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The Uneasy Conscience of Manifest Destiny

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I can honestly say that I have seen every John Wayne western film ever made. From the Duke to Clint Eastwood, I have grown up watching westerns and still enjoy them. The romantic imagery of the “Old West” still causes me to become nostalgic and admire this unique part of the American experience. Living in the southern portion of New Mexico only encourages this romantic outlook as I hike desert trails near the Pecos River and hear stories from my grandfather about how his great-aunt hid Billy the Kid during the Lincoln county war. But as many would agree the romantic west that I admire is not, nor ever was, reality. In fact the reality of how the west was won is much more tragic in nature. From slavery to Indian wars, the American west has more skeletons than heroes sometimes. From studying American religious history I have come to learn the injustices and hardships that were created while America moved westward. A driving force behind the westward expansion was a cultural and religious ideology declared “Manifest Destiny.” Although historians use this term in history books, I have come to realize that “Manifest Destiny” was founded partly by using Christian theology and Scripture.

Now my good friend Brandon Hester has already done a fine job of describing how America is Not Israel, and I hope that this blog can elaborate on how American religious history has sometimes forgotten this truth. I would highly recommend reading his blog.

The term “Manifest Destiny” (here forward referred to as MD) first appeared in the United States Magazine Democratic Review periodical by John O’sullivan in 1845. O’Sullivan’s original use of the term included religious and democratic undertones regarding America’s right to end the annexation of Texas and continue expansion by proclaiming that “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our multiplying millions.”

A better grasp of the religious ideology O’Sullivan put forth can be seen in his 1839 article “The Great Nation of Futurity.” In it O’Sullivan used similar ideas and wording later associated with MD by stating that America was “to overspread and possess the whole continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government.” The religious and philosophical language described God (Providence) predetermined (Destiny) his people to possess the land for His will and also for the Enlightenment themes of freedom and liberty. However, the idea and cultural understanding of MD was a part of the American psyche long before O’Sullivan coined the phrase. The theological and cultural leanings of MD has been with America since her early settlement.

Like the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, the Puritans believed that God was continuing His work through Christianity and specifically through the pure Church of the Puritan denomination. The idea of “being chosen by God” was reinterpreted for American Puritan benefit, considering the Puritans believed the Church of England was corrupt and not the “true church.” God would use His “church” to be the light to the world in America. The early Protestant settlers of America also interpreted world history through a prophetic lens. The Reformation was considered a reenactment of Revelation, and that the American landscape was the location of the millennium uniquely sometimes called the “New World.” America, through the hand of Divine Providence, was the place where God’s mission and example were to be shown to the whole world. To use theological terms, America was seen as the place for the Millennial Kingdom. This post-millennial eschatology was merged with an application of the “Promise Land” narrative from Joshua creating a unique cultural theology. Just like the nation of Israel, America should take over the land by Divine sanction. From this mentality, exploration and settlement, wars, U.S. policy, Indian relations, and cultural racism were able to be practiced and even endorsed by Christianity.

As a student from a Christian university, the importance of application in theology was definitely emphasized during my college years. Theology couldn’t stay in the world of theory but had to be lived out and applied. It saddens me that MD was a type of theological application and ethic. MD wasn’t totally religious, it had its secular followers, but the ideology used God within its ethic and was encouraged and practiced by Christians. I have studied post-millennial thinking and theologians, but never thought that it could lead to some type of American “power religion.” The iconic American west of my childhood had a Deus Vult mentality of the medieval crusades. Although I’m sure there were well-meaning people along the way. Puritan pastors wanting to convert Native Americans or evangelists trying to bring revival to the American frontier, but good intentions can only go so far in history.

Historical study of injustices, such as the hardship given to Native Americans and the institution of slavery, have been well documented in recent years. Many scholars can place the American quest for westward expansion at the heart of these injustices. But the hard reality is that these injustices had their root in Christian theology. For example, a popular view held by many Americans during this time was that land not occupied by recognized members of “Christendom” was theoretically land free to be taken. Humanity had a Divine mandate to cultivate the earth and prosper. However, Native Americans failed to do this in the eyes of European standards; therefore Europeans had rightful claim to take the land from “pagans.” History plays out the conquest of lands, the establishment of Indian reservations, and the lies and violence committed against Native Americans (the Trail of Tears is an excellent example).

The title of this blog deals with my uneasy conscience regarding MD. Anyone can connect the dots and see that the ideology of MD led to a conquest mentality and that in turn led to wars, reservations, etc. But beyond just ending the blog with the common “Americans are bad people and we should feel sorry and hate our history” that I hear from certain theologies (liberation and liberal mainly), I have to realize that I’m a part of Manifest Destiny. People learn from history, they don’t shy away from it. What if western expansion didn’t happen in America? Would I have gone to school in Texas? Would I be working in New Mexico? Would we have cities, highways, and even the America we have today? As much as I don’t like what happened in American history, none of what I know would be here without that history taking place. So how do I live with it? The answer is I learn from history, with an uneasy conscience sometimes. I will still watch John Wayne movies. I will still celebrate American traditions. I will still enjoy hearing about my family heritage in the American West. I will still hike and admire the beauty of the American landscape. But I will learn that Christianity and Nationalism of any kind usually end in disaster. That God does not love my country over another, or one race over another. That the ethics of Jesus are different from the ethics of the powerful. That cultural/political trends can be blended with religion and have a force of their own. That God will punish injustice, whether in this life or the next. That I should try to right the wrongs done in the past to the best of my ability. History reveals to us what we believe and how we act, both the good and the bad.

6 thoughts on “The Uneasy Conscience of Manifest Destiny

  1. Great post Nathan. I was just thinking earlier today about whether or not our founders were really motivated by and operating on religous convictions. Was it their sole intent to establish a Christian that could be a beacon of light for other nations? If they had such virtuous intentions, how could they justify taking the Natives land and even slaughtering many of them in the process? How could this be considered by anyone to be some sort of a missionary project as it is often portrayed as?

    Your entry provided some insight into that. It’s a shame how easily and often theology can be so twisted and perverted to the point that it is used to justify and even promote such gross wickedness. I still lean towards believing that the motive was not purely Christian ideals & theology that somehow got twisted. Rather, im inclined to believe that the founding of our nation was an endeavor to conquer, and twisted Christian doctrine was used as a mask to justify the endeavor. In other words, they wanted land, and they used twisted Christian doctrine to make it seem like this was a noble pursuit. And im sure that they even used those same perversions to ease their own consciences. Of couse, I dont think that every person who came to this country was guilty of this, but the ones who participated in and promoted killing Natives and taking land were.

    I fear that in the minds of many American Christians, the concept that “America is a Christian nation” is actually a christianized version of American exceptionalism. Its another way of putting a Christian mask on a primarily politically motivated endeavor. Theres nothing new under the sun.

    1. You’re right that the founders weren’t driven purely by Christian motives. In fact the whole picture involves a lot of Enlightenent philosophy and modern ideas of progress and Utopia. The Puritan belief was very theological, but by the time you hit 1840s a lot has happened. Although I can relate American exceptionalism to the Puritan idea of “chosen by God.”

      Enlightenment ideas had a huge influence on American thinking. I would say that theology had to bow the knee to the Enlightenment, at least that’s my thought at the moment. As far as religion and violence history has big moments. But there are just as many with secular revolutions and moments in history (communism, fascism, French Revolution). But I definitely agree that the more people try to paint America as a Christian nation, the more problems there will be.

      Sent from my iPhone

      1. Like you said, MD was not specifically enunciated until 1840’s but that type of thinking predates its enunciation. I cannot tell you exactly what the Puritans, or anyone else involved in the founding of our country, were motivated by. What I do know is this, in order for colonies to be established, Natives had to lose land. I find it difficult to accept that taking land from Natives was motivated by primarily religous convictions. How we reconcile their theology to their actions is a matter of debate.
        What we should not do is look at their theology in a vaccum, and then glamorize these persons & events, when these events involved deplorable acts committed by these persons.

        Oh yea, I consider most tragedies to be some kind of worldview gone bad. Recently I had interesting FB convo on what influenced Hitler. Ur the Nietzsche scholar. Do you think he influenced Hitler?

      2. Sorry for the late reply sir. Lol Nietzsche scholar?! I do think some (twisted versions) of Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas had an influence on the third reich. But Nietzsche was not anti-semitic and I am sure that Niezsche would have spoken out against Hitler (being the non-conforming existentialist he was). But any idea can be twisted to suit a need. It’s likely that Hitler took ideas from Nietzsche and made them suit his own needs. Unfortunately since Nietzsche helped deconstruct everything, it would be hard for him to argue with Hitler on moral grounds.

  2. Also, one of the primary arguments used by the New Atheists is that religion promotes violence. Manifest destiny, the Crusades, and modern day terrorism are frequently provided as examples of this. My response is that power & greed promote violence; religon is just often used as a mask for those motives. If we continue arguing that our founders were primarily motivated by religous convictions, it becomes much more difficult to explain how religion did not cause the slaughtering of Natives. Lets stop promoting our founders as these great men of faith!

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