It’s apparently made of seventeenth-century religious dissenters.
“I want to know the secret sauce,” he recently told MSNBC. “Tell us what it is so we can move forward with it. What I discovered is the seeds that blossomed into this great nation really began with the faith of the Pilgrims.”
This is the subject of his upcoming movie Monumental, which hits theaters March 27. It’s an appropriate title; judging by the trailer, it does have a lot of monuments in it.
If I’m not mistaken (someone correct me on this if I am), the particular monument highlighted near the end of that clip is the National Monument to the Forefathers, dedicated to the memory of the Pilgrims in 1889. It’s also prominently featured in the film’s poster. You can see it just behind Cameron’s arm, the one in which he’s not clutching the American flag like it’s a piece of carry-on luggage.
Cameron’s opinion that you should look to the Pilgrims if you want to find the “secret sauce” that made the American character is a pretty common one. Many Americans who dig down in search of the nation’s moral foundations stop once their shovels hit Plymouth Rock, assuming that there’s nothing else to excavate. This has always interested me, because when you think about it, the Pilgrims and the Puritans don’t sum up even the colonial experience, much less the entire history of early America.
I mean, why them? They were neither the first settlers to set up shop in America nor the most typical ones (assuming there was such a thing as a “typical” group of colonists). Why should we consider the Pilgrims normative, rather than the Jamestown colonists, the Dutch inhabitants of old New York, the Cavaliers of Virginia, the Germans of Pennsylvania, the Scotch-Irish settlers of the Carolina backcountry, the Irish immigrants of the mid-1800’s, the southern and eastern Europeans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and so on?
Partly, I think, it’s because the Puritans left an extensive paper trail, and thus colonial historians wrote more about them. But I suspect it’s also because the Pilgrim past is a more useable one for people who believe Americans have tumbled from some towering religious or moral height. As I said some time ago, conservatism seems to me to be a philosophy that is fundamentally restorative—the goal is to return to the good old days when all was right with America. In order to hold this belief, one must first assume that the good old days were indeed good. To folks who want to build a more cohesive, moral, and purposeful nation, the Pilgrims are a pretty good model. From this perspective, the Pilgrims were the essential ingredient in the creation of America. It’s easy to forget that they weren’t the only game in town. In fact, as Jack Greene argues in his book Pursuits of Happiness, New England was in many respects downright atypical when you look at to early American development as a whole.
For more on the Monument to the Forefathers and the selective nature of how we remember history, I recommend this 2008 post at American Creation. I should note that personally, all snark and nitpicking aside, I like Kirk Cameron. He’s maintained his integrity and decency while working in the entertainment business, and that’s worthy of admiration. As for this film project, I think his heart is in the right place, but I’m guessing that both the American past and the American future are a little more complicated than he’d have us believe.