Pawlenty Stars in American Civil Religion: The Movie

Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota and an unofficial candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, has released one heck of a political ad that masquerades as a book ad that looks like a movie trailer. The ad runs only a minute and fifteen seconds but it packs in a flurry of American religious and civic mythology around the themes of freedom, security, and prosperity. With a thrilling musical score of vague but impending danger that could have been lifted from the season finale of 24, Pawlenty’s voiceover reminds us that these three goals won’t be easy but that we can accomplish them because “we are the American People.” He also cites that we’ve done it before at Valley Forge, on the moon, and settling the West. If we just roll up our shirt sleeves we can get it done.

Pawlenty’s message draws on three myths in American culture. First, there’s the myth of American exceptionalism. From John Winthrop forward, Americans have believed that this place is somehow special, somehow inherently different, from the rest of the world. Where Winthrop viewed this exceptionalism in terms of Christian piety, Pawlenty presents it in terms of freedom and prosperity. As he puts it, America is the most successful nation in the world because “it is the freest nation in the world.” This claim is illustrated with images of Martin Luther King Jr. and the fall of the Berlin wall—both symbols of freedom’s growth and expansion.

This moves into the second myth Pawlenty deploys, the American (or Puritan) work ethic. What makes America exceptional? We work the hardest, we roll our sleeves up, we dare to do things that no one else has the courage to do. Max Weber described this as a “this-worldly ascetisicm” where one works hard and sacrifices in this life in order to receive prosperity in this life. Individual hard work and frugality produce social prosperity—a fiscal conservative’s mantra of sorts. There are no historical images used to support this myth in the ad. There’s a shot of a well-planned neighborhood of single family homes along a tree lined cul-da-sac, shots of vaguely working class people, and images of Pawlenty himself. Pawlenty sets up himself and these “everyday Americans” as the symbols of the Puritan-American work ethic.

Finally, our exceptionalism and our hard work give Americans a special destiny. The third myth in the ad is Manifest Destiny, the narrative from American history that argues a special purpose for our country to spread its influence around the world. In the 19th century, Manifest Destiny meant expansion out west. In the twentieth century, Woodrow Wilson used it to back up American intervention in WWI. While the term itself fell out of political usage, the myth expanded as America spread its reach to the moon, to Vietnam, and to the Middle East. If we are exceptional and if we work the hardest, than surely we deserve to grow. It’s not imperialism, it’s a blessing for our hard work. This is the myth Pawlenty draws on when he brings up the examples of Valley Forge, the moon landing, and the settlement of the west.

These myths are more than just ways of giving America meaning, and selling Pawlenty’s book. They are also bad history—more specifically they are Whig history, a history of America where freedom is constantly growing, prosperity is constantly increasing, and culture is always progressing. It’s a history with Protestant sensibilities and heroes. We’ve seen it other places before. It erases the oppression, blood, and violence beneath the freedom it proclaims. Pawlenty gives us Martin Luther King Jr. but not the church bombings, police dogs, and fire hoses. He gives us a quaint picture of horses and wagons but no images of American Indian removal, Indian wars, and shrinking reservations. He gives us the fall of the Berlin Wall but not McCarthyism. 

It’s an ad for a book (a book that isn’t selling that well, apparently) and not a history lesson. But like history, every national politician offers American voters a narrative of who they are and what America means. Sometimes bad history can be good politics.

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