Religion and Class in the Construction and Deconstruction of the Myth of American Exceptionalism

Part of the New Approaches to Religion and Power book series (NARP)


As John F. Kennedy once said, “the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”1 Myths play a powerful role in political life. They frame our experience, setting parameters around our political imagination, causing us to see it only in a certain way and not in others. The American national myth goes something like this: America was founded by people who were fleeing religious persecution, rigid class hierarchies, and tyrannical governments.2 Here they founded a beacon of liberty, opportunity, and democracy for all the world to emulate. Successive waves of people came to these shores seeking the opportunity to govern themselves and to rise above their humble material origins—to achieve the “American Dream.” If they could not realize that ambition in one generation, they could be assured that their children and grandchildren would.


American Politics Upward Mobility Liberation Theology Racial Resentment Social Creed 
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  1. 2.
    The myth distorts the notion that the early colonists were fleeing religious persecution. Rather, as Murrin has pointed out, they came not to practice religious liberty, but to establish their own form of orthodoxy. John M. Murrin, “Religion and Politics in America from the First Settlements to the Civil War,” in Mark A. Noll and Luke E. Harlow, eds., Religion and American Politics from the Colonial Period to the Present, second ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 2.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 24.Google Scholar
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    Researchers have attributed mobility to the propensity of Americans to greater internal geographical mobility, to the greater availability of public education in the United States, and to the likelihood that since farming remained a major occupation for Americans long after it had ceased to be for residents of Britain, migration into and out of this sector between 1850 and 1920 in the United States may have mattered for relative mobility. It should be noted that the data from 1850 to 1920 does not contain income or wealth information, only differences in the occupational status of fathers and sons. Joseph P. Ferrie, “History Lessons: The End of American Exceptionalism? Mobility in the United States Since 1850,” journal of Economic Perspectives 19.3 (Summer 2005): 199–215. See also Scott Winship, “Assessing Income Inequality, Mobility and Opportunity,” Testimony delivered to the Senate Budget Committee’s hearing on inequality, mobility, and opportunity, February 9, 2012, Brookings Institution, Scholar
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    Mark Hulsether, Religion, Culture and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 1. Americans have often made the mistake of equating the Plymouth Puritans who came over on the Mayflower with the Puritans who arrived ten years later and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The former were composed mostly of yeomen, or working people, while the latter represented a distinctly higher class of educated and more economically and socially successful people. Richard Howland Maxwell, “Pilgrim and Puritan: A Delicate Distinction,” Pilgrim Society Note, Series Two, March 2003, Pilgrim Museum, This distinction is important because it was the ethos of the superior class that infused the ideology that comes down to us as American national identity.Google Scholar
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    For a fuller explanation of this point see, Sheila D. Collins, “Interrogating and Reconceptualizing Natural Law to Protect the Integrity of the Earth,” in J. Ronald Engel, Laura Westra, and Klaus Bosselmann, eds., Democracy, Ecological Integrity and International Law (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010), 445–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” speech given at the Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967.Google Scholar
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    For a history of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam see Michael K. Hall, Because of Their Faith: CALCAV and Religious Opposition to the Vietnam War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
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    For an account of WFP during the war years, see Ed Griffin-Nolan, Witness for Peace (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991). Witness for Peace was founded by people who had been active in Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. It is still in existence and has itinerated thousands of North Americans not only to Nicaragua during the war, but also to other countries suffering from US imperial and neoliberal policies.Google Scholar
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    For an account of this movement, see Renny Golden and Michael McConnell, Sanctuary: The New Underground Railroad (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986).Google Scholar
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    For histories of the way in which the evangelical-Republican alliance was built, see Thomas Byrne Edsall, The New Politics of Inequality (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984);Google Scholar
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    Among some of the works that fall into this category are John Dominic Crosson, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1995); Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins, 1992);Google Scholar
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  22. Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987);Google Scholar
  23. Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984); Unmasking the Powers: The Lnvisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986); and Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).Google Scholar

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© Joerg Rieger 2013

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