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American Dream 2.0
A Christian Way Out of the Great Recession
By Frank A. Thomas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
THE AMERICAN JEREMIAD AND THE CULTURAL MYTH OF AMERICA
When He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "May the Lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
—John Winthrop, "A Model of Christian Charity" (1630)
The roots of the American Dream begin with the American jeremiad. The American jeremiad is:
a mode of public exhortation that originated in the European pulpit, was transformed in both form and content by the New England Puritans, persisted through the eighteenth century, and helped sustain a national dream through two hundred years of turbulence and change.
The American jeremiad gives shape and contour to the cultural myth and identity of America and, consistent with its early Puritan roots, establishes American values and ideals that are the basis of traditional and contemporary American life and community.
When I suggest the term cultural myth, I mean stories, legends, or explanations from the worldview of a particular people that serve to explain practices, beliefs, historical events, and even natural phenomena. For example, the legends of Greek gods such as Zeus, Apollo, and Pandora embodied the central ideas and values of Greek civilization. My interest is not to debate whether the stories are "true" in the literal sense. These myths functioned as key indicators of Greek cultural belief. They
assured the Greeks of the nobility of their origins; they provided models for the roles Greeks would play in their public and private lives; they justified inequality in Greek society; they helped the Greeks understand human life and destiny in terms that "made sense" within the framework of that culture.
Greek cultural myth functions the exact same way as American cultural myth. The cultural myths of America give Americans a "centrality," a shared way of looking at the world, an awareness of customs, values, habits, ideas, and beliefs, and a common language and vocabulary. Culture binds Americans together by shaping American tastes, habits, dreams, and desires. In fact, when we say America, we mean the bundle of American cultural myths that form the idea, identity, and place that the world has come to know as "America."
In this chapter, I briefly illustrate how the American jeremiad gives shape to the cultural myth of America. I will clarify the American jeremiad, from its Puritan parentage to its adoption by the African American community and from its theological roots to its secular dimensions in the formation of civil religion, including its enduring use in American and presidential politics. The American jeremiad also fosters a tradition of American dissent and establishes clear boundaries for any dissent that is a threat to American values and identity. I want to look first at the roots of the American jeremiad.
The European Jeremiad
In the eighth century B.C.E., the Judean prophet Isaiah spoke these words:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it,
cleared away its stones,
planted it with excellent vines....
He expected it to grow good grapes—
but it grew rotten grapes.
So now, you who live in Jerusalem,
you people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard....
Now let me tell you
what I'm doing to my vineyard.
I'm removing its hedge,
so it will be destroyed.
I'm breaking down its walls,
so it will be trampled....
The vineyard of
the Lord of heavenly forces
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah. (Isaiah 5:1-7)
Isaiah's complaint, consistent with the prophecy of Jeremiah and that of other Hebrew prophets, functions to call the nation of Israel back to its covenant relationship with Yahweh. This passage, indicative of a love relationship between God and Israel, trumpets dire warnings of calamities and destruction by the prophets based upon Israel's sin and disobedience. Many of the Old Testament prophets bemoan Israel's idolatry and apostasy and utilize judgment and destruction as the basis for the call to repentance and a return to God's favor.
Drawing on sermons from the medieval pulpit and fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England, Europeans adopted the prophetic words of Isaiah and Jeremiah and of other prophets as a form of political sermon called the jeremiad. In its origins, a jeremiad was a lamentation or doleful complaint. It was a lament over the sins of the people based upon their departure from God's ways, and it warned of God's certain judgment and wrath to follow.
During the 1630s, New England Puritans interpreted the judgment of the European jeremiad as indicative of God's irrevocable wrath, and therefore, the inevitable, certain, and soon coming destruction of Europe. They believed that judgment was upon Europe, and based upon their covenant relationship with God, God had given America to them as the "new promised land." These seventeenth-century New England Puritans identified themselves as the "New Israel" and the "chosen people of God." Europe had forfeited its right to chosen-nation status, and many Puritans were fleeing to America to escape the upcoming and literal destruction of Europe. Upon their arrival, America was to be a "city set upon a hill." And when America strayed from the covenant, the American jeremiad was constructed to speak the judgment of God and call the people back to covenant with God.
The American Jeremiad
The American jeremiad was a public ritual designed to join social criticism to spiritual renewal, intertwining practical spiritual guidance with advice on public affairs. The jeremiad was the "state-of-the-covenant address, tendered at every public occasion (on days of fasting and prayer, humiliation and thanksgiving, at covenant renewal and artillery company ceremonies, and most elaborately and solemnly, at Election Day gatherings) observed by the Puritan colonist."
The Puritan jeremiad reminded America of its divine mission established by John Winthrop in 1630. Winthrop, in a sermon at sea aboard the Arabella, paraphrased Matthew 5:14 to crystallize New England's mission: "we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us." Given sacred history and a theocratic universe as the theatre for God's judgment, the Puritan migration to American was the "desacralization" of England and "the sacralization of the wilderness in America as a shelter and place for the Nonconformist Puritans." The Puritans believed that their pilgrimage to America fulfilled prophetic apocalyptic and eschatological visions:
the Old and the New World were totally antagonistic and mutually exclusive entities. So, according to Puritan ideology of the migration to New England, the "discovery" of America was a great revelatory and prophetic event in the course of progress of the church upon the earth in which God's divine providence transformed the locus of the history of redemption and salvation from the corrupted Old World to the New World.
Following this sense of divine mission, "the purpose of the jeremiads was to direct an imperiled people to God in order to fulfill their destiny, to guide them individually toward salvation, and collectively toward the American city of God."
The unique feature of the American jeremiad was its unassailable optimism. In explicit opposition to the traditional European jeremiad, the American jeremiad inverts the doctrine of vengeance into a promise of ultimate success. The American jeremiad turned prophetic threat into celebration in that God's punishments were corrective and not ultimately destructive. There was no place in the American jeremiad for God's irrevocable wrath and the destruction of America in abandoning the covenant.
Unshakeable optimism is the essential characteristic of the American jeremiad. Any looming challenge is only a test of character and not a fatal error or structural flaw in the American system. Any crisis may be overcome by a return to the optimism of traditional American ideals rather than the identification of fundamental and structural flaws in American values. If there are concerns of subjugated groups over access to freedom, liberty, justice, citizenship, economic participation, equality, voting rights, and so on, it is a matter of unfulfilled values, that is, Americans not living up to their professed values, rather than fundamental and structural flaws in the nation.
Based in optimism rather than judgment, over a period of time, the American jeremiad provided a conceptual framework that defined and embraced acceptable dissent, or dissent that could gain a hearing in American culture. The result was that acceptable dissent functioned within the optimism of the American jeremiad and left fundamental and structural flaws in American values unchallenged.
The American Jeremiad and the Cultural Myth of America
Shaped by the Puritans, the jeremiad, or the "political sermon," is a key rhetorical component in the shaping of the cultural myth of America. Puritan ideology shaped the cultural myth of America because it "represented the movement to modernity, and the myth they invented to express that aspects of their venture had provided the culture with a useful, flexible, durable and compelling fantasy of American identity." In other words, Puritan theology and ideology shaped the idea that we have come to know as America. According to Sacvan Bercovitch, "the jeremiad is a central component in the development of America from colonies to nationhood and in the steady (if often violent) growth of middle-class culture."
The War of 1812 solidified America's independence from Britain and contributed to an increased sense of nationhood. This increased sense of nationhood led to the establishment of the concept of middle class, when the term expresses "the norms we have come to associate with the free enterprise system," that is, hard work, frugality, individual initiative unhindered by government, and capitalistic economic striving. The nation shifted from localized home production to large-scale manufacturing, and to maximize this change required not merely rivers and roads, but also canals and railroads to transfer raw materials and finished goods to increasingly distant farms, plantations, and towns of the Mississippi River Valley and cities that attracted immigrants. Despite financial depressions in 1819, 1837, and 1857, the middle class grew strong and vibrant. M. Kathleen Kaveny, following Bercovitch, argues that "Calvinist values of hard work and frugality merged with the growth of capitalism to produce a 'middle-class' mindset of economic striving deemed to be both demanded and blessed by God himself." These norms functioned as the officially endorsed cultural myth of America, and subsequently the American Dream. In its original Puritan version, the cultural myth of America was that America was a city set on a hill, blessed by God to be the light of the world, with the spiritual values of optimism, hard work, frugality, capitalistic economic striving, and a virgin land as assets to bring the kingdom of God to earth.
The myth of America became entrenched in New England and spread across the western territories and the South. The American Dream is a belief system and a way of life spun out in "webs of significance" by successive generations of Americans to justify their way of life to themselves and the world. Despite its rootage in religion and the jeremiad, the American Dream assumed national and secular dimensions as American civil religion.
The Secular Form of the American Jeremiad
Based upon its establishment as part of American civil religion, the jeremiad has a quasi-religious secular form. David Howard-Pitney clearly illustrates the basic content of the argument of the jeremiad in its secular form:
Premise 1: America has always believed itself to be special and uniquely set apart from the rest of the world, a shining example of socioreligious perfection lighting the way for the coming of God's kingdom.
Premise 2: American belief in the special role for America led to a "civil religion" replete with founding myths such as the pilgrims' arrival in America and the American Revolution, with patriarchs and saviors such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and with holy Scriptures and sacred texts such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Premise 3: Such a flattering self-image can promote both excessive social pride and complacency or an acute sense of failure in completing the transcendental mission. Therefore, the American jeremiad is the rhetoric of indignation, expressing deep dissatisfaction and urgently challenging the nation to reform.
Conclusion: The jeremiad expresses optimism, hope, and the conviction that the nation will reform and fulfill its special and unique destiny set apart from the rest of the world.
The secular form of the jeremiad can be used by those of all political persuasions, including both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. The secular jeremiadic form has been analyzed in speeches by Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Kurt W. Ritter, studying the rhetoric of presidential nomination acceptance addresses, identifies the basic form of the secular jeremiad employed by many politicians:
Each challenging candidate ultimately asks: "What made America great?" Posing this question allows the presidential aspirant to identify a single ideal (or a cluster of values) from our past which is missing in the present and whose absence accounts for our difficulties.
Both the incumbent and the challenger identify from the ensemble of traditional American values, one or several ideals or values. Then, the incumbent or challenger explains what he or she has done or will do to keep America strong according to the chosen ideals within the set of traditional values. At the same time, the candidate draws sharp distinctions from his or her opponent by demonstrating how the opponent has strayed from the chosen traditional values and therefore has made or will make America weak. The candidate will then claim that no matter the crisis or difficulty America can return to its traditional greatness.
The classic example of the utilization of the secular jeremiad is the 1984 U.S. presidential campaign ad of Republican Party candidate Ronald Reagan, known as "Morning in America." The ad featured a montage of images of Americans going back to work and overcoming the difficulties of the late 1970s economy under then-president Jimmy Carter. A calm, optimistic narration suggested that it was morning again in America, based on the policies of Ronald Reagan's first term as president, and asked the question who would ever want to go back to the policies of the Democrats like his opponent, Walter Mondale, who had served as Carter's vice president. Reagan effectively employed the characteristic feature of the American jeremiad—its unassailable optimism. He adeptly illustrated that the economic crisis (caused and exacerbated by the opponent) was only a test of American character and not a fatal error or structural flaw in the American system. Despite the economic difficulties, it was morning in America. Many say that this optimism won the 1984 election, and has become, for some, the enduring legacy of Reagan's presidency.
With a preliminary understanding of the American jeremiad, let us turn now to consider the African American jeremiad.
African American Jeremiad
Although New England Puritans were the originators of the American jeremiad, African Americans quickly picked up the form to express their outrage at the sin of slavery. The African American jeremiad was primarily a northern-based free-black phenomenon because in the North it was relatively safe to protest openly against American slavery and racial proscription. Wilson Moses defines the black jeremiad as "constant warnings issued by blacks to whites, concerning the judgment that was to come from the sin of slavery":
The black jeremiad was mainly a pre-Civil War phenomenon and showed the traditional preoccupation with impending doom. It was often directed at a white audience, and it bemoaned the sinfulness of slaveholders—fellow Americans who defied the natural and divine law that they were covenantally bound to uphold—and predicted God's punishment was to come.
Excerpted from American Dream 2.0 by Frank A. Thomas. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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