All That We Can Be

American Mythos

Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short

Robert Wuthnow

Princeton University Press, $29.95, 298 pp.

Our national conversation about values has a superficial quality. Typified by the red state/blue state framework into which nearly all matters of public import are now forced, this conversation is driven by easy labels and generalizations. On issues ranging from abortion to welfare reform to same-sex marriage, polling data drive the battle for the reins of public policy. But when it comes to assessing values, focusing on an individual’s categorical answers to a fixed line of questions has its limitations. Despite endless talk about the values that make up our collective American identity and the extent to which they will be threatened (or rescued) by a particular policy proposal or cultural trend, rarely do we consider how those values are discerned, distilled, and reflected-or not-in the lives of individuals and their communities.

Missing from the conversation is an acknowledgment that the American identity does not unfold primarily on the national stage. The pundit-dominated major media suggest that our lives are shaped by an array of free-floating big issues; but in reality, the national stage is just one dimension of a story that must be told vertically. American life is far more dynamic and nuanced than we tend to think. Intermediate communities like family, neighborhood, and church transmit values upward and downward by shaping, and being shaped by, both the day-to-day decisions of individuals and the broad themes written into the fabric of society at large-a local church’s decision to operate a food pantry, for instance, is both a product of its members’ priorities as well as an imperative shaped by broader social-justice values inculcated by the larger church. For most people, this mediating function occurs on several fronts at once, through membership in a variety of communities. In this regard, we are more than the sum of our surveyed parts. And if our national story is not made accountable to the lived realities of individuals, we risk rendering the story an empty shell.

Enter Robert Wuthnow, the prolific Princeton sociologist and arguably our most insightful observer of religion. Wuthnow takes up the values discourse in his new book, American Mythos, urging us to think more deeply about the narratives that shape our sense of national purpose and identity, and-less noticeably-constrain our efforts to be better. He does so by using the firsthand accounts of recent immigrants. Instead of asking the immigrants about America, he asks them about themselves. This frees them to tell their stories, revealing glimpses of “the embedded self”-the individual in relationship to her social location, committed to abiding by the expectations built into the various roles she plays. For example, Wuthnow quotes long passages from an interview with a woman who came to the United States from Pakistan with her husband in 1975. She now divides her time between caring for her family and leading a domestic-violence support group for Muslim women. The story she tells weaves together the seemingly discordant themes of feminism, male headship, individual liberty, and group identity. Wuthnow cautions that our inclination to dissect her narrative into particular issues “makes sense only in the context of understanding that the whole narrative has coherence.”

These personal narratives form the anchor of American Mythos. They help reveal the self-understanding that gives an individual the capacity to make moral judgments, and they also link the individual to her community, as such judgments are often articulated in terms that resonate with the prevailing values in the storyteller’s audience. That a person’s story is influenced by her community, though, does not mean that individuals “simply accept the definitions of goodness that are built into the [community’s] traditions.” For the Pakistani immigrant, deference to community values may have motivated her continued opposition to divorce, yet it did not impede her efforts to empower women within the intact family.

Wuthnow sees these immigrant narratives as a launching pad for challenging various assumptions of the American story, including our justification of national privilege, our conception of success, and our embrace of pluralism. The problem, in his view, is not “that we have failed to commit sufficient resources” to pursuing our values, but “that we have gone forward without examining our assumptions.” American Mythos urges us to do just that. The stories collected in its pages remind us that the image of leaving home lies deep in our collective psyche; a willingness to follow our ambition wherever it leads is a primary element of our story. Wuthnow recognizes, however, that while our willingness to strike out on our own may bring privilege, it also deprives us of home, both literally and figuratively. Our perpetual wandering-in search of one’s self, of professional success or educational opportunity-has left broken homes, weak extended families, and an attenuated sense of community. As a nation we have privilege, but we’ve paid a price.

Immigrants contribute crucially to our self-understanding in another way. Self-made men and women loom large in our national story, and the immigrant experience of journey, hardship, and sacrifice makes it easier for all of us-a nation of immigrants-to believe that we deserve what we have attained. Americans elevate individual achievement and persist in the delusion that such achievement truly is individual. The reality, as Wuthnow makes clear, is that social factors almost invariably underlie a given success story, whether in the form of education, family support, government opportunities, or personal mentoring. Our society’s persistence in the myth of the self-made man has serious moral consequences, as it tends to leave individuals accountable only to themselves. Owing our success to no one else, we view any contribution to the greater good not as obligation, but as charity.

Much of American Mythos takes up the relatively recent enshrinement of pluralism in the pantheon of American values. Wuthnow applauds the greater inclusiveness and tolerance that mark our society, but notes that our embrace of religious diversity has made religion more private, limiting its potentially transformative public impact. Immigrants who encounter new tolerance for divergent faith traditions also find an expectation that religion should be treated as a matter of personal preference, not a prophetic word for society. And in terms of ethnic identity, Wuthnow sees a brand of pluralism that espouses a “symbolic ethnicity,” encouraging the external trappings of an ethnic past without making any demands on an individual’s personal freedom.

These and other criticisms made by Wuthnow do not question the substance of America’s commitment to values like equality, liberty, or diversity. Instead, by connecting these values more deliberately with the lives of the American story’s newest authors, he challenges us to revisit our understanding of how our values can be realized. Instead of simplifying our national conversation, the quality and nuance of personal narratives facilitate deeper reflection on the assumptions by which we justify our behavior. In American Mythos, Wuthnow provides an important reminder that amid the din of the culture wars, our storytelling matters; and that America is a story best told from the bottom up.

Published in the 2006-05-05 issue: 

Robert K. Vischer is the dean and Mengler Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis.

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