This article is the third part of a series adapted from the ideas in my thesis, The Trump Shall Resound: Christian Anarchism as Eschatological and Apocalyptic Witness; but it’s basically a total rewrite, because the paper is far too long and far too academic to post on this blog. If that kind of stuff floats your boat, though, feel free to check it out, and don’t forget to read the intro post to the series.
In this series, I am going to follow the general outline of my thesis, even though I am completely rewriting it. In the paper, I propose that there are three major “genes” in the DNA of Empire, and that by comparing this genome with the totally opposite one of the Kingdom of God, we can learn a lot about what makes the Kingdom vision of Jesus so special.
Both this article and the next one look at the second of the three genes: narrative/mythology. This one is actually the lynchpin of my entire Christian Anarchist theology. If we can see that the Empire has its own narrative that shapes our hearts, minds, and souls in a way that is basically “religious,” we can then compare and contrast it to the narrative of the Kingdom of God. Doing this carefully will show that they are two completely different worldviews that can only be reconciled by making a split in our brains to accommodate them both as separate entities, an approach that I totally disagree with. (Many theologians have done exactly this, such as Martin Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” theology, but I hope this article demonstrates why I find that to be a poor choice.)
The first section will explain some of the background and concepts I am using, but the second part will actually break down what I see to be the components of the American mythological system. It will probably be the most controversial part, so you might want to skip there to read the juicy bits and then come back to the first part after.
The second gene of Empire: Mythology/narrative
All Empires eventually develop a “mythology” - a whole story, or collection of stories, that make up an integrated worldview and help explain the nature of the world and our place within it from the perspective of the Empire. However, it is more than just stories. Mythologies also come along with an ideology: a whole system of beliefs, virtues, and practices that shape the identity of the citizens. Although mythology might seem too dramatic of a word to use in a rational, modern place like the United States, I think that, given the right lenses, we can see just how accurate it is.
In ancient Empires like Rome, the mythology was “literal” in the sense that we often think of the word. There was a pantheon of gods, a huge number of legends about the founding of Rome and other significant events in her history, and a belief in the semi-divine nature of the Emperor as well as the spirit of the Empire that came with a whole set of religious and ceremonial practices and prayers. All of these served to reinforce Rome’s power, because they took it beyond military and judicial control and moved it into the hearts, minds, and spirits of the people. Even if they didn’t fully agree with what they were saying, we can imagine that eventually a sort of brainwashing effect took over as they were indoctrinated into the worldview that Rome was the greatest empire ever to exist, led by a son of the gods (Caesar) and built on principles like peace, justice, equality, and divine blessing.
Because the modern world no longer uses fantastic legends and supernatural myths, it is easy enough for us to roll our eyes at the suggestion of an American mythology. But with careful analysis and a shift in perspective, I think it is easy to demonstrate that the only thing that has changed regarding Empire and mythology is the nature of the approach rather than the substance and effect of it.
Although our mythology is no longer rooted in the supernatural and polytheistic concepts of the ancient world, we still have one that shapes our view of our nation. As Bill Cavanaugh writes, “Modernity is unaccustomed to regarding political theory as mythological in character. The modern state is, however, founded on certain stories of nature and human nature, the origin of human conflict, and remedies for such conflict in the enactment of the state itself.” (Theopolitical Imagination, page 9)
The most important thing to note about mythology is that it isn’t just an isolated collection of stories. These stories give birth to an integrated narrative - along with virtues, values, and practices - that has a “religious” character. They are religious in the sense that they “command our allegiance, vie for our passion, and aim to capture the heart with a particular vision of the good life. They don’t want to just give us entertainment or an education; they want to make us into certain kinds of people.” (James K. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, page 90)
Just like with the mythologies of the ancient world, the American one has created its own religion as the stories, virtues, values, and practices have become more deeply embedded in our hearts and souls. This is the natural way the Empire develops; and as we will see in the next article, all of it helps create an image of what success and even “salvation” looks like.
In the next article, I will expand on the actual ideology of the American religion and about the strong contrast with the Kingdom of God. But just for reference, here is a very brief and incomplete summary of it: ethnocentric triumphalism, capitalism, individualism, the so-called American Dream, and consumerism; as well as the cultural virtues of liberty, independence, an entrepreneurial spirit, self-sufficiency, and wealth-making. All of this shapes a people in powerful ways that demand loyalty and allegiance to the nation, but today let’s just look at the institution that does the shaping.
I think it’s easiest to stop talking about it and just give some examples to show what I mean. I have made a list of what I see as the primary elements of the “American civic religion.”
Before we start, I want to make two preliminary comments:
(1) The language here is going to feel very strange and uncomfortable to many of you. To be fair, the religious terms I use here are for comparison only. I don’t think anyone would actually call George Washington a demi-god or the the act of voting a sacrament. However, I use the words very intentionally to provoke thought. I think that by considering how relevant and accurate these comparisons might be, we may find our eyes a bit more opened to the ways in which the “spirit” of the American Empire works.
(2) You may feel that some things I say about the military and its members are incredibly disrespectful or dishonoring. That is not my intent. Although I am a pacifist who believes very strongly - exactly as the Early Church did, in fact - that Christ-followers should not enlist in the military, I have never intentionally dishonored a soldier personally. As someone who wanted to enlist myself when I was younger, I understand that it is done with the best and most noble intentions and at great cost, and I will never disrespect that. This is not about disrespecting individuals, but about shining light on what I believe to be a very unhealthy values system that is very much opposed to the Kingdom of God.
So with that said, let's dive right in! Here is my breakdown of the most important components of the American mythology:
The sacred texts:
The Constitution - our most sacred text, basically divinely inspired, unquestionably infallible for all purposes of imperial life and laws as long as it is studied and interpreted correctly
The Declaration of Independence - our creation narrative, or our “origins story,” that represents the foundation of the whole system and establishes some of the fundamental principles of the Empire
History books - by teaching our children a white-washed optimistic version of our own history in which we skim over the ugly parts and highlight the exceptional ones, we show how great of a nation we really are, which also includes how great we have been for the rest of the world. History is truly written by the victors, which as one example is why many of us grew up learning that Columbus was a hero and a good guy. (I cannot speak for public school curriculums, and I know that even now this is changing. However, the Christian history curriculum from Abeka books that I was raised on is disgustingly biased and nationalistic, basically teaching kids that all the “good guys” in our history were exactly like us in matters of faith and politics, while downplaying or skimming over some of the uglier parts, such as mass genocide of Indigenous peoples.)
An unofficial collection of proverbs and sayings - an informal, colloquial, but shared library of various quips and quotes from a variety of sources that help capture the traditional American ethics, values, and way of life. These are similar to the “oral tradition” of many ancient religions. They range from serious to hilarious and vary from group to group, but here is just a handful of common ones: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps; He who does not work does not eat; Speak softly and carry a big stick; Give me liberty or give me death; I have a dream; The land of the free and the home of the brave; One nation under God; In God we trust; God bless America; Make America great again; Drain the swamp; Give me my rights/We have to protect our rights; She/he (a soldier) paid the ultimate sacrifice; Don’t tread on me; etc. There is a very simple test to show that these are part of a narrative rather than just a collection of nice sayings. Most (if not all) of these quotes should immediately bring up an image, story, or group of people along with them. They might make us think of songs or historical events, and they will often bring up strong emotions. This is because these simple quotes, just like those one-liners that New Testament authors quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures, are part of a much larger story, which they are designed to call to memory even if we don’t tell people exactly what we are talking about. For example, “I have a dream” will immediately bring up a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, along with how it applies today. It is an emotionally loaded phrase because it virtually defines a whole era of American history and activism.
The Founding Fathers - our pantheon of demigods, superhuman geniuses who penned the our Holy Scriptures at the birth of the greatest nation to ever exist
Members of the armed forces - living or dead saints, to be constantly prayed for, acknowledged and thanked in public when met, given special privileges at many institutions, and commemorated on certain holy days (see below)
Members of Congress and the Senate - priests and bishops, regarded with a special sense of awe, masters of interpreting the holy text of the Constitution (see above) and discerning the correct application for today
The President - the highest leader, a priest-king similar to the “sons of the gods” in Ancient Near Eastern cultures in the sense that he is viewed as the head and representative of the whole nation as well as responsible for everything that happens in it. Although actually only the leading member of one of three branches in the government, he is viewed as ultimately responsible for every national event, every economic uptick and downturn, every crisis, and every victory.
Voting - one of the highest and most sacred moments of the American religious system. To make a very loose analogy, we might compare it to the “eucharist” of Empire. By engaging in this practice, we are closest to the spirit of democracy, freedom, and the republic. For many people, choosing not to vote is disgustingly sinful (as I have been told by many Christians) - which just illustrates how “religious” of a practice it is.
Moments of silence - special moments of “prayer” used to honor the spirits of the dead and (usually) to reinforce feelings of patriotism and national pride
The National Anthem - sung at the beginning of every sports game, civic event, and public gatherings of all kinds. This song evokes tears of joy or grief as it grips the deepest part of our emotions; truly the “high point” of Imperial worship
The Pledge of Allegiance - the statement of faith, or catechism, or foundational creed (similar to the shahada of Islam or the John 3:16 of evangelicals). This is a full-on pledging of our hearts and allegiance to the “flag,” the primary symbol of the whole system. (Although I’m trying to avoid any Christian theological commentary in this section, I have to say that “allegiance” is one of the better translations of the faith/faithfulness we are to put in Jesus Christ, and therefore I find the Pledge to actually be one of the most blasphemous things a Christian could say.)
The holy year/church calendar:
National holidays such as Veteran’s Day/Memorial Day - high holy days set aside to honor, remember, and pray for the living and dead saints. These are some of the best times for engaging in the sacramental practices like moments of silence and the national anthem. They are also good times to make a pilgrimage to a local graveyard and attend a ceremony or practice the private devotion of offering a sacrifice of flowers to place on a tombstone in memory of the dead. (Sidenote: this doesn’t look a whole lot different from the ways ancient religions honored and prayed to the dead or their ancestors.)
The State of the Union Address - a high point of the year, the great sermon from the President/Pope/High Priest/God-king (see above) which sets the tone for the year.
Election season - a period of about 9-10 months every four years in which the spirit of Empire and national fervor and devotion are at their absolute highest. This is when a variety of candidates for the high office campaign as prophets: criticizing what is broken, making sacred promises about how to fix it, building their own base of allegiance and loyalty, and always doing it all within the context of stirring up national fervor and pride.
Inaugurations - The peak moment of election season. For about half the people, it is the high point of victory and exultation, like Christian Easter or the Muslim Eid al Fitr. For the other half, it is a day of mourning and lamentation which also, in its own way, reinforces the foundational principles and values of the Imperial religion.
There are far too many to list, but there are countless sites across the nation where the spirit of Empire is most strongly and even sacredly enshrined. These include historical ones like Plymouth Rock, the Mayflower, Gettysburg, houses of Founding Fathers, etc; and also symbolic ones, like the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Washington Monument, etc.
Whew, that was a lot of information for one article! Next time, we're going to compare all of this with the "mythology" of the Kingdom of God, but for today I'll leave you with just one closing statement by reversing the comparison process. In the Kingdom of God, I would say that the Sermon on the Mount is the Constitution and these words from Isaiah that Jesus quoted in his first ever public teaching are the Declaration of Independence:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Check out the rest of the series:
Part 1: Why I am a Christian Anarchist
Part 3: The American mythology
Part 4: A war of myths
Part 5: Built on violence