Apr 15 2011 3:47pm

Pilgrims in Space

Pilgrims in space

Imagine you’re on the shores of a fresh new world, measuring its challenges for your small band of plucky survivors. You’re aliens here, but this land is raw, ready to be made in your image. So you carve out your settlement and you eke out your living. It’s hard, sure, but it’s also exciting and challenging. You become the person you’re meant to be. You and your band create the perfect society, a veritable utopia, and you live in harmony forever. This is the dream of the New World.

It sounds like science fiction, but once upon a time America was a fresh new world, and it reflected all the hopes of a group of stalwart settlers. They left behind in Europe a corrupt civilization that didn’t want them. Despite this rejection, the puritans saw themselves as anointed by God to perform his “errand,” which was to set an example for the rest of the world as the greatest community on earth. In the words of John Winthrop, founding member of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us.” So the Puritans started over, forged a better society, and waited to be noticed. The plan was that, on judgment day, Jesus would tell the puritans what a good job they’d done, and thumb his nose at those European meanies. As Pastor Winthrop explains, “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘may the Lord make it like that of New England.’” This is what the puritans actually believed would happen, as long as they were exemplary Christians. They endured the present, but they lived for their glorious future vindication. So they waited. And they waited….

And we’re still waiting. Those goofy Bible thumpers in their funny hats and square belt buckles left behind a legacy for America, and that legacy is millennialism, or, to put it in plain English, a fascination for the end of the world. But how could that be? The puritan sect died out long ago, right? Not if you read the work of one of our unsung geniuses, Sacvan Bercovitch, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Harvard University. (I recommend his book Puritan Origins of the American Self.) Dr. Bercovitch convincingly shows how the puritan millennial ideology is alive and well in American discourse, only now, instead of talking about Jesus fulfilling his promise we talk about how American Values will save us once and for all.

In American public discourse, you can plainly see the influence of those severe, unyielding puritans even today. America still sees itself as having an errand, to bring democracy, (or freedom, or hope,) to the rest of the world, and to set an example as the greatest nation on earth. American presidents talk about the promise of a glorious future for their people, and when they do it, they sound an awful lot like puritan preachers:

“Let it be said by our children’s children that… with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, 2009

“We are not this story’s author, who fills time and eternity with his purpose. Yet, his purpose is achieved in our duty. And our duty is fulfilled in service to one another… This work continues, the story goes on, and an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm.” George W. Bush, Inaugural Address, 2001

“May those generations whose faces we cannot yet see, whose names we may never know, say of us here that we led our beloved land into a new century with the American dream alive for all her children, with the American promise of a more perfect Union a reality for all her people, with America’s bright flame of freedom spreading throughout all the world.” Bill Clinton, Inaugural Address, 1997

Do you hear the echo of the puritans’ wished-for vindication on judgment day? All three presidents are talking about the fulfillment of America’s grand promise. It isn’t just a few inaugural addresses that sound like this. Almost every presidential speech takes on this grand millennial tone, even presidents one wouldn’t think of as having “puritanical” values.

American politics are forever intertwined with religious values, despite the founding fathers’ wisdom in creating a separation of church and state. People are still fighting over prayer in public schools, evolution in the curriculum, sex education, and now add gay marriage to the heap. These issues are divisive, and the gap between secular and traditional Americans seems to get wider every year. I’m convinced that our national debate would be helped if we could all agree to keep religion in one box, and politics in another. Only then would we all recognize that when either group imposes their values on the other, the only possible result is oppression and social unrest. It might be a pipe dream, but I’m still basing my science fiction series on the idea.

The Sky Chasers series is infused with echoes of American millennialism. In the series, there is one secular humanist ship, and one ship with more puritanical values, and they’re fighting for supremacy over the colony they’re on their way to found. Because of their “errand,” naturally both ships view New Earth as the stomping ground of their own version of a utopian society. But both traditional and secular American have their dark underbellies, and as the story goes on, we find moral complications on both sides. The main characters, Waverly Marshall, Kieran Alden, and Seth Ardvale all have to figure out where they fit ideologically. What I hope to show by the end of the series is that each side of the political fence comes with moral compromise, but each side basically wants the same thing: for the colony of New Earth, (read: America) to fulfill its potential. This can never happen, though, until those two ships, those two Americas, can find a way to work together in peace.

Amy Kathleen Ryan is the author of Glow, book one in a new dystopian YA series, The Sky Chasers trilogy, available from St. Martin’s Press in September 2011.

2. Minch
Sounds interesting! I think it's probably a good idea to explore the idea of secular and religious politics working together in your novels, 'cause I really can't see it ever working in real life. Not just in the U.S. either, my own country which has less emphasis on religion, can't seem to separate the two...
4. AmyKathleenRyan (Author)
Some commenters must not have read the last paragraph in my blog post, so I'll post it again:

"...both traditional and secular America have their dark underbellies, and as the story goes on, we find moral complications on both sides... What I hope to show by the end of the series is that each side of the political fence comes with moral compromise, but each side basically wants the same thing: for the colony of New Earth, (read: America) to fulfill its potential. This can never happen, though, until those two ships, those two Americas, can find a way to work together in peace."
5. Piper
You are a very good writer, Ms. Ryan. Also, I find it comical that someone demands secularists stop putting their values into politics, equating it with religious conservatives' values. Because, don't we have separation of church and state here?? And aren't secularist values like, human rights and respect of all living things???
Paul Howard
6. DrakBibliophile
Nope Piper, I didn't *demand* anything.

I'm saying that religious idea/values are part of religious people and to demand (as some have) us to "turn off our religion" when going to the voting booth is as stupid as telling secularists to "turn off their beliefs" when going into the voting booth.

I think Ms Ryan understands our point of view to some degree.

She is saying that our point of view is part of America just as much as secular values are part of America.

Unfortunately, IMO you are showing the "bad side" of secularism that she mentioned in her post. IE Religion (especially religious conservatives values) have no part in America.
7. Lev Abalkin
actually, drak, do you mean the values "celebrated" in Billie Halliday's "Strange Fruit"?

I've always wondered in bemusement at the ways conservatives, religious and secular, manage to avoid answering the question, "What are you conserving?" It seems that the one thing, the one value they are most interested in conserving, is their ignorance of the various issues being discussed - and that ignorance most definitely has no place in modern-day Russia.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
9. tnh
DrakBibliophile, tone it down.

The U.S. Constitution and government are in fact explicitly secular. "Liberal" is orthogonal to "secular." "Conservative" is orthogonal to "religious." And this thread is for discussing Amy Kathleen Ryan's entry, not for you to pursue your ongoing argument with secularism in general.

Be polite, stick to the topic, and you'll be fine.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
10. tnh
Lev Abalkin, let us not be quite so adversarial.
11. mbg1968
I'm surprised that I'm the first one to bring up 'The Wordy Pilgrims' by Sarah Vowell. A very interesting book, btw.
13. Madeline F
I'm not sure the analogy worked properly in this post. When I think Pilgrims, it comes 1:1 with Indians. When I think Indians, these days I think about a people who might have just been through an apocalypse of disease and heading for another, who would for various reasons be screwed hard in the next few centuries...

So, to talk about it only from the pilgrim point of view is like picking up a shovel to use as a quarterstaff. There's a whole other bit on the end that's throwing off the balance.

Perhaps better to get at the central idea of the essay, "how do the self-told myths of America lead to societies", would be an analogy that does largely have one group of idealistic people, like hippie communes from the 70s.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
14. tnh
If there's any way modern American society shows its Pilgrim heritage, it's the tendency to interpret their lives and events in terms of Biblical tropes and stories. The biggest difference is that where the Pilgrims' imaginations reached backward to examples from the Old Testament, American Protestant imaginations now tend to look forward to extra-Biblical novelties like the Rapture and the various schemata of Millennarianism. I believe this explains the popularity of the Left Behind books among people who read little or no other science fiction.

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