One of the things we’ve lost in this country is our story. It is the narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history.
For most of the past 400 years, Americans did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story. The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of their Egypt and building a new Jerusalem.
The Exodus story has six acts: first, a life of slavery and oppression, then the revolt against tyranny, then the difficult flight through the howling wilderness, then the infighting and misbehavior amid the stresses of that ordeal, then the handing down of a new covenant, a new law, and then finally the arrival into a new promised land and the project of building a new Jerusalem.
The Puritans could survive hardship because they knew what kind of cosmic drama they were involved in. Being a chosen people with a sacred mission didn’t make them arrogant, it gave their task dignity and consequence. It made them self-critical. When John Winthrop used the phrase “shining city on a hill” he didn’t mean it as self-congratulation. He meant that the whole world was watching and by their selfishness and failings the colonists were screwing it up.
As Philip Gorski writes in his new book, “American Covenant,” which is essential reading for this moment, the Puritans understood they were part of one covenant and had ferocious debates about what that covenant meant.
During the revolution, the founding fathers had that fierce urgency too and drew just as heavily on the Exodus story. Some wanted to depict Moses on the Great Seal of the United States. Like Moses, America too was rebinding itself with a new covenant and a new law.
Frederick Douglass embraced the Exodus too. African-Americans, he pointed out, have been part of this journey too. “We came when it was a wilderness …. We leveled your forests; our hands removed the stumps from the field …. We have been with you … in adversity, and by the help of God will be with you in prosperity.”
The successive immigrant groups saw themselves performing an exodus to a promised land. The waves of mobility – from east to west, from south to north – were also seen as Exodus journeys. These people could endure every hardship because they were serving in a spiritual drama and not just a financial one.
In the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders drew on Exodus more than any other source. Our 20th-century presidents made the story global. America would lead a global exodus toward democracy – God was a God of all peoples. Reinhold Niebuhr applied Puritan thinking to America’s mission and warned of the taint of national pride.
The Exodus story has many virtues as an organizing national myth. It welcomes in each new group and gives it a template for how it fits into the common move from oppression to dignity. The book of Exodus is full of social justice – care for the vulnerable, the equality of all souls. It emphasizes that the moral and material journeys are intertwined and that for a nation to succeed materially, there has to be an invisible moral constitution and a fervent effort toward character education.
It suggests that history is in the shape of an upward spiral. People who see their lives defined by Exodus move, innovate and organize their lives around a common eschatological destiny. As Langston Hughes famously put it, “America never was America to me / And yet I swear this oath – / America will be!”
The Exodus narrative has pretty much been dropped from our civic culture. Schools cast off the Puritans as a bunch of religious fundamentalists. Gorski shows how a social-science, technocratic mindset has triumphed, treating politics as just a competition of self-interested utilitarians.
Today’s students get steeped in American tales of genocide, slavery, oppression and segregation. American history is taught less as a progressively realized grand narrative and more as a series of power conflicts between oppressor and oppressed.
The academic left pushed this reinterpretation, but as usual the extreme right ended up claiming the spoils. The people Gorski calls radical secularists expunged biblical categories and patriotic celebrations from schools. The voters revolted and elected the people Gorski calls the religious nationalists to the White House – the jingoistic chauvinists who measure Americanness by blood and want to create a Fortress America keeping the enemy out.
We have a lot of crises in this country, but maybe the foundational one is the Telos Crisis, a crisis of purpose. Many people don’t know what this country is here for, and what we are here for. If you don’t know what your goal is, then every setback sends you into cynicism and selfishness.
It should be possible to revive the Exodus template, to see Americans as a single people trekking through a landscape of broken institutions. What’s needed is an act of imagination, somebody who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an ideal vision of what the country and the world should be.