Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Myth of American Innocence

A new friend here in Toronto, a visiting faculty member like myself, writes a regular column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. This recent column contains some important reflections for preachers and congregations as well as those who report on them. There are some good Advent resources here about the human condition (even if you don't focus on the politics).

Articles of Faith: The myth of American innocence
By Anthony B. Robinson, Guest Columnist

ONE OF THE OLDEST strands of American thought is the myth of American innocence. The first settlers from Europe left the "Old World," thought to be corrupt and exhausted, for the "New World," a kind of American Eden. American movies, from John Wayne Westerns to "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," regularly invoked the theme of a unique American innocence and virtue.

The myth of American innocence portrays America and Americans as fresh and untainted by the ancient wiles and deceptions of others. It imagines that Americans have a combination of virtue, tenacity and practical knowledge that will allow them to prevail where others have failed.

One way to understand both John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin and the Palin phenomenon is in the context of this myth of American innocence.

Now Washington (the other Washington) is the corrupt Old World. McCain depicts himself as an outsider and maverick to the Washington establishment. But it is Palin that completes the evocation of the myth of American innocence.

Alaska is as far as you can get from corrupt Washington. The 49th state translates into frontier virtue. Moreover, Palin's inexperience, in the context of the myth of American innocence, is not a weakness but a strength. It means that she is untainted. Her youth and family complete the picture of innocence and virtue, and of an American original who will go to Washington and clean house.

George W. Bush drew on similar themes to cast himself as an outsider and turn his own limited resume into an asset.

The greatest recent examination of the myth has been Graham Greene's 1955 novel "The Quiet American." In it Greene exposes the havoc set in motion by one U.S. innocent, Alden Pyle, in Vietnam.

As it turned out, Greene's novel was prophetic, anticipating America's tragic engagement in a conflict it never really understood. When "The Quiet American" was released as a movie in 2002, a year before the invasion of Iraq, it again sounded an alarm and anticipated what happens when power and innocence are wed.

The problem with the myth of American innocence, as Greene showed, is that it renders its victims blind. Claiming to see clearly, the innocents are blind to the complexities of the world, but more important, blind to their own limitations and capacity for evil. The myth locates all sin and evil elsewhere and in others. This is part of the reason that Christian fundamentalism strives so steadily to convert or, if that fails, cast out gays. They represent the foreign body, the corruption of innocence.

Barack Obama might also be thought to be appealing to the myth of American innocence, given his idealism and invocation of hope. Yet if you listen to Obama, you hear something different. It is not innocence but idealism that is at the core of his message. Obama has also frequently spoken of himself and his campaign as "imperfect," which further separates him from the theme of American innocence.

Obama's acknowledgments of imperfection owe something to his reading of the American Christian theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Obama described as his "favorite philosopher." Niebuhr was a great critic of the myth of American innocence, and ceaselessly pointed to its dangers. Niebuhr rejected all utopias, whether of the "back-to-Eden" or the futuristic variety, arguing that the best we could hope for in this life was proximate justice and incremental improvement.

While some versions of Christianity, particularly fundamentalist ones, have linked themselves to the myth of American innocence, this is not orthodox Christian thought. A better summation of that may be found in the aphorism of the French essayist and Christian, Pascal, who wrote, "The world is divided between sinners who believe themselves to be saints, and saints who know themselves to be sinners." The sinners who believe themselves saints are altogether too sure of their own innocence and virtue.

From where I sit, this election looks increasingly like a referendum on the myth of American innocence. With their improbable campaign theme, "Change Is Coming" (improbable, as they represent the party that has been in power for eight years), McCain and Palin seek to convey the idea of a freshness, innocence and unsullied virtue. Obama, while speaking of doing away with old-style politics, appeals less to innocence than to idealism.

Only too late did Greene's character Pyle realize that his innocence did more than render him blind -- worse, it made him dangerous.

Anthony Robinson, a pastor of the United Church of Christ, is a speaker and teacher. He can be reached at
Read it online:
Articles of Faith: The myth of American innocence
By Anthony B. Robinson, Guest Columnist