Web Talk No. 4, with Dr. Christopher Buck, Offers Ideas for Engaging in Public Discourse in Interfaith Settings and on the Destiny of America
The Wilmette Institute’s fourth Web Talk on May 3 marking its Twentieth Anniversary featured Dr. Christopher Buck discussing the second edition of his book God & Apple Pie: Religious Myths and Visions of America. Some 53 learners gathered to hear the talk, and since May 3 some 400 more have listened to the talk on YouTube.
About the first edition of Dr. Buck’s book, a reviewer, Irén E. Annus from the University of Szeged in Hungary, wrote that it “provided an ideological map that accounts for faith-based understandings and actions in relation to the American presence globally.” She went on to say that the book would appeal to those interested in “Religious Studies” but also those interested in “Political Science, History, Intellectual History, American Studies, and Cultural Studies.” Thus the book is a useful handbook that can help start conversations on social issues, their problems and principled solutions; interfaith dialogue with the goal of convergence, not conversion; and promoting world peace.
Dr. Buck opened his discussion by explaining that his book covers (1) the civil myths of America and civil religion and (2) religious myths and visions of America. His two hypotheses are that religions remythologize America and also reenvision America. Central themes, according to one religious scholar, include pluralism, Puritanism, and the encounter of black and white.
The issue of race in America, according to Dr. Buck, has a number of origins and a number of interpretations. During the colonial period, Protestant Christianity set its racial agenda. Minority faiths have had other agendas. For example, the Nation of Islam mythologizes blacks as “superior.” White supremacists (Christian Identity) see whites as “superior.” Mormons consider Native Americans as the Lost Tribes of Israel and blacks as “cursed,” only to reverse their view of blacks later. The Bahá’í Faith, in contrast, promotes interracial harmony and unity of all peoples.
In discussing Native American myths and visions of America, Dr. Buck examined the Turtle Island Myth, the Myth of Mother Earth, the Deganawida Legend, and the Iroquois Influence Thesis. The Deganawida Legend (about which the Wilmette Institute will be offering a course called “Two Peacemakers: Bahá’u’lláh and Deganawida” on September 7, 2015) says that after the slaughter stops, there will be peace and everyone will be related; that all nations will be one and all peoples one family; and all will be relatives.
Protestant myths and visions of America, according to Dr. Buck, pushed Native American myths into the far background, replacing them with the Puritan Myth of America (we shall be as a city upon a hill, a shining city on a hill); the Manifest Destiny Myth, the Curse of Ham (or Canaan) Myth, and the African American Exodus Counter-Myth. In short, Protestant set out the colonize, Christianize, civilize, and expand by conquest.
Dr. Buck then moved on to the Christian Right’s myths and visions of America summarized in 1974 by Governor Ronald Reagan: “We cannot escape our destiny. . . . The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia. . . . We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.” This is a restatement of the City upon a Hill Myth. Other myths of the Christian Right include the Antichrist/Rapture Myth and the Christian Nation Myth.
Catholic myths and visions of America, Dr. Buck explained, have often been articulated in statements by a number of Popes, who have both condemned and then praised America.
Jewish myths and visions of America, according to Dr. Buck, are often mirrors of Jewish ideologies. Hence there is the Myth of the Promised Land, the Myth of Columbus, and Communal Visions of America, expressed in prayers for the government of America. Visions may differ among Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews.
The Mormon myths and visions of America, Dr. Buck said, include “the richest abundance of material on America” of any religion: myths of the Garden of Eden, the Lost Tribes, Columbus, the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, theodemocracy, America as Zion, and the Mark of Cain. In 1842 Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, wrote: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.”
The most controversial myths and visions of America, said Dr. Buck, are those of Christian Identity or White Supremacists. Myths that many consider repulsive include the Two-Seed Myth, Mud Races Myth, Lost Tribes Myth, White Homeland Myth, and Racial Holy War Myth.
From white nationalism, Dr. Buck moved to a discussion of black nationalism and black Muslim myths and visions of America. Black nationalism incudes the Yacub Myth (Yacub was a black scientist who created blacks); the Mother Wheel Myth; the Destruction of America Myth; Separatism, Not Integration; and the Vision of a Black Homeland. Louis Farrakhan, the long-time leader of the Nation of Islam asserts that “We believe in ‘separation.’ We believe that integration is a hypocritical trick to make us think that our 400-year-old enemy has all of a sudden become our ‘friend.’”
Dr. Buck’s discussion of contemporary Islamic myths and visions of America included those coming from very different sources: the Great Satan Myth (from Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran) and the Axis of Evil Counter-Myth (articulated by U.S. President George W. Bush). There is also the radical Islamist myth of America as a Crusader Nation and the counter-myth of the Islamic State as the Order of Satan. M. A. Muqtedar Khan, the founding director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Delaware, has put forward the Muslim exceptionalist view that God has brought Muslims to America to develop a model that Muslims abroad may wish to emulate.
Among Buddhists, there are myths and visions of America voiced by Soka Gakkai and the American Buddhist thinker Robert Thurman: the Myth of American’s Second Renaissance, described in a poem as “America’s distant future, . . . / the brilliant glory of human harmony.”
Finally, there are the myths and visions of America contained in writings about the Bahá’í Faith. Dr. Buck said that here he used historian Dr. Robert H. Stockman’s definition of a myth as something that is not a lie, but rather a narrative with truths that contain important values. Among Bahá’í myths and visions of America are the Sacred History of America; the Bahá’í Emancipation/Civil War Myth; the Wilsonian Myth; the Vision of the Destiny of America; America and the Golden Age of a Future World Civilization; and the Vision of World Unity. Dr. Buck posits that the Bahá’í writings contain some fifty unities.
Dr. Buck concluded by summarizing how minority faiths have redefined America’s world role with their myths and visions and how knowing about the myths and visions of dominant and minority religions can help one participate in meaningful conversations on issues of broad social concern.
Dr. Buck illustrated his talk with beautiful photographs of many houses of worship (Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Islamic, Buddhist, and Bahá’í) and with photographs of a drawing of Columbia, the spirit of America personified; John Gast’s 1872 painting “American Progress”; a 2010 U.S. $1.00 coin honoring the Iroquois Confederacy; an idealized statue of Hiawatha, the co-founder of the Iroquois Confederacy; the Jim Crow South; the world as seen from a spaceship; the Great Seal of the United States; and more.
Dr. Buck’s talk ended with a number of questions and answers. If you missed the talk and would like to listen to it, or if you want to listen to it again, click here. If you would like to access or print out Dr. Buck’s PowerPoint, click here.
The next Wilmette Institute twentieth-anniversary Web Talk is scheduled for Sunday, June 7, at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The speaker will be Dr. Sandra Lynn Hutchison, who will discuss “Windows on Divine Wisdom: Accessing the Meaning of the Bahá’í Revelation.” For information on the remaining six talks, visit the “Web Talk” tab on the Wilmette Institute’s website, http://wilmetteinstitute.org.