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The Gun and the Cross. The religion of America in John Ford, Mitt Romney and Clint Eastwood

There is something always moving about America's sense of its destiny. The speeches to the Republican convention were stirring with their appeals to the frontier, to justice and to the nation's special relationship with God. John Ford's minor western on the Mormon saga reminds us why we need to remain suspicious of what can flow from those sentiments

Selina O'Grady
7 September 2012

In his acceptance speech, Mitt Romney, the prophet, proclaimed his vision of America as it once was -- an America ‘that was endowed by our creator’, whose people were ‘uniting to save the world from unspeakable darkness.’ This America, ‘that is the best within each of us’, is what he aims to restore; indeed, ‘the peace and freedom of the world require it’.

Clearly the United States has a religion of the state like no other country in the world. Excluding poor blacks and North American Indians (none of whom seemed to be much represented Romney’s wildly cheering audience), Americans are united around the  myth of a country where god, freedom and prosperity are inextricably mixed. The myth originated with the Puritan settlers, and, when they evolved into the elite, was taken over by the new settlers moving west – by the Mormons in particular -- and captured in the heroic mythology of the cowboy.

According to Mormonism, America was originally settled by one of the lost tribes of Israel, whose modern-day ancestors are North American Indians.  In an interview in 2007, Romney stated quite blithely his Mormon belief  that at the second coming Christ would go to Jerusalem - as well as  to Missouri -  and that those  Jews who did not convert to Mormonism would be massacred. (That this announcement did not cause outrage amongst Israeli Jews in particular was probably because of Romney’s close relationship with Netanyahu.)

Mormonism  sacralised America - that is why Harold Bloom, the famously high-brow Eng Lit professor, considers its visionary founder, Joseph Smith, to equal in imaginative power to Melville or Whitman. The broader sacred mission, however, was embodied in the cowboy. He is the pioneering independent spirit who brings justice, law and order, just as Aeneas did in the Roman Empire’s great founding myth the Aeneid.  

Mormon and cowboy myths are married in the film Wagonmaster by John Ford (who is mystifyingly revered by the French Nouvelle Vague and their successors). The film is about the Mormon leader Elder Wiggs,  who leads a small group of followers through the Wild West to set up his own version of ‘a city upon a hill’ in Utah. ‘God has reserved for us a promised land’ he tells a horse trader on the wagon trail. As the film ends, that tinny triumphalist music of Westerns blares out, and Ford’s large expressionist shots of couples smiling and embracing as they ride their wagons into the new settlement are intercut with shots of the folk dancing. A new community, a vision realized. It is genuinely moving.  I caught a friend of mine – the quintessence of anti-patriotism – smiling   as he watched.

This is a vision of one’s nation as we might all like to have it – a community bound together by courage, the love of freedom, the love of each other based on the love of family. America is the elected nation, its people have a destiny, they are the chosen people.

For all our queasiness at the Romney speech and distaste for jingoism, we in Britain have regret and disquiet over the sense that our society is disintegrating.  Our tax-avoiding rich and our disaffected underclass alike seem to have opted out of the idea that they are contributors in the joint enterprise of creating a good society.

So what then is wrong with the John Ford ending or the conclusion to Mitt Romney’s speech in which he sounded like a new Isaiah as he expounded his  ecstatic vision of a golden America of the past which will be recreated by him in  the future?  

The problem is the violence on which that vision is based.

Before John Ford’s glorious finale there is this less palatable scene: a band of outlaws shoot and kill one of the Mormon pioneers. In return one of the Mormon wagoners shoots virtually  the entire band. When the leader of the Mormons berates him for having acted contrarily to his own dictum that he never draws his gun on a man, the wagoner replies “I don’t draw on men, only on snakes’, and then he hurls the gun into the desert.

This is not just  the neocon way of doing things, but the inevitable behaviour of an empire.  Force first, dehumanise your opponent (remember, they are snakes), then throw away the gun, and establish law and order. Force – massacres if necessary - is justifiable because of the end result, the supposed establishment of law and order. Violence is thus dressed up in the language of moral righteousness.

Clint Eastwood, whether as  Dirty Harry or as the  taciturn deliverer of pioneer settlers from their evil enemy, has been this America incarnate. When he spoke at the Republican National Convention it was against a vast generic poster of him as cowboy carrying a gun. Clint the Christ of the frontier, carrying not the cross but the gun. He spreads justice with the gun – lawlessness has become righteousness.  Hollywood may be filled  with (in Clint’s words) ‘people left of Lenin’, but there were also, he said,   plenty of people like him. And America is still pursuing its Mormon and cowboy dream.

‘When the world needs someone to do some really big stuff you need an American’. Such words from Mitt Romney may make Americans feel good,  but its moral confidence is based on a nasty reality. Look at what Tony Blair, the nearest we’ve got to a  politician with a sense of righteousness equivalent to an American politician’s, got us into (Desmond Tutu, a man of God worth listening to, thinks he should appear before the International Criminal Court for Iraq).  We in ex-imperial Britain may not yet have  thrown  off the empire’s sense of moral mission, but we are more aware of what that mission really means than the audience of the Republican National Convention appears to have been. And if you doubt that, listen to the crowd chanting ‘USA, USA’ when Romney gets onto talking about Islam and Putin.

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