Published Humanitas, Volume XIX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2006

My goal in this essay is less to impart a specific teaching than to tell a story. This story, I first should point out, is not a myth made up for didactic purposes, as so many such stories tend to be. It is rather a true story, one rooted in things we know about history, and about America and Americans; about where we came from, how we were made, and, from that, what and who we are. To the extent that there is a formal argument here, it is simply this: our lives have meaning and coherence on account of the larger stories of which they are a part. Thus, American society—our lives in common as Americans—is possible only to the extent that we share and seek to live up to a common, overarching story rooted in memory, custom, and current practice.

Every story needs a beginning. But in a sense beginnings are arbitrary. For example, I could begin with the story of creation; after all, man’s creation in the image of God has many implications for America. I also could tell a slightly shorter story by beginning with the first sin, the fall of man and its implications for our (sinful) nature. Or I could begin with Abraham’s covenant with the one true God, which made the Israelites “chosen.”

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