Cover image for American beliefs : what keeps a big country and a diverse people united
American beliefs : what keeps a big country and a diverse people united
McElroy, John Harmon.
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Publication Information:
Chicago : I.R. Dee, 1999.
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xii, 259 pages : illustrations, 1 map ; 23 cm
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E169.1 .M156 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Why do so many different people with widely dissimilar ideas and customs get along as Americans? In American Beliefs, John McElroy identifies and explains those essential ideas that keep a big country and a diverse people united, tracing them historically from their origins in the earliest experiences of the American colonists. A powerful antidote to decades of concentration on the differences among Americans. A magnificent and timely book. John McElroy picks up where de Tocqueville left off. --Charles Moskos.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

McElroy focuses on what Americans have in common, not what makes them different. Tracing core beliefs back to colonial times and crystallizing them in axioms such as "Everyone must work" and "The least government possible is best," the author dissects each proverb in an effort to get to the core of what it means to be American. In other words, there are no surprises here, as most people are aware of the long-standing Puritan work ethic, the equality requirements, and freedom of worship. Still, he makes a good case for our cultural similarities, especially because that thinking runs counter to much of the cultural philosophy written in the more recent past that celebrates differences among Americans. Scholarly and dry, the book nonetheless is intriguing because of its unorthodox approach and leaves the reader with the thought that if we concentrated more on our similar goals as Americans, there might be a lot less of the racial, religious, and political strife that causes most of the problems in this country. --Joe Collins

Publisher's Weekly Review

It is axiomatic in some quarters that, while traditional nations such as France are bonded by blood and language, the U.S. is founded on ideas and beliefs. In chapters devoted to frontier beliefs, immigrant beliefs, religious and moral beliefs, social beliefs, political beliefs and others, University of Arizona English professor McElroy sets out to delineate the beliefs that define the American nation. Noting that beliefs are not necessarily consciously held but that they do exist in a culture, he gives brief, serviceable historical summaries of how American beliefs took root and evolved. Among those beliefs are: "everyone must work"; "improvement is possible"; "each person is responsible for his own well being"; "America is a chosen country"; "achievement determines social rank"; "the least government possible is the best"; human beings will abuse power when they have it." Sometimes, McElroy comes close to peddling a triumphalist history of the spread of European ideas in a savage land. But he generally, if dutifully, notes that it took some time for a majority to extend the most cherished of American beliefs (in liberty and equality) to all of society (slavery, he writes, was a "perversion of American beliefs"). In the end, however, his laundry list of American beliefs is an exercise more in cataloguing than analysis. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

McElroy's book is both interesting and thought-provoking, but such a scholarly effort is a "big job." McElroy (emeritus, Univ. of Arizona), author of Finding Freedom: America's Distinctive Cultural Formation(CH, Apr'90), downplays differences in ethnicity or gender (with all of the historical implications diversity raises in this nation's history) and suggests instead that "what it means to be an American . . . has always been determined by beliefs rather than birthplace or skin color." Not all would agree. Slaves had "beliefs" but they were not citizens (Americans) until Reconstruction; similarly, First People, the landlords of this nation, were not regarded by most Anglos as "Americans" until rather recently. Women, in turn, won the vote via the 19th Amendment because of their steadfast "belief" that they deserved it; only then did they achieve the status of "citizen" as they became "Americans." Other examples abound. Although its emphasis on ideas that bring peoples together as a nation is refreshing and stimulating, American Beliefs should be read along with a "diverse" work such as US History as Women's History: New Feminist Essays, ed. by Linda K. Kerber et al. (1995). Appendix; notes. All levels. P. D. Travis Texas Woman's University



Chapter One What Do We Mean by "Culture"?                         CULTURE is usually thought of as a knowledge of music, literature, painting, or other arts. Thus we say of persons having such knowledge that they are "cultured." Obviously culture in this sense is not something that everyone in a society has.     But culture may also be thought of as a set of beliefs expressed in behavior. Culture in this sense is not something consciously learned, like culture in the sense mentioned above. Rather, it is acquired by successive generations of a people through imitating the behaviors of their elders that express certain beliefs. Culture in this sense is the possession of a whole people.     The way a historical culture comes into being resembles the formation of a path. When someone first traverses a landscape, the terrain and the pathfinder's choices among plausible alternative routes determine the way he goes. Those who come after him follow the way he took because falling in with a discernible track is always easier than making independent explorations at every step of a journey. As time passes, successive travelers continuously make the track plainer and confirm it as the way to pass through that landscape until, eventually, the pathfinder's initial route acquires a compelling utility and rightness. Similarly, in the formation of a historical culture, successive generations of a people find before them--already laid out--the way of life of preceding generations; and as each generation imitates the belief-behaviors of that way of life, they make them ever more compelling and right for later generations. So too, just as the route taken by the pathfinder and his immediate followers is crucial to a path's formation, in the formation of a historical culture the belief-behaviors of the first generations of a people are crucial. Whoever wants to understand any historical culture will therefore pay special attention to its formative period. In the case of the United States of America, that period was the century and a half from 1610 to 1760, the colonial era of American history.     Historical cultures allow human beings to live in society with other human beings, something that requires a shared sense of a right way to live. Human beings have a "moral imagination," which is to say that we are capable of imagining right conduct and need to live with other human beings according to a right way of behaving. A set of right belief-behaviors is as indispensable to human well-being as food and water. In many instances in history, ordinary men and women have preferred to suffer death rather than violate a belief-behavior of their culture. A HISTORICAL CULTURE can be formally defined as a unique set of extremely simple beliefs, formed and communicated through behavior over more than three generations. Cultural beliefs thus differ from other kinds of ideas in having been acted on for longer than the lifetime of the oldest person in a society. That is why they must be extremely simple. If they were complicated they would not be sensible to many people, nor would they retain their coherence for many generations. Cultural beliefs have this order of simplicity: "Worship is a matter of conscience," "The emperor is divine," "We are God's chosen people." These are historical beliefs respectively of the American, the Japanese, and the Jewish peoples. Beliefs this simple can be acted on for thousands of years without losing their coherence, and can be understood by even the dullest-minded persons in a society.     The extreme simplicity of cultural beliefs also allows them to be expressed in varying behaviors over time. This is important because a people may have to alter their behavior if they find themselves living in altered circumstances. But while the behaviors that express cultural beliefs may change, the beliefs themselves remain the same. America, for example, was an almost entirely agricultural society during the century and a half when its culture formed in the 1600s and 1700s; then, beginning in the 1800s, America became a highly industrialized society. But that change, which was very great, involved no alteration in American beliefs regarding work--the beliefs I have designated "Primary Beliefs" in this book. Those beliefs remained the same whether the work that expressed them was performed outdoors in fields or indoors in factories.     It is the set of beliefs in a culture that makes it complex, not the individual beliefs--all of which must be extremely simple to retain their coherence over time. Similarly, each culture is unique because of its set of beliefs, not because each belief in the set is unique. Cultures are more or less alike depending on the number of their shared beliefs. Thus we can speak meaningfully of "Islamic cultures," "nomadic cultures," "Western cultures." And within any given culture, groups of persons may exist that share its belief-behaviors but have some belief-behaviors historically peculiar to themselves. To describe a particular culture is to claim a certain focus of attention and a comparative rather than an absolute uniqueness.     When the same belief is shared by several cultures, it is likely to be expressed by different behaviors in each of them. The Japanese belief in a divine emperor, for instance, has occurred in other cultures. But where the Japanese emperor was at times a mere puppet manipulated by a warlord, in the culture of the Incas in the pre-Columbian Andes of South America, where the same belief existed, the will of the emperor was an iron law of absolute authority. Mummies of all the Inca emperors were kept in a special room inside the imperial palace at Cusco to be brought forth to sit among the counselors of the living emperor whenever he had to make a decision of the gravest consequence to the empire--a behavior not found in Japan. In ancient Egypt, whose culture likewise included a belief in the divinity of the ruler, the corpses of Egyptian pharaohs were as carefully preserved as they were in the culture of the Incas; but their mummies were never brought forth and displayed. Quite the contrary. Great pains were taken to conceal the corpses of these rulers in places where, it was hoped, they would never be disturbed. A culture's particular set of beliefs, it appears, will cause a belief it may share with other cultures to be expressed in distinctive behavior.     The beliefs of a culture are transmitted in a more unerring and natural way than instruction and indoctrination. Since the beliefs that constitute a culture are expressed in behavior and acquired by imitating the behaviors that express them, historical cultures do not depend on literacy. They exist independent of conscious learning. Systems of education may reinforce or weaken a culture's beliefs, but they can neither produce a new culture nor guarantee the continuance of an existing one. A historical culture is not a rational construction. For a person to change his historical culture, something acquired by participation in the historical way of life of a people, he must change his residence and acquire a new allegiance--among a people with a different history.     The illusion (one might well call it the disease) of revolutionaries is that they can cancel history and produce a new culture that will be a rational construction. They want a new set of belief-behaviors, which they will design. But historical cultures are highly resistant to willful change undertaken by political operatives. For a people with a historical culture, nothing justifies an attempt to deconstruct its beliefs and replace them with a different set of beliefs. Indeed, the beliefs of a culture determine a people's way of knowing whether something is justified. For this reason, cultures rarely change. History cannot be reversed and begun anew, the slate having been wiped clean, the way revolutionaries seem to think it can.     When a culture does change, it normally does so in piecemeal fashion over several generations of time. The change occurs by the addition of some new belief to a culture's set of beliefs, through acting on that belief for more than three continuous generations; or by the subtraction of a belief from the set by the gradual failure of successive generations to act on it. Such an addition or subtraction alters to some degree the dynamics of the whole set of beliefs by changing the relationships among them. True changes in a culture occur over so many generations that they are usually imperceptible until after they have been completed.     Why are more than three generations of behavior needed to establish, or enculturate, a belief? Because three generations are usually alive at any one moment in a society (children, parents, grandparents), for a belief to acquire historical validity for those in the youngest generation it must connect with an absent, fourth generation whom parents and grandparents knew but children did not. Seeing their parents and grandparents pay respect to the graves of the dead helps to establish in the minds of the youngest generation such a connection, as does hearing stories about their ancestors, holding dear the same symbols the dead held dear, listening to music associated with their cultural ancestors, preserving structures built or lived in by them, and receiving personal mementos or other possessions of their ancestors. In all these ways, a connection with the past is created in the young. It makes them feel that the way of life they see going on around them, which they are beginning to imitate, originated in and has been sanctioned by the past. (The respect for cultural ancestors need not, of course, be for a biological ancestor, or even for a person who really lived. It may be for a legendary or mythical ancestor, whose behavior embodies a belief of the culture. Only in the culture of a clan would one's biological and cultural ancestors be identical. In all nonclan societies, one's cultural ancestors always extend beyond one's biological ancestors.)     Another basic point about historical cultures is that they are organic. Not every person in every generation of a people acts on all the beliefs of that people's historical culture in exactly the same way. A historical culture has an organic, not a mechanical, conformity--like a forest in which there is always a certain amount of dead wood and downed timber, even when the forest as a whole is healthy. So, too, when the leaves of the deciduous trees in a forest change color in autumn and begin falling to the ground, not all leaves change color at the same moment or change to the same hue or fall from the trees at the same moment. Similarly, when the new leaves emerge from their bud cases in the spring, they do not do so uniformly. At no time in the life cycle of a forest is there a precise and total uniformity of process, or the same state of vitality in every tree. Yet the forest has a conformity, is healthy, and perpetuates itself. A culture's processes also have no total, precise uniformity, but rather a general organic character.     As with a forest, the features of a culture are best appreciated from an overview. Any attempt to comprehend all the details of a culture would be doomed to failure by the very nature of the attempt. One remembers in this regard the legend of the Spanish cartographer who wished to make a perfect map which would replicate every detail of the kingdom of Castile, on a scale of 1:1. He finally succeeded in making such a map--and, of course, it was as large as the entire kingdom. According to the legend, fragments of this wonderful map are still to be found moldering into the ground in remote and seldom-visited corners of Castile. To pretend to represent in full detail the organic wholeness of a historical culture would be a similar vanity.     In short, this book is based on the following propositions: that a people's culture consists of a particular set of simple beliefs learned and validated ("enculturated") through behavior for many generations; that cultures satisfy an ineradicable human need for a shared sense of right behavior and make it possible for human beings to live together in society; that once a culture has formed, it tends to persist unchanged because it satisfies a deeply human need; and that every culture is the best culture to those who participate in it. Copyright © 1999 John Harmon McElroy. All rights reserved.