Richard C. Salter: The Peace Corps and American Myths

Roundup: Talking About History

[Richard C. Salter is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.]

September 22 will mark the 45th anniversary of a moment par excellence in American civil religion: Congressional approval to fund the U.S. Peace Corps. President Kennedy initiated the Peace Corps in March of 1961, but for the new venture to succeed, it required Congressional support. Notwithstanding some heated discussion, the bill passed by a landslide (253 to 79), receiving support from both Democrats and Republicans. From that moment, and under the guidance of the President's brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps flourished. By 1966, over 15,000 volunteers were in the field. The organization downsized after the initial push, but it has always placed several thousand volunteers in the field per year, and by now 180,000 Americans have served. From the Job Corps to AmeriCorps and Freedom Corps, government-sponsored service organizations owe an historical debt to the Peace Corps.

So what makes the Peace Corps a part of American civil religion? Studies of American civil religion often focus on events, rituals, or spaces that somehow bind Americans together as a whole under the rubric of something deemed sacred. Memorial Day, for example, was understood by W. Lloyd Warner as a national holiday that knit together local communities under shared values. Or, as Robert Bellah analyzed it, John F. Kennedy's inaugural address was a ritual transition that safely recreated the nation under new leadership and with a new unifying mission. But like any religion, American civil religion is more than ritual; it also articulates and grounds a vision of reality.

It is in this last sense that the Peace Corps might be seen as an example of American civil religion. The Peace Corps was, from the start, an organization that sought to embed a particular ethos as the core identity of the nation. The mission of the Peace Corps has always been far broader than bringing technical assistance to people abroad. In fact, two of its goals explicitly focus on creating a better understanding between Americans and other peoples. Some may not believe that this is a particularly religious goal; yet to promote a better understanding of Americans suggests that there is something in Americans, as a group, to be understood. From its inception, the Peace Corps has invoked important myths of American identity and promoted them as "real" American values.

When the Peace Corps was founded, which Americans needed to be understood? Simply stated: "real Americans." And who were these? Critics of the Peace Corps might be surprised to note that, despite a lack of success, the organization has always sought a widely representative demographic. "Real Americans" might belong to any race, class, sex, or religion; what ultimately identifies "real Americans" is a shared ethos.

One of the most influential books of the late 1950s was The Ugly American, a novel that horrified Americans with its presentation of American diplomats as effete, snobby, boorish, and out of touch. The communists were exploiting these diplomats' failures. If only people in these countries could meet real, normal, "average" Americans, one character laments. The hero of the book is the epitome of a real American. Unencumbered by sentimentality or bureaucracy, this pragmatic figure is recognizable by his workman's hands and the grease under his nails. With characteristic grumpy swagger and a "can-do" spirit, he works abroad with a local man to build a bicycle-powered water pump for irrigation, changing the lives of an entire village. This was the figure of the practical, resilient, hard-working individualist that the Peace Corps had in mind as a "real American" and whom they wanted the world to meet.

It does not require a great leap to see the connection between this rugged individual and Kennedy's New Frontier. The Peace Corps was the crown jewel in the New Frontier program, spreading American good fortune around the world by sending average Americans out to do practical and honest hard work. If the New Frontier was Kennedy's vision, it was embodied in the Peace Corps.

Like all civil religion, the Peace Corps has the power to bring together relatively disparate visions of our society in a common framework. In this case, the frontier myth of the rugged individual dovetails with an American republicanism that sees the nation's people as engaged together in pursuit of a common good -- a common good that, in the post-War period, involved spreading American values globally.
Whether or not we agree that spreading American values around the world is indeed a common good, and whether or not Americans are best identified with a pragmatic ethos, we do well to mark the anniversary of the Peace Corps as an organization that seeks to make real a particular myth of what an American is.

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