I think it’s fair to say that one of the most overlooked dimensions of modern politics and society is the role that myths play in shaping people’s thinking. And when I say “myth,” I don’t just mean it in the crude sense of “stories people tell that aren’t true,” the way you might see the word used when a comfortably lit magazine publishes an article with a title like “Five Anti-Vaxxer Myths, Debunked.”
No, I mean “myth” in the sense of a story that’s ingrained so deeply into the way that a culture sees the world that it continues to shape people’s thinking even when they’re not consciously aware of it.
A good example of this is the way that so many people raised in Christian or recently-Christian cultures will eagerly try to win converts to faddish diets which – in the imagination of their promoters – are the one true way for people to eat, and will, if adopted widely enough, banish everybody’s health problems. The Myth of the Redeeming Doctrine is, of course, at root a Christian idea, and cultures where Christianity has lain heavily upon the land are the most likely places for somebody to start insisting that a new set of beliefs, currently possessed only by himself and a handful of disciples, is bound to take over the whole world because of its unique ability to liberate us all from hitherto universal human ills.
The really ironic thing is that the traditional myths of a culture will continue to shape that culture’s thinking, even during ages of rationalism when the culture’s leading thinkers believe that they have cast these myths aside.
Consider the case of Buddhism, which originally began as a rationalist reaction again India’s traditional Hindu religion and which, in its earliest form, abjured the worship of the Gods entirely. (The prayer wheels and the veneration of Bodhisattvas, so well-known in the modern world, were later inventions).
And this wasn’t because the Buddha denied the existence of the Gods. Rather, after seeing so much suffering in the world, and seeing no way to deal with it except by renouncing desire, he essentially said: “Look at the way the world is! Obviously, the Gods haven’t attained enlightenment; therefore, we shouldn’t worship them.”
The really curious thing here is that the early Buddhists never really seemed to question the basic assumption, within Hindu cosmology, that the purpose of life is to seek enlightenment and to liberate oneself, through spiritual practice, from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. The only real difference was that, after this basic element of Hindu mythology had been imported into the rising Buddhist philosophy, it no longer involved the Gods.
This omission, as it turns out, would be corrected over the next few centuries of religious evolution, since godless religions do a poor job of meeting people’s spiritual needs. As it turns out, most men and women want to worship something, and will find something to worship, even when their leaders tell them that they shouldn’t. (Just think of how the first generation of Chinese Communist intellectuals would feel about all the Daoist temples that now have alters dedicated to the ghost of Chairman Mao!)
Marxism, as it turns out, is a textbook example of this same process: like early Buddhism, it is parasitic on a religion it claims to reject, in this case Christianity.
To wit: Marx and Engels denounced religion as “the opium of the masses,” but still won their following by parroting the distinctly Christian idea that the world is headed toward a future of classless harmony, universal brotherhood, and splendiferous wealth for all. The Workers’ Paradise of Marxist eschatology, however, does manage to differ from the Christian New Jerusalem in a few notable ways, namely:
(1) Since God doesn’t exist, there is no need to wait around for him to return before it can be built, and
(2) Getting there depends on following the preachments of Karl Marx, rather than those of Jesus and his Apostles.
By this point, you might be wondering what relevance the concept of “Second Hand Mythology” has to American right-wing politics. Sure, the Left is quite adept at repurposing the myths of an abandoned religion– every conservative thinker of any significance is aware of the fact that the ideologies of wokeness and “white privilege” are just creative reworkings of the Christian concept of original sin, stripped of the possibility for redemption and forgiveness. But could it be that the Right is also under the spell of its own secularized myth?
I think that the answer is yes. And I’m not talking about the short-lived Trumpist apocalypse cult that blossomed after last year’s election – I actually have something much deeper in mind, something which begins with the following myth:
The God who created the universe has appointed David to be King over his chosen people, Israel. David’s new kingdom is destined to fulfil the high and mighty promises made by the Lord to the Israelites’ righteous ancestors – rugged, nomadic herdsmen with names like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Joshua. King David is a great warrior who unites the Twelve Tribes of Israel, wins new territory for his people, and drives the Philistines and their other enemies out of the Promised Land. Then, David’s son Solomon reigns after him, making a name for himself as the wealthiest and wisest ruler in the known world.
But by the time of Solomon’s death, trouble is already brewing, and most of the Israelites feel like Solomon has oppressed them with his burdensome taxes. A man named Jeroboam leads a rebellion and makes himself King of the northern Ten Tribes, but the Lord, though displeased with the House of David, leaves Solomon’s son Rehoboam in control of Jerusalem and the tribe of Judah, in order to fulfil the promise he made to David that his heirs would sit on their throne forever.
Again and again, God sends prophets to call the northern tribes to repentance, but they never listen, and their idolatries eventually wear down even his great patience. So God abandons them to the Assyrian conqueror, and these “lost tribes” are never heard from again. In the south, things don’t go quite so badly; while most Kings of Judah are idolators, some, like Hezekiah and Josiah, try their best to get their kingdom back onto the covenant path. But the righteous are too few in number, every passing century sees Judah becoming weaker while rival kingdoms become stronger, and though the southern kingdom outlasts the northern one, in the end it, too, is conquered by foreigners – this time, the Babylonians.
But the Lord doesn’t wholly abandon his people. David’s house can no longer rule as kings, but one of his descendants, Salathiel, is made governor of the Jewish exiles in Babylon. When Babylon is in turn conquered by Persia, Salathiel’s son Zerubbabel is permitted, by the grace of King Cyrus, to lead the Jews back to Jerusalem and rebuild Solomon’s temple. But even after this wondrous revival, the Jews keep turning away from God, who visits yet more afflictions on them.
The land of Judea is reduced, in the course of centuries, to a backwater province of the Roman empire. The House of David is reduced to a poor family of itinerant carpenters, whose link to Israel’s past is unknown outside of family lore. Then one of these carpenters, a man named Joseph, takes his pregnant wife Mary to the town of Bethlehem – the same town David himself raised sheep in a thousand years earlier – so she can give birth to the mightiest King of them all….
For nearly two thousand years, Christians have been telling and retelling this myth – the myth of the Chosen People, who again and again turn away from God and suffer for it, but who always manage, by the skin of their teeth, to hang onto their special place in the world. And their destiny – which neither their own failings, nor anyone else’s malice, can overcome – is that one of their Kings will become the Messiah.
Unsurprisingly, this myth has permeated Christian thought, and worked its way into every sort of storytelling that you can find in Christian (or formerly Christian) cultures. Just consider, for a moment, how this familiar story reappears, in different garb, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Many thousands of years ago, three tribes of rugged, nomadic Men, known as the Edain, wandered into the western marches of Middle Earth and fought fearlessly alongside the High Elves to defeat the powers of evil. As a reward, the Valar, beings of pure spirit who watch over the world as viceregents of the Creator God, raised a new and bounteous island called Númenor out of the western sea for the Edain to live in. As Númenor’s first King, the Valar chose the half-elf Elros, a descendant, on the human side, of Beren, Tuor, and Eärendil, the bravest of the Edain heroes of old.
For many generations, the descendants of King Elros ruled over their Promised Land in righteousness, and the Númenorians prospered. They were renowned throughout Middle Earth for their wealth and wisdom, and their vessels were greeted with joy whenever they appeared on the horizon. But as time passed, the Númenorians became lifted up in pride, their covetous Kings set to work building an empire and dominating other Men, and the sight of a Númenorian ship on Middle Earth’s coastlines becomes an occasion of dread.
Eventually, for their sins, the Númenorians suffered the fate of Atlantis, and their whole island was drowned in the depths of the sea. But at the last moment, a nobleman named Elendil, leader of a party of dissenters called “The Faithful,” departed for Middle Earth on a storm wind with nine tall ships full of his followers, intent on preserving the ancient royal line.
Which he did. After defeating Sauron in battle (it was the decision of Isildur, son of Elendil, not to destroy the One Right then and there that set up all that future drama with the hobbits) Elendil’s people established two kingdoms, Arnor and Gondor.
Both of these kingdoms started off with almost as much wealth and power as old Númenor, but with the passing of centuries, they both declined. Gondor, the southern kingdom, lost much of its population and territory, and ended up being ruled by stewards after the old royal lineage died out in a plague. Arnor, in the north, was battered even more by military defeats and internal dissensions; in the end it was completely destroyed as a kingdom, though its royal line survived as the chieftains of a nomadic hill folk, called “Rangers.”
One of these Rangers was Aragorn son of Arathorn, familiar to any reader of The Lord of the Rings, which tells the story of how Aragorn and his brave companions went on a quest to destroy the ancient evil that his ancestors had failed to destroy, how they regained Aragorn’s ancient throne, and how they restored both of his kingdoms to their primeval glory and splendor.
Now, there isn’t any dire reason that Tolkien’s novel had to focus on Aragorn and his contemporaries instead of centering the story on one of Aragorn’s many, many noble ancestors – somebody like Eärendur, Lord of Andúnië, or Mallor, King of Arthedain, or Araglas the Ranger – and relegating the whole business with Aragorn, the One Ring, and the hobbits to the book’s long and detailed appendix. Tolkien chose to do it the way he did because that is how the story of the Chosen People is always told – from the perspective of the chosennest person in the whole lot.
It’s no different, really, than when a Christian church spends so much time reading about and discussing those three brief years when Jesus was gathering and teaching his disciples, and totally glosses over the centuries that passed when the Davidic line was represented by such half-forgotten figures as Jehoshaphat, Eliakim, and Matthan. Religions are built on stories, and a good story-teller knows how to separate the major characters from the walk-ons.
But at the same time, a Christian with a sense of personal humility is bound to feel at least a little haunted by the thought that, if he had lived a few millennia earlier and been a part of the David-to-Jesus story, he would almost certainly not have been a beneficiary of one of Jesus’ miraculous healings or even, for that matter, a witness to them.
No, what is more likely is that he would have had his place in the armies of the Philistines when David slew them in heaps and piled up their foreskins, or in the herd of captive Israelites driven to Babylon like so many human cattle in the days of Salathiel, or among the homely Judean peasants who bought furniture from the family of Joseph the carpenter without the slightest inkling of how famous one of the little boys in that family would soon become.
But those haunting feelings would be a rarity, an occasional indulgence among the more philosophically minded believers. Most of the time, just like any other Christians, these people will be vicariously reliving the experience of Jesus’ most intimate associates through the familiar rituals and sacred texts that form the backbone of their religion.
And therein lays the rub. People whose worldview is shaped by the Myth of the Chosen People will see a great deal of human history – secular and religious – through that lens, whether they’re aware that they’re doing so or not. And the unfortunate fact of the matter is that history seen this way is history seen through a funhouse mirror.
Anyone who looks in the mirror will end up thinking that whatever time and place he happens to live in is the nexus of human history. And he will also end up thinking that, like most folks in the Chosen People stories, he can meet the challenges of his day in a mostly passive manner – yielding ground again and again while waiting for somebody stronger than himself to come along and put things right – without ever jeopardizing the promise of ultimate victory.
And that, as I will explain in next week’s post, is a very dangerous way of viewing the world, especially when all the objective evidence indicates that one’s nation, and one’s way of life, are undergoing a steep and possibly terminal decline.