by Carl Mirra
The author, who teaches American Studies, assesses President Bush’s approach to foreign policy determination from a fresh and unusual viewpoint — the theological — and he traces the historical background for such an approach. Certainly it is not totally unprecedented.— Ed.
Chosenness, or the belief in being selected by God to lead the world, permeates early American history. From the Plymouth Colony to Manifest Destiny in the nineteenth century, scholars have long ago noted the imprint of chosenness on the American character. While historians recognize the missionary impulse of early U.S. expansionism, few link it to later periods. Revisionist scholars such as William Appleman Williams have argued that the ideology of manifest destiny, or the god-given right to expand, shapes American thinking throughout the twentieth century. Indeed, I am suggesting that it not only contributes to early American imperialism, but plays a pivotal role in George W. Bush’s foreign policy behavior in the twenty-first century. While divinely inspired imperialism is generally understood as ideological relic of the distant past, it animates the thinking of George W. Bush almost as much as his Puritan forerunners.
The theological foundation of the Plymouth Colony is a familiar story, yet it is worth briefly repeating to illustrate how deeply embedded divine election is in the American psyche. For Puritans fleeing English persecution, the journey to the New World was an exodus, complete with its own traumas and myths. After arriving in the New World, it was viewed as the Promised Land and properly named New Canaan. America became the new geographic homeland of God’s covenant, “the Lord make it like that of New England, for we must consider that we shall be as a City on a Hill,” proclaimed Governor John Winthrop.
This theology was quickly bound to violence and massacre. When tension erupted into war with the Pequot in 1636, it was a matter of the elected souls fulfilling God’s plan. Take, for instance, William Bradford’s account of the burning of a Pequot village: “it was a fearful sight to see them frying. . .but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and we gave the prayers thereof to God, who had enclosed the enemies in [our] hands.” Around the same time, Winthrop welcomed the small pox epidemic among Amerindians as a sign that, “God hath consumed the Natives.” From the start, atrocity and violent conquest are conflated with God’s will on America’s shores.
America’s self-proclaimed status as God’s favored nation gradually climaxed in the Great Seal of the United States in 1776: “God has blessed this undertaking, a new order from the ages.” Placing the Seal on U.S. dollar bills alongside the slogan, “In God We Trust” further imprints the feeling of divine election on the American character. Recall that one founding father preferred that a portrait of Moses parting Red Sea serve as the nation’s Seal. America’s founders assumed it was their right and duty to spread God’s will and forge a new order for the ages.
By the nineteenth century, that new order was brazenly described as “our manifest destiny.” President McKinley’s alleged explanation for conquering the Philip-pines in 1898 is an unequivocal example of this divinely-inspired imperialism. “I went down on my knees and prayed,” McKinley dramatically explains, “and it came to me.” It was our task to “civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them.” Senator Beveridge agreed that the Lord blessed this undertak-ing as he “has marked us as a chosen people.” In reality, the Spanish-American war and the conquest of the Philippines accelerated the ascendancy of an expanding empire. Such crude goals are difficult to justify, but more easily digested if viewed as a fulfillment of God’s will.
After the trauma of September 11, President Bush breathed new life into this centuries-old imperial theology. The World Trade Center catastrophe revived religious vocabularies of superiority with increased vigor. Bush, who considers Jesus the philosopher who most influenced him, issued a “crusade” against the perpetrators. Advisers worried that talk of a crusade was too inflammatory, but they did not forsake religious metaphors. If September 11 did not constitute a crusade, it did ignite a “monumental struggle of good versus evil,” and “good will prevail,” the President informed us. Within hours of the attack, Bush instantly surmised that an epic conflict commenced. Here Bush mimics an Old Testament prophet, conjuring up the dichotomy of “us” versus “them” alongside the assumption that the United States is all that is good in the world. Equally revealing is Bush’s emphasis on an Armageddon-like battle, a “monumental struggle” against “evildoers.” George W. Bush is the quintessence of the crusader motif.
We cannot blame Bush for relying on the durability and vitality of chosenness theology. Such extravagant expressions are cathartic and emotionally satisfying for a nation beset by disaster. People crave heroes who can articulate their frustration in moments of despair. There is a “wish that the president will be a strong father figure,” the New York Times (6 January 2001) observed approvingly after the September 11 tragedy. The President’s discussion of good defeating evil is akin to a father reassuring his children that we shall prevail because God protects and favors us. The collective allure of the chosenness idiom empowers Bush to assume the role of the “hero,” who righteously defends the bereaved.
While the American public finds comfort in Bush’s mythic theology, they are not warmongers. There is great variety in the U.S. concerning foreign policy issues. We have seen how a catastrophe arouses national myths, but other emotions that lend themselves to peaceful solutions also exist. “The drumbeat for war,” reports the New York Times (20 September 2001) shortly after September 11, “is barely audible on the streets of New York.” The paper finds that “even those directly affected by the destruction of the World Trade Center,” are calling for non-violent alternatives, but many are afraid “to buck the tidal wave of patriotism.” These silent peace advocates might speak out if leaders espoused non-violent visions rather than apocalyptic ones. Even during times of crises, people crave peaceful metaphors. In any event, seemingly antiquated notions that America is God’s divine providence remain central to George W. Bush’s war talk.
Although Bush’s public declarations are rather striking examples of the chosenness motif, his private reflections are even more revealing. Friends and close advisers to the president report that the events of September 11 have brought Bush “face to face with his life’s mission,” one which parallels the “country’s destiny,” according to a senior counsel. For Bush, the war on terror is a sign of his mission and the nation’s destiny, it is “civilization’s fight” and “God is not neutral between them.” Specifically, Bush says that he “accepts responsibility” for leading the free world as it is “part of God’s plan” (New York Times 22 September 2001). It seems to me that Bush borders on seeing himself as a modern day Moses here, someone who is burdened with the task of leading injured peoples to freedom. In fact, the president’s personal minister, Marc Craig, proclaims that Bush resembles “Moses who just crossed the River, leading his people to the Mountain and from there to the Promised Land.” Craig is not a marginal figure. In Bush’s autobiography, A Charge to Keep, he credits the minister’s sermons with inspiring him to run for office.
It is precisely this brand of religious inspiration that informs Bush’s imperial theology. The Israeli newspaper,Haaretz (26 June 2003), reports that Bush told Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas that, “God told me to strike Al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did.” Bush’s theological musings may be a bit brazen, but they are perfectly consistent with religious metaphors that are deeply embedded in America’s foundation.
Carl Mirra teaches American Studies at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. His bookEnduring Freedom or Enduring War will be published by Maisonneuve Press late this year.