Van Ens: Stories shape our nation’s identity (column)

Jack Van Ens
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Jack Van Ens

Editor’s note: Find a cited version of this column at

Families share stories at reunions. Children reminisce about favorite family vacations. A parent remembers a past holiday gathering. Another family member recollects the aroma of Grandma’s apple pie. Memories shape family identity.

Similarly, dominant narratives form our country’s identity. Robert Reich, University of California at Berkeley public policy professor, served as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor. He identifies four stories that have shaped the United States since its founding. Reich titles them: “The Triumphant Individual,” “The Benevolent Community,” “The Mob at the Gates” and “The Rot at the Top.” These stories reveal what unites and divides our nation (The New Republic, “The Lost Art of Democratic Narrative,” March 21, 2005).

• The Triumphant Individual: In the voice of Poor Richard, in Ben Franklin’s almanacs, he coined the aphorism: “A penny saved is two-pence clear.” Bank your life on this financial wisdom. Savings grow and make you self-sufficient. Reaching the top rung of the economic ladder takes grit, hard work and persistent effort, advised Franklin.

Horatio Alger popularized this story of American success in which the underdog succeeds. The “Rocky” movies are based on this script.

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Political conservatives interpret this story of individual spunk to teach: “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.” Progressives agree self-starting traits are important, but they expose the fallacy of a self-made individual. A parent leads by example, a teacher mentors and a consoling friend also shape us. Doesn’t it take a village to groom personal success?

• The Benevolent Community: President Ronald Reagan spun the American story of people rolling up their sleeves for the common good. Its roots go back to Puritan leader John Winthrop (1588-1649), who on board the Arabella ship inspired immigrants to see the New World as the biblical “city upon the hill,” shining hope in a dark world.

Norman Rockwell added details to this script by painting New Englanders settling differences at town meetings. And Jimmy Stewart immortalized residents working for a town’s good in the Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Political conservatives say the Common Good arises from rugged individuals who ply talents. Progressives believe communities working in teams produce judicial fairness. By redistributing wealth, the middle class grows and the American Dream flourishes.

• The Mob at the Gates: Today, politicians speak in either-or alternatives. America first versus foreign nations. “Us” versus “them” is written into our revised national identity’s script.

Enemies lists of immigrants not white or Christian are denounced as border threats. Conservatives are threatened by demographic trends in the past decade showing that the United States has ceased to be a majority white Christian nation — from 54 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today.

Progressives, in contrast, welcome diversity and see immigrant newcomers as people who strengthen America, not bring its demise.

• The Rot at the Top: A script describing America’s identity is laced with fear. Washington’s power elites threaten citizens who feel pushed to life’s sidelines. These citizens resent being overlooked.

In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump scolded “rot at the top,” identifying that a “small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”

Conservatives believe big government is the rot. Progressives say the rot grows on Wall Street where the 1 percent prosper.

These contradictory narratives of national identity divide Americans because citizens don’t read from the same script.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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