Minnesota: The New Jerusalem or the New Eden?

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by Stephen B. Young | March 11, 2009 • Generally, we succeed or fail, rise or fall, depending on where our dreams inspire us to go. Look well, therefore, to your dreams.

The Fifth Column – Stephen B. Young, Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table, is a lawyer and writer. He has served as Dean of the Hamline University School of Law and as an Assistant Dean at Harvard Law School.

This is true for peoples as well. The myths of origin, sustaining powerful group identities, energize national endeavors. Many Chinese think of themselves as at the center of All Under Heaven; many Russians want their country to be the Third Rome and save humanity; many Japanese take heart that their race descends from the Sun Goddess and other great Kami; many French hearts throb to the strains of La Marseillaise and take pride in their country as leading the world towards the ideals of “Liberte, Equalite, Fraternite”.

In America one special origins myth is frequently noted: that we are a special people making a highway in the wilderness for the Lord and so building a city upon a hill. This is our Puritan heritage.

Minnesota’s drive towards excellence is stalling; our leaders are less inspiring than formerly. To invigorate the state in this time of fiscal and economic crisis, we need to put in place a strong, positive identity of accomplishment.

Our state culture drinks deeply from the well of American values and ideals. We need, therefore, to wisely consider our mythic heritage and affirm one that is most fitting for the times.

I suggest that America actually has two mythic traditions: one, the Puritan one, that we are the New Jerusalem, chosen of God through our hard work and right living to be exceptional and privileged; and a second, that we are the New Eden, also special and privileged because we are without sin and deserve wonderful lives.

The first mythic vision- the Puritan one – is something of a commonplace. Its teachings have been trumpeted and invoked for generations; it infuses the speeches of Washington and Lincoln and the Civil War call to battle – the Battle Hymn of the Republic of Julia Ward Howe.

The second vision is a suggestion of mine. It too has exerted a powerful influence in our history, sometimes in concert with the march towards the New Jerusalem but sometimes in counterpoint and conflict.

The New Eden premise is that Americans have no sin; we live as if it were before the fall from grace caused by Adam and Eve.

That fall, of course, especially in Christian teachings, forces us to seek the New Jerusalem through right conduct and adherence to the Lord’s ways and preferences. We need government, for example, said James Madison because we are not angels.

But if we are in a New Eden, then we don’t need to seek the New Jerusalem. Seeking the New Jerusalem is tough work; it demands responsibility; we fall short; bad things happen; and, we can fail. Thinking about sin is a pain in the butt; it gets in the way of getting our way and having fun.

But if we already are in the New Eden, then we are perfected as created in God’s image without blemish and so are entitled to a rich and secure life of ease and indulgence.

This premise that we can aspire to live in a New Eden goes back to the arguments of Jean Jacques Rousseau on the origins of society and the state. For Rousseau, we have no sin and deserve ultimate freedom from restraint and hardship. All our troubles and worries are caused by others – society, government, kings, aristocrats, Wall Street, foreigners, etc. The list of possible sources of our distress is as long as our imagination can make it.

But the important point is that living in a New Eden is our birthright as Americans and as Minnesotans.

Rousseau’s perfectionism came to America most of all through Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson looked with dreamy eyes on the charms of rural Americans living on farms and in small communities close to nature and far away from the devilments of commerce and cities, of banks and stock jobbers and international trade.

The Edenic promise, closely associated with the inherent goodness (read no sin) of nature, inspired the transcendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Walt Whitman. Then, after the Civil War, the American search for enjoyment of the New Eden took two different directions: one to the political left and the other to the political right.

On the left came the Progressives and protestant ministers preaching the social gospel of reform, both of whom saw threats to enjoyment coming from unrestrained capitalism and the new elite of Robber Barons. They called on government to give us our entitlements as residents of the New Eden.

The search to enjoy life in the New Eden on the political right saw the threat to our entitlements differently. First, it promoted a nationalism under which anti-American ideas (socialism, Roman Catholicism and today Islam) and strange, different people (Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese, other immigrants) had to be rejected and kept at arms length. Such ideas had no place in the New Eden and such people had no claim to equal enjoyment of the New Eden.

The second article of faith on the political right about how to get to the New Eden affirmed our wealth as a sign of our deserving to live in the New Eden. Business, capitalism, wealth – brought forth Edenic conditions of enjoyment and personal power. As America grew into a world industrial power, its growing prosperity was evident proof that the country was destined to be the New Eden.

Enjoyment of wealth was an American birthright. As a CEO of General Motors once said: “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”

Really!

But from the point of view of the right, it followed that no one has a right to take from us our wealth and no one has a right to infringe on our enjoyments – our “freedoms”

So here we have arrived at Rush Limbaugh the other day: defending American ways of freedom and liberty against the allegedly unjust attacks on our New Eden launched by Barack Obama in his budget.

Conservatives like Rush want us to be left alone to enjoy the Eden we already have. Progressives want government to bring us closer to Eden. No wonder we have a cultural war going on between the two extremes, each defending its sense of entitlement.

Facing a crisis with its voters polarized, which way should Minnesota go: to the right or to the left?

Actually, seeking the New Jerusalem is much more preferable in my mind than any attempt to enjoy Eden. But that is a story for another post.

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