The political divide in the U.S. has never seemed wider than it does now and our polarization never this great. Yet even though a chasm exists between opposing political sides, there is universal agreement that there is something special about America, what some call her “exceptionalism.”
What is this “something special” and how did it come about?
The roots of our national identity are buried deep in the earth and existed long before the first Europeans landed on our shores. No doubt our Founders and subsequent immigrants helped shape our identity, but the mosaic of who we are as Americans was already firmly established by the time they arrived.
The Land Shaped Us?
Most Americans would find the concept that the land itself defined and shaped us is one that borders on blasphemy and the ridiculous. Many identify the U.S. as a Christian nation, and thus the idea that the land can influence its inhabitants defies the Abrahamic tradition and is considered paganistic. The concept is equally heretical to the scientific and materialistic viewpoints.
But the fact is the land does have a profound influence upon us. We see this vividly with our political divide, which is also a regional divide. America has a Blue State/Red State orientation, where we are aggregated in distinct geographical areas according to our political perspectives (conservatives in the South, liberals in the North). And the idea that we cling to Civil War allegiances seems almost unimaginable.
The prescient analysis of Kevin Phillips in 1968, then a Republican strategist for the Nixon Administration, predicted our Red State (conservative)/Blue State (liberal) divide. His book, The Emerging Republican Majority, forecasted a surging conservative movement as Americans moved from cities to suburbs and from the Northeast to the South and West. He believed that traditional Civil War alliances would dominate politics, becoming known as the “Republican’s Southern Strategy.”
Philips was correct, and the South benefitted from migration and saw its population explode relative to the North. The influx of new residents was a diversified mix of immigrants and citizens with a variety of political allegiances. Those migrating to the South were not all conservatives, yet the South remained predominantly conservative, consistently voting Republican during its growth spurt. For example, Georgia’s population doubled from 4.6 million (1970) to 9.7 million (2010), and its electoral votes increased from 12 to 16 in that same period. And Georgia’s voting record remained consistently conservative Republican, with the exception of when native sons Carter and Clinton ran for president. Interestingly 3.6 million of that 4.6 million, or 2/3 of the increase was to metro Atlanta, which you would think like other metro areas would vote democratic.
We also see our regional divide in the social fabric of religion and American values. Preceding the Civil War, the two largest protestant denominations, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Baptist Church, split into Northern and Southern Branches over slavery. Free churches formed in the North for those denominations, or ministers, that refused to embrace Abolitionism. In the South, many clergy used their interpretation of the bible to condone slavery.
Today, southern Christian churches are speaking out against homosexuality and LGBT rights. They have been a force behind efforts to pass discriminatory laws such as North Carolina’s transgender restroom legislation. In contrast, northern churches such as the UU, UCC, and Episcopal churches, fully support LGBT rights. Not all Southerners are conservative and against equal rights for transgender citizens and not all Northerners are liberals and pro-LGBT. But regional influences can affect our thinking and behavior.
Why is it that some Americans still adhere to Civil War allegiances? In the last 50 years, the U.S. government has passed legislation to increase equality and reduce discrimination. Jobs created by corporate America have reduced economic disparities nationally. And our country has become standardized — just about every town has a Walmart and a McDonalds. As Americans, we dress similarly, shop at the same chain stores, and are captured by the same national crazes gone viral. Yet at another level we are as regionally divided as ever.
To better understand why our politics have remained regional while just about every other feature of our lives has become uniform, we turn to Carl Jung. Jung believed that humanity shared a “collective unconscious,” populated by our instincts and archetypes, and stemming from our ancestral and evolutionary past. He believed our collective unconscious exerts a tremendous influence upon us, shaping our thinking and behavior, both individually and collectively. He also believed that our collective unconscious is buried deep in the earth.
In Mind and Earth, Jung states that archetypes are the “hidden foundation of the conscious mind.” To describe how our consciousness has developed, he used the metaphor of the construction of a building:
Its “upper story was erected in the nineteenth century, its ground floor dates back to the sixteenth century, and careful examination of the masonry reveals that it was reconstructed from a tower built in the eleventh century. In the cellar we come upon Roman foundations, and under the cellar a choked-up cave with Neolithic tools in the upper layer and remnants of fauna from the same period in the lower level.”
The implication is clear: who we are today, whether it be our national or regional identities, is the result of the memories built upon the land over the millennia by those who lived here before us. Basically, the Earth retains the memories and imprints of our ancestors, or predecessors, shaping who we are. Jung never discussed American regional differences, but he noted that different countries and people have different identities.
Jung saw America as an experiment in the transplantation of a race to another country: “Just as, in the process of evolution, the mind has been moulded by earthly conditions, so the same process repeats itself under our eyes today.”
America was not built upon virgin soil, but on the ancestral totems, or memories of Native Americans and other indigenous people. Jung stated, “The foreign land assimilates its conqueror …. Our contact with the unconscious chains us to the earth and makes it hard for us to move.” Put another way, the conqueror is conquered by the conquered. Jung points out how Australian Aborigines believe one cannot conquer a foreign soil because the ancestor spirits that dwell in the soil will reincarnate in the invader.
While European settlers helped shape America, who we are at our core as Americans is ultimately the result of the ancestors of Native Americans and other indigenous people before them. We have only added another floor, or addition, to Jung’s metaphorical building. We commonly believe that America was built over the last few hundred years, but the deep roots of our being go back millennia. Jung was so compelled by this idea that he referred to America as having a Native American soul.
America’s Native American Soul
So where can we see the influence of a Native American soul? In 1988, the U.S. Senate passed Hr. Cons. Res. 331, which recognized the profound influence the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) confederacy, its form of government, and its Great Law of Peace had on our Founders, on our form of government, and on our concepts of democracy. But there was a much greater influence that they did not acknowledge — that of the collective unconscious of the Haudenosaunee and previous Nations (Tribes) buried in the land that they inhabited, now the area of greater New York State.
The Peacemaker, a spiritual prophet of the Haudenosaunee tells their story. He arrived in upstate New York at a time of war, violence, torture, and cannibalism. He convinced the people to stop their blood feuding and forgive those who had injured them, and he united the warring tribes/nations into one Nation (Haudnosaunee/Iroquois.) He transformed the Adodarhoh, a vile and violent man, into the Tadodaho, a great spiritual leader and the greatest chief, a position still held and revered today.
The Peacemaker then gathered the people at Onondaga Lake (in Syracuse, New York.) As a symbol of peace, he uprooted a white pine tree and had the people throw their weapons into the stream below—thus the term “bury the hatchet.” The Peacemaker replanted the Tree of Peace and gave the people the Great Law of Peace.
When we examine the Haudenosaunee, its prophet (the Peacemaker), and his Great Law of Peace as how that law manifested in the actions and beliefs of the Nation, we begin to see in those people much that we hold dear about ourselves:
Democracy—the Great Law of Peace created democracy and contains familiar terms such as “we the people” and established a confederation, or union of tribes/nations.
Welcoming—“If any man or any nation shall obey the Laws of Peace … they may trace back the roots of the Tree … They shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Great Evergreen Tree.” (Great Law of Peace)
Peace/reconciliation—People were able to cast their differences aside and unite in peace. None of the advocates for peace killed anyone.
Women—were given an elevated status of clan mothers. Author, feminist, and scholar Sally Roesch Wagner was so impressed by this influence that she wrote a book about it, Sisters in Spirit, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influences on Early American Feminists.
Transformation—America is the story of second acts, supposedly from immigrants finding a new home in a distant land. But the story of the Peacemaker tells of one of the most dramatic transformations ever, the rebirth of the Adodarhoh into the Tadodaho. Imagine the most violent and evil person being transformed into a spiritual leader!
Melting pot/uniting—Before the U.S. became a melting pot of various cultures and races, the five tribes that became the Haudenosaunee were united.
Spiritual—the Creator through the Peacemaker brought about peace.
Forgiveness—Everyone had to forgive, especially Hiawatha who had his daughters killed by the Adodarhoh while working with the Peacemaker. A powerful message seldom seen in “story arcs,” or stories, whether they are religious, or nonreligious.
This is what makes up the floor below us. But there are many other floors below that I imagine are very similar. Ones that were cumulatively shaped the Haudenosaunee and others before them.
We Have Been “Conquered”
Yes, there is something exceptional about America because there has always been something exceptional about the land we inhabit, from ancestral totems to aspects of Mother Earth. We must accept that we are not a conqueror, but that we have been conquered, as were the Haudenosaunee and others before them. The land we call home has subsumed us, and in the process we have been imbued with noblest of beliefs and ideals.
No doubt other factors have contributed to our development. But we need to recognize that we have been shaped by the Earth we call America; whether it be our national identity or our regional differences. Once we recognize that the land shapes us, we may begin to appreciate Mother Earth and see Her for who She is.
I like to imagine that many prophets and great souls walked the area of greater New York State long before the Haudenosaunee’s Peacemaker landed his canoe on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. I see the roots of the White Pine Tree that he planted have stretched around the world and know that concepts unimaginable at the time, such as democracy and the empowerment of women, have been embraced globally.
Yes, we have our political divisions, our perceived injustices, and the prospect of tyranny. And, yes, our Founders recognized slavery, viewed women as second class status citizens, and failed to allow everyone to vote. But the land conquered those inequities. HOW? It influenced its inhabitants to become reformers, leaders, and great souls. It will do so again.
The exceptionalism that defines us is a powerful force buried in the earth – neither the blood feuding and cannibalism at the time of the Peacemaker, nor the Civil War could stop the land’s force. That exceptionalism remains bubbling below the surface of the land looking to rise again.
The Earth will offer us a future, once again, of an even “more perfect union,” a more just and egalitarian society, and a community where all of creation and Mother Earth is revered. Great wonder awaits us.
The preceding was adapted from Sacred Sites in North Star Country: Places in Greater New York State (PA, OH, NJ, CT, MA, VT, ONT) That Changed the World.
Madis Senner is a former global money manager turned Seeker. In his previous life he published opinion pieces for the NY Times, Barron’s and others. As a Keeper, he takes care of maintains several sacred sites. Sacred Sites in North Star Country is his fourth book. He lives in the heart of North Star Country in Syracuse, NY. You can learn more about his thinking and Mother Earth here.
Thanks to Debra Schaffer for her editorial help and Monroe Bernold for his input.
Jung, Carl; Mind and Earth, Volume 10 of his Collected Works.
Phillips, Kevin; The Emerging Republican Majority, Arlington House, NYC, NY, 1969
Sabini, Meredith; The Earth Has a Soul. The Nature Writings of C.G. Jung, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley Calif, 2008
Strong, Douglas M; Perfectionist Politics, Abolitionism and the Religious Tensions of American Democracy; Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY, 1999
Tacey, David: “Mind and Earth: Psychic Influence Beneath the Surface”, Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche; Volume 3. No.2, pg 15-32.
The Great Law of Peace
Wagner, Sally Roesch; Sisters in Spirit, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influences on Early American Feminists; Native Voices, 2001