America will remain a primitive nation until it moves beyond literalism in its creation myths and national identity
All cultures in the world, whatever their current sophistication, developed around a creation myth of one kind or another. To put it bluntly, the United States of America has not one, but two creation myths around which the cultural debate revolves.
America’s dual(ing) creation myths
The initial creation myth upon which at least half of America depends for its cultural identity is the Christian bible with its creation myth drawn on the book of Genesis, a literal Adam and Eve and the tribal history that followed and has extended into the present.
The second creation myth is the story of the Founding Fathers, upon whose originality America was invented and prospered.
Infallibility and inerrancy
These creation myths are considered by many to contain the salt of inerrancy and infallibility. People who take the Bible literally are loathe to consider that anything in its pages has been contradicted by outside knowledge and history. Similarly, those who abide by a view of inerrancy toward the Founding Fathers also take a dim view of interpreting anything in the Constitution anew. Many would seem happy to eradicate even those Amendments; against slavery, against a woman’s right to vote, against equal rights for all races, with the intent of “restoring” the Constitution to its original and supposedly holy premise: That the Founding Fathers were wiser than us.
A constrained lens
It is no coincidence that a significant part of American culture views both the Bible and the Constitution through this lens of inerrancy. That type of personality that resists change and is more secure with what appears to be clear authority than to sail on the surface of liberality. That is, they don’t want to have to make choices. They prefer a worldview where the hard choices are already made, where God tells them what to do, and where the nation is founded upon a rock of wisdom that cannot be cracked or moved.
Some call these propensities “conservative,” with some pride perhaps, in seeking to protect the founding myths of tradition and cultural orientation. The word “conservative” is defined as follows: conservative; disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.
The danger of a conservative viewpoint is revealed in its very definition, of course. For the last few words in the definition outline its true character, and that is to limit change. Many conservatives appear bound to protect that last aspect of the tradition at nearly any cost.
To be so aggressively rooted in the past produces, of course, an ultimate fear of anything changing in the present, or likely to produce change in the future. Such fearful thoughts are indicative of a truly primitive mind, one so characterized by fear in fact, that fear sees evil even where it is not, yet likewise forms additional gods where there are none.
Conflicted at the primitive roots
So let us examine, for a moment, the nature of the primitive or conservative mind, and how it drives what America has become. We shall also learn how and why American is conflicted at the roots and unable to move forward into a future where our creation myths can be reconciled to our progressive natures.
We can begin by examining the definition of the word primitive:
1. being the first or earliest of the kind or in existence, especially in an early age of the world: primitive forms of life.
2. early in the history of the world or of humankind.
3. characteristic of early ages or of an early state of human development: primitive toolmaking.
4. unaffected or little affected by civilizing influences; uncivilized; savage: primitive passions.
A primitive grip
These definitions converge on one thought: that primitivism refuses to be changed from the inside or from without. Significantly, the effort to protect the primitive viewpoint of the world, in America’s case the idea that both the Bible and the Constitution are infallible and inerrant, produces a form of tribalism wound around the core myths like a yarn. Its threads are visible, and can be cut, but the whole remains tightly wound because of its collective grip on the deep inner consciousness of the rod within.
Primitive tribalism is always a defensive posture. The entire history of the world is written around cultures that have built up to grand scales around their creation myths only to be invaded by more powerful cultures less concerned with culture than imperial aims. The Romans wisely made a practice of allowing these creation myths to persist, to some degree, within their empire, so long as tribute was paid and the ultimate loyally was declared to the Emperor.
Yet even the Roman culture ultimately failed, driven perhaps by terror of its own power and pulled apart by external forces that did not respect the core idea that Rome was a superior power, and therefore rightful owners to permanent empire.
Some speculate America as the new Rome, but the analogies only go so far. America’s biggest problem is not its imperialism, which is expressed in another patent belief in its infallibility, American Exceptionalism, which is nothing more than a primitive attempt to justify its own existence in the face of its often egregious acts of tribalism and fear.
America needs a critical review
Yes, this is a criticism of America, and of the Bible, of the Founding Fathers. But it is especially a criticism of the primitive mindset and tribalism that has resulted from a dependence on a literal form of worldview that is holding the nation back. And that has consequences. Deadly consequences.
In the last decade America has seen an increasing number of gun massacres. People armed with powerful murder weapons capable of shooting multiple rounds of ammunition within seconds have stalked into schools and malls fired at anyone who moves. The results are dozens dead from these massacres, and 30,000 people dying each year from gunfire.
Shooting from the Constitutional hip
Yet despite these horrific figures, Constitutional literalists insist that the Second Amendment is sacrosanct. It is not to be interpreted in any other fashion than to be taken literally, that is, no limits on the right to keep and bear arms. Yet there are differences of opinion within the judicial ranks as to what the Second Amendment really means. Justince Antonin Scalia interprets the term “militia” to mean “everyone.” Everyone who handles a gun becomes part of a militia by literal decree. He states
Justice Antonin Scalia
, writing for the majority in Heller
, stated: As we will describe below, the “militia” in colonial America consisted of a subset of “the people”— those who were male, able bodied, and within a certain age range. Reading the Second Amendment as protecting only the right to “keep and bear Arms” in an organized militia therefore fits poorly with the operative clause’s description of the holder of that right as “the people”.
Meanwhile Justice John Paul Stevens countered in his dissent by arguing that the truth is more subtle, and not literal when defining a militia as anyone who owns and handles a gun: When each word in the text is given full effect, the Amendment is most naturally read to secure to the people a right to use and possess arms in conjunction with service in a well-regulated militia. So far as appears, no more than that was contemplated.
Civilized versus tribal
When it comes to choosing a nation that is able to confine and regulate its internal arsenal, in other words, a civilized nation versus a tribal and lawless nation operating under vigilante justice, Justice John Paul Stevens arrived at the conclusion that the Second Amendment was not meant to be interpreted literally to mean that everyone who wants to own a gun, and use it, is covered by the term “well-regulated militia.”
Justice Antonin Scalia, by contrast, takes the literal, more primitive and more tribal approach of creating opportunity for everyone to own a gun of any type, almost without restriction. In so doing, Scalia and his populist henchmen in organizations such as the National Rifle Association have fostered a tribal culture in which gun ownership literally is the law of the land.
This primitive interpretation of the Second Amendment of course fits with America’s treasured Cowboy myths of an unbridled freedom in the Wild West. That was supposedly an America in which everyone carried a gun and settled their differences out in the street, like honest men and women do.
Yet the facts are somewhat different, and cowboy myths are just that, conflated images of relatively rare incidents of either heroic or tragic behavior. Then cannot be taken literally. In fact, our national narrative cannot agree on even the most basic of cherished traditions, including the life and death of men life Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr. The lives of these particularly great men were fairly well chronicled, and yet their deaths by gun assassinations have had little if no effect on the primitive fact that they were shot dead by guns.
A deadly and ignored narrative
Instead, America has embraced a primitive narrative that says, in effect, that the deaths of great presidents and leaders, as well as innocent, is the supposed price of freedom to own and use guns any way “the people,” as Justice Scalia so cynically defines it, shall be unabridged.
This is a fatal sort of primitivism, deadly both to the people killed by guns and to the conscience of the nation as a whole. We live in an America where people scream against the right to have an abortion yet tolerates the use of deadly weapons to take life on a daily basis. That is primitive thinking, at best. Irresponsible and irrational, at worst.
Red herrings and mental health
The current direction of the gun debate appears to be steering towards and effort to take guns out of the hands of the mentally ill whenever possible. Yet that approach plays into the hands of the primitivist gun lobby because it defers raising the question on the rights of gun ownership as a whole, and why that interpretation of the Second Amendment by men like Justice Scalia is so wrongheaded and avoids the subject.
All of America has a mental illness so long as we depend on a literal interpretation of our creation myths. The fact that 50% of America believes in a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis is responsible for a deep chasm between progressive education in the sciences, medicine, geology and philosophy ranging all the way to civil rights, including equal rights for minorities, gays and all people. That is the path to civility and maturity as a nation, yet it is being blocked by a primitive religious culture that is prejudicial, aggressive and tribal.
Correcting the mistakes of the Founding Fathers
Likewise on the Constitutional front. America’s creation myth of the Founding Fathers as somehow perfect beings has been contradicted over and over again with amendments to the Constitution delivering equal rights to blacks (which took another 100 years to commence in full) women and now people of all orientations. This progressive tradition is making America a better place for all to live. Indeed, it fulfills the equality so strongly desired by the Founding Fathers in drafting a Constitution that guaranteed equal rights for all people. Yet that equality has been repeatedly and aggressively denied by constitutional primitivists who use the so-called letter of the law to interpret it to meet their tribal desires for power and control.
Free will and choosing grace
America needs to overcome this fearful tradition of literalism and primitivism at its core. Only then will the nation fulfill its true definitions of freedom, and by ironic consequence, also fulfill the meaning of true freedom espoused in the Christian Bible and nearly all faith traditions. The freedom to choose grace, rather than impose will upon others shall not be abridged.
Jesus was particularly unfond of those whose power turned upon a phrase in order to manipulate “the people.” Here in Matthew 15 we find a description of how Jesus handled such challenges.
Matthew 15 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’[a] and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[b] 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ 6 they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8 “‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’[c]”
Think about the application of this scripture to current day issues in America, in which Second Amendment Constitutional rights are being construed and dispensed in ways that literally lead to murder and death. We need not ask what Jesus would do in these circumstances.
Instead, we can look in a multitude of places in the Bible, and need not fall back on a literal interpretation to understand that it is our duty and our right to consider a better America, one that is not constrained by primitivism or tribalism the way it is today. We can use this bit of scripture as a starting point of inspiration, to do so:
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Let’s move beyond the primitivism and the tribalism.