This semester I am teaching Myth, Religion and Culture, which is by far one of my favorite courses to teach. On the first day of class, I usually ask my students what they think is the purpose and importance of myth. I receive a wide variety of answers ranging from myth being rather unimportant or only important historically, to myth being necessary for teaching lessons (particularly to children) or even critical as a foundation for society and communication. I then, over the next several weeks, introduce students to many theories of mythology and its significance:
- Myth as collective unconscious, working with Jungian thought and concepts from psychoanalysis;
- The idea of myth as something false or fake;
- Myth as a means by which society deals with the unknown or fills in gaps of human understanding;
- Myth as historically and culturally significant story that cannot be connected directly to a particular or known author (though authors may have captured these cultural stories);
- Myth as a means by which we create/ recreate social structure, including oppressive structure and epistemology;
- Re-imagining myth as a means to disrupt kyriarchal ideology and its reproduction; and,
- Myth as meaning-making story.
Early on in the semester we read a very interesting article by Dr. Ira Churnus called, “The Meaning of Myth in the American Context,” in which Churnus discusses the significance of myth for cultural identity, arguing that within the United State we have a somewhat finite and fixed set of national myths which help to establish what “can be said meaningfully” within our culture. Further, he suggests that political debates tend to revolve around divergent interpretations of the same national myths.
When looking at today’s adversarial political climate within the United States, it is sometimes hard to imagine that underneath the interpretations of particular ‘meaningful stories’ there is often a common adherence to the ‘same idea,’ at least, literally, in principle. It reminds me of a lesson I learned when studying English literature in my undergraduate years: the protagonist and antagonist are often mirror images of one another, a right-/left- handed reflection that “through the looking glass,” distorts the reality in which we think we live.
I asked my class to give me examples of such competing definitions. One issue we discussed was gun control. Arguments for the increased regulation of firearms, and alternatively, for greater accessibility to firearms, ironically, both use the language of safety, protection and freedom. I suspect that underneath these principles lies a mythical story about the United States being a ‘safe place where all people can find prosperity and opportunity.’
Please don’t mistake my meaning here. I am not asserting that as a country we commonly accept that the United States is a safe place or a place of equal opportunity. Many people (and most of my students) react negatively to this kind of mythology, rejecting its validity based upon personal and familial experience of institutional oppression and violence.
What I mean to say is that whether you believe the story or not, our political rhetoric is steeped in the myth of “The American Dream,” and to a great degree, necessarily so. As Churnus’ article suggests, adherence in some way to this myth is necessary for the dissemination of our political messages in culturally meaningful ways. Some part of us buys into some part of our common mythology; hence, the importance of recognizing and interrogating the stories in which we (often unconsciously) participate.
In the spirit of a hermeneutic of suspicion of political mythology, my class and I considered a small portion of the presidential candidates’ speeches from the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. While Hillary Clinton’s and Doland Trump’s addresses differed greatly in tone and socio-political ideology, they both relied heavily on religious myth, rhetoric of the American Dream and American exceptionalism, and allusions to historical purity. The following are just a few observations from the first ten minutes of each candidate’s speech:
- He uses the language of militarism and allusions to the president’s role as “commander and chief” a great deal, and frequent appropriates this “command” to assert that the Obama is “unfit” for duty, so to speak.
- He emphasizes the idea of “coming back to” peace, prosperity, and safety (a myth of historical purity).
- Referencing the idea that “facts” are “plain and honest,” Trump plays upon common depictions of American small towns and ‘good simple folk.’
- Claiming to “honor the American people with the truth and nothing else,” he evokes the implicit myths of Justice built around the courtroom oath “to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.”
- Stating that, “they are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities,” he uses insect plague metaphors (Exodus anyone) to characterize undocumented immigrants.
- He describes a murdered teenage girl and her family with some detail, referencing many myths: that of the “all American girl,” the implicit racist myth of the man of color as a danger to “innocent white girls,” describing the victim, Sarah Root, as a sacrifice “on the alter of open borders,” he alludes to an abundance of religious mythology related to child sacrifice (which plays into myths of “good religion” vs. “bad religion,” as well as insiders and outsiders, and monster myths), and dualistic myths of good vs. evil.
- Referencing common apocalyptic myths about the “destruction of our way of life,” Trump makes himself into the hero battling against all odds.
It is easy for me to pick apart Donald Trump’s speech because I am against his arrogant racist and sexist rhetoric and practice. He interprets myths differently than I do, so I can readily locate the interpretations that anger me. However, it is important to note that Hillary Clinton’s speech also relied upon many of the same myths.
- Clinton (and her daughter) make many references to the idea of the “good mother,” maternal femininity, and the contemporary myth that “a woman can have it all.”
- She directly discusses the Revolutionary War, drawing upon myths of American spirit, determination, and the bravado of those willing to “stick it to the King.”
- She references historical unity (again, a myth of historical purity).
- Characterizing time as a “moment of reckoning,” she uses apocalyptic imagery of being “pulled apart.”
- She describes Trump as taking the Republican Party “from morning in America to midnight in America,” playing on the deeply ingrained cultural and religious myth of light vs. darkness, a dualistic myth.
- Referencing FDR and his famous statement “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Clinton draws again upon ideas of historical purity (America as the ‘good guy’ in WWII) and historical heroism.
- Rather than play upon individual leadership myths, Clinton builds upon common ideas of social revolution, such as when she uses the phrase “rise together.”
- Yet, Clinton also subtly depicts herself as hero wearing, uniquely, a white suit in front of the stars and stripes.
Considering this list, I find myself excited by some stories while reviling others. I am truly horrified by the racist myths found in all of Trump’s speeches. While I find myself drawn in by Clinton’s allusions to unity, I am also critical of the “whitewashing” of history necessary to paint these pictures and wary of the “light vs. dark” story she is telling with even her physical body.
An exercise in decoding political mythology, this list reminded me to be wary and listen. As a scholar of religion, I am especially wary of the religious mythology built into our political discourse—particularly the myths of apocalypse, which theologian Catherine Keller warns us, are ‘self-anihil-ating.’
Its election season in the United States and we’re going to be told a lot of stories about who we are and where we are going. It is important for us to ask which stories we’re apart of and do we like the roles we’ve been given? Do we like the stories we’re telling when we buy into a mythology that is all to familiar to us?
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.