, or even approach, the ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all. If, on the other hand, the Jeffersonian ideals can truly be put into practice via national policies, then the foundation of Niebuhr’s thought is called into question, and with it the whole Niebuhrian framework. Some other intellectual foundation for the study of U.S. civil religion must be found.

This is an urgent task for scholars of religion who live in a country mobilizing the greatest military machine in world history to wage an endless "war on terrorism." We need studies of civil religion that claim no supposed consensus but allow "us" to speak in all our diversity. Perhaps we must study only civil religions, in the plural. Or, if in the singular, we need to see civil religion as a broad, dynamic field of contending forces rather than an imagined unified tradition. We need studies of civil religion(s), and myths Americans live by, that invoke no sub rosa theological agenda or summons to a higher, more moral Americanism. Myths America Lives By is a timely reminder of how important the subject is, how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.

Ira Chernus

University of Colorado at Boulder