My mother sometimes likes to watch the movie “Independence Day,” on the 4th of July—you know, the one where Will Smith, the gutsy and heroic Marine pilot, Jeff Goldblum, scientist, and Bill Pulman, president, save the Earth from extraterrestrial invasion? It’s an action film loaded with implicit myth and exceptionalism, extolling “mankind’s” common humanness in the face of annihilating, “alien” difference. The heroes ultimately unify the globe with fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants “American” ingenuity, luck, and bravery.
Just before the final offensive, the president (Pulman) gives a speech to the daring pilots who will fly against the hostile space-creatures, declaring,
“’Mankind.’ (sic) That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom… Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution… but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: “We will not go quietly into the night!” We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!” (IMDb Independence Day Quotes)
On the one hand, the speech is about unity and the conditions under which we might have to put differences aside in order to all survive together. Zombie movies do something similar, forcing relationships across difference when humanity is on the brink of destruction. Only, humans usually fail to survive one another in this horror genre. “Independence Day,” a hero flick, is more optimistic, though perhaps less realistic.
On the other hand, of course, the film is about unity under U.S. ideals of independence, bravado, and kyriarchal culture. The very first lines of the president’s address begin by evoking an exclusive and false universal (mankind), then immediately insist that our failure to embrace this universal is holding onto “petty difference.” “Tyranny, oppression, persecution,” are made secondary concerns when facing “annihilation,” as though feminism, anti-racism, disability justice, and queer justice are not also about survival. Yet, the imperial myth of American-man-as-hero is so familiar and so comfortable for so many of us, that one hardly has to try to buy into the plot, the emotional catharsis, or the cultural recreation happening in this film.
I’ll admit it. I liked the film. Myth is a powerful tool—important for cultural creation and recreation, but also dangerous for what it allows us to ignore.
Since Trump was elected in November, I have been thinking a lot about his slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and its appeal to some mythical time of greatness. Many, many writers, comedians, and all of social media have critiqued and parodied this phrase. A few examples:
“Make America Mexico Again.”
“Make America Read Again.”
“Make Metallica Great Again.”
But, the sharp critique, “Make America White Again,” seems most apropos given Trump’s racist rhetoric.
Still, other commentators have pointed to the prophetic writings of Octavia Butler when considering this phrase. In her “Parables,” series, the “New Christian American” candidate and eventual president uses the same slogan (only about 10 years earlier than Trump does). He’s a fascist and despotic leader, encouraging violence among his supporters, extreme religious conservatives. Sound familiar? Want to know what happens? I highly recommend you read the series.
I am very obviously not alone in considering the implications of this phrase and its attempts to evoke familiar myth. But just the other day, I found myself struck again with another layer of this mythology.
I was reading a highly problematic and inflammatory article entitled, “We’ve Got to Return to the Biblical Foundations in This Country.” Don’t ask me why I was reading it—no good reason: because someone I know posted it and even the title made me angry. I didn’t finish it. But one particularly infuriating argument in the piece related to how language was changing for the worse, losing its connection to ‘biblical truth,’ aka the biblical meaning of those words as “’preached in churches from America’s founding until about 1925.’” … I have to repeat this for emphasis “from America’s founding until about 1925.” Wow. Now, I am a theologian by training, not a Bible scholar; but I think my bible scholar friends will agree that interpretations of translations from 1776 aren’t the agreed upon standard for determining biblical word meaning.
But poor exegesis aside, it is the idea behind this article that upset me, though I’d heard it many times before. Basically, the author suggests that the United States was or is, at heart, a Christian nation, and that we need to return to some place of mythical American Christian purity. Now, I know that Protestant Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States, its morals and standards working their way into laws, state buildings, national holidays, litmus tests for political office, etc. But this week, today, the 4th of July, I find myself asking (again), when the religious right, evangelicals, and Christian fundamentalists hear Trump say, “Make America Great Again,” do they really hear him saying, “Make America Christian Again?” How can they really hear him saying that in light of what this man has actually said and actually done? The answer: because of the same mythical purity that erases the violence, slaughter, and atrocity attached to this “Christian nation’s” founding.
The argument goes something like this: if Christianity and what one attaches to it is the ideal, then everything else that ‘wasn’t ideal’ isn’t a part of Christianity:
Witch trials?—misguided. Slaughter of Native peoples?—unfortunate, regrettable, wrong—but certainly not Christian. The nation was still Christian! Christian on Christian violence?—Sinful, or rooting out heretics. Protestant on Catholic violence? —Well, are Catholics really Christian anyway? Slavery? —a misinterpretation.
This list could go on and on—it is a separation of what is “Christian” from the acts of the “Christian nation,” so many of the religious right want so badly to reclaim. It separates the religion from the sins of “mankind” (sic).
Christianity is a diverse and important a world faith; and while I no longer identify as a member of this religion, I still love who Jesus was and can be to many people. But this version of a mythologically “pure Christianity,” is irresponsible and dangerous. And I am tired of hearing about the “good old days,” of the United States, when we were “one nation under God.”
There is no historical purity. There is no “great again.”
And if people really want to use Christian ideals to finish the phrase then why not “make America…
Forgiven and forgiving,
In the optimistic spirit of Independence Day (the movie and the holiday), I would like to offer the word, “responsible”—accountable for what it… we (some of us anyway)… have created, but also able to respond.
United States hero myths all too often define and so create unity as a gathering together in sameness against difference, against “annihilation.” They also tend to be apocalyptically ahistorical. Trump does this kind of mythology rather well. I’d like to offer a different image. In the Star Trek movie, First Contact, the crew of the enterprise goes back in time to stop the Borg collective from preventing the first warp jump of an Earth ship (a jump which gets the attention of the Vulcans, and so begins humanity’s trek into the stars and their next evolution as a species).
Encountering the Vulcans, an extraterrestrial race, radically unites humanity, yes, in the face of difference. But rather than unite against “aliens,” humanity is united in reaching out to the “other.”
This is a very different idea of freedom; one I would like to contemplate further on this 4th of July.
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.