The Uneasy Conscience of Manifest Destiny
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.