In this newly released book, T. Walter Herbert, an ex-minister, and Emeritus Professor of American Literature and Culture at Southwestern University, Texas, sets out to make sense of the Bush years by examining them in the light of how America has imagined and defined itself since its earliest days.
What many have seen as simply an aberration driven by the explosive combination of 9/11 and the personalities and political philosophies of Bush, Cheney and their inner circle, Herbert presents as a variation on a theme with deep roots in America’s psyche–America as a divinely inspired and guided nation with a God-given mission in the world.
The result is a searching and thought-provoking examination of the fundamental beliefs and myths that drove the nation across the continent, shaped its treatment of the Native American tribes it encountered, defined our role through two world wars and the Cold War, and, redefined by Bush and Cheney, led us to invade Iraq and on to the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
America’s vision of itself, its founding myth, Herbert argues, is as a gleaming “city on a hill,” a God-given shelter for freedom within and a shining beacon to the rest of the world.
As others have done, Herbert traces this myth to the sermon given by John Winthrop aboard the flagship Arbella as a tiny flotilla of Puritan settlers neared the coast of Massachusetts in 1630. The devoutly religious Winthrop declared to his equally devout followers, “For we most consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”
As God’s newly chosen people, the settlers believed that they could expect divine guidance and protection, but only, as Winthrop warned them, if they maintained their own high moral stature in the face of the worldly temptations of wealth and power.
Noble words. However, Herbert shows that from the start, two mirror-image versions of this founding myth competed for dominance.
One, exemplefied by Winthrop’s contemporary, the freethinking Roger Williams, held that the fledgling nation’s good standing with God demanded moral treatment of others. He asserted, for example, that religious dissent should not be criminalized within the Puritan colony. Even more importantly, he asserted that the Native Americans whom the settlers encountered were human beings with God-given rights comparable to those of the Puritans. In his eyes, Native American lands had not been awarded to the settlers by God, but could only be obtained through fair negotiations.
The alternate view, and the one that Herbert argues has dominated American history, defined the continent that lay before the settlers as their Promised Land, and the settlers as God’s chosen inheritors of that land from the natives who, unlike them, were not favored by God. The Indians could be pushed aside and slaughtered in the course of carrying out God’s mandate. Success against those defined as enemies to God’s plan was not only assured by a benevolent Creator, but demanded by a wrathful one.
Herbert traces these twin, entwined, myths throughout American history. On one hand, he argues, belief in America’s special mandate fostered much that is good and great about America. But when the dark side of the mythology dominated, it justified and helped drive two centuries of wars against the Native Americans, exploitation of the continent’s resources and people, and, in our post Cold-War era, the exportation of armed capitalism as the highest expression of freedom and democracy.
Herbert focusses most intensely on 9/11 and its aftermath. One of the puzzles that he unravels is the intense surprise, the shock that most American’s felt not just at the destruction of 9/11, but at the hatred that drove it. How could others hate us when we live in that city on a hill, when we want nothing more than to be a beacon to the world? The myth, Herbert makes clear, made most of us blind to the negative aspects of America’s enormous impact on the world, it created a blind spot through which al Quaeda caught us by surprise.
Herbert goes on to detail the extent to which the darker side of a divinely led America, America acting on behalf of a wrathful God, dominated the character and actions of the Bush administration.
The path Bush chose was an all-out war of good against evil, the unfolding of a divine drama in which our role had less to do with the pragmatics of coping with a complex multilateral world than with acting out the myth of “primal American innocence assaulted by supernatural malice.”
It should come as no surprise to students of history that along with such divine mission and mandate came the permission to invade pre-emptively, to abduct, hold without charges or trial, and torture our perceived enemies abroad, and to invade the privacy and erode the rights of citizens at home. Grandiose, God-given missions all too easily unleash a nation or group’s worst impulses.
Herbert is a scholar. As such, he builds and supports his analysis on an edefice of historical and current documentation, from Winthrop’s city-on-a-hill sermon through recent revelations of the inside workings of the Bush administration. He makes a strong case for the existence and impact of the twin threads of divinely inspired American exceptionalism, inspiration that he shows us can lead to great accomplishments and to great evil.
Readers may differ as to the degree to which this mythology, rather than historical necessity, pragmatic politics, oil, or the peculiar chemistry of the Bush-Cheney White House drove American policy following 9/11. However, anyone who wants to understand America more deeply would be well advised to read Faith-Based War, and read it carefully.
In the end, Herbert’s concern is not only to examine the mythological underpinnings of the Bush era, the Iraq war, and earlier moments in our history, but to challenge each of us to scrutinize our own political and social morality. Invoking the infamous image from Abu Ghraib of the hooded man with electrical wires dangling from his outthrust arms, Herbert asks, “Where do you see yourself in this drama? With whom do you stand in the presence of this atrocity?
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