12 December 2005

Myths of Modern America

The life stories of Batman, Superman and Spiderman are probably better known in modern America that those of King David, Moses and Paul, and also more so than those of Jupiter, Venus and Pluto. Santa Claus, Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman, are nearly co-equals with Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the modern American Christmas. Snoopy is a close rival to King Herrod in the American Christmas pantheon. And, people are more likely to draw their views about angels from Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra than Luke.

Julie O. recently proclaimed in a response to comment to one of her posts at They Get Letters, "I'm a little pagan at heart.", and in feeling that way her "instincts are finely tuned with the pulse of American thought and opinion."

Most people who celebrate the Christian passion story at Easter, also honor the "ancient" traditions of the Easter Bunny. Most people who offer heartfelt prayers to God at Thanksgiving, a few weeks earlier happily and without a tinge of incongruity were soaking up tales of ghosts, zombies and witches at Halloween. the decedance of Mardi Gras, the solemnity of Ash Wednesday and the Lepricauns of St. Patrick's Day all belong in the same part of the tapestry of the American experience. St. Valentine's Day in America does more to honor Cupid, than an obscure Catholic Saint. Whose picture appears more often in Valetine's Day decorations?

Karma is a concept of divine justice probably more widely accepted among average Americans, albeit not always by name, than "Grace through Faith" which, unlike Karama, is fundamentally counterintuitive. Noah and the Tower of Babel have entered the popular consciousness. But, outside the Jewish community, Ruth and Esther are as obscure as Persephone and Phoebe.

We are a Christian nation only in Gallup polls. Ethnographers know better. Genuinely monotheistic Christians are the exception, and not the norm, in modern America. While the American national secular mythology is not viewed as a religion in the way that Japan's national religion, Shinto, is, like the Japanese, Americans are polyreligious. As Wikipedia explains:

Most Japanese people do not believe in any one particular religion. Instead they incorporate the features of many religions in their daily lives. Many people, especially those in younger generations, claim to feel that the religions in Japan are part of the traditional culture. Shinto and Buddhist teachings are deeply entangled in Japanese everyday life, though the Japanese people themselves may not be aware of it. Generally speaking, it can be difficult for westerners to disentangle "real" Japanese religion from everyday superstition and rituals; most Japanese people do not often give the distinction much thought.

One of the main characteristics of Japanese religiosity is its tendency towards syncretism. The same person may have a wedding at a Christian church and go to a funeral at a Buddhist temple. A Japanese schoolboy might well pray at a Shinto shrine to receive a chocolate for St. Valentine's Day, a Christian holiday. Japanese streets are decorated on Tanabata, Obon, Halloween and Christmas.


Most Americans aren't really very different, even though we aren't as trained to recognize it as such. Many Japanese parents teach their children Confucian proverbs. Americans are as likely to offer their children moral guidance form Aesop and the Brothers Grimm and Winnie the Pooh, as they are from the Proverbs or the Book of Job.

This is why there will never be a full fledged theocracy in the United States. While Christianity has made some narrow inroads into the American mythology, for example in the Pledge of Allegiance and the "In God We Trust" motto, which were themselves bad decisions, the Christian majority is illusory. Many nominal Christans in America don't believe in Noah much more than they do in Batman, and many people who give doctrinaire answers on the phone to pollsters asking about the miracles of Christianity and the Creation story, are about as sincere as a parent asked by a child about Santa Claus. Decorum and good breeding dictate a certain answer, but that answer isn't always sincere when the truth really counts.

1 comment:

Chloe said...

I agree with your thesis that American culture is about as much Christian as Japan is Shinto or Buddist and it is typical in most countries to adamantly claim a particular religion as a sort of sheild to hide behind. Even though this is so, they differ in how this now shared state came about. Before America's leaders started trying to please everyone and did what they knew to be right, God was not "an option" He was the the obvious choice and foundation for how our country and government was formed. It was a heartfelt belief not a political tool. I doubt seriously that the tyranny that was the early government in Japan, based their actions from the throne on what their religion was. I do think however it was used as a tool to unite the people. Strange how our countries are now in almost the same state now. I would venture to say that had America stayed her course she would still be the united and pure nation she began as.