In my last post I used Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion as a springboard to talk a bit about one of the most misunderstood statements in the American past, Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop’s famous declaration, “We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” I noted that historians have often taken the statement out of context and discerned in Winthrop’s words an early expression of “manifest destiny,” the belief that the United States has a special, divinely ordained role to play in world affairs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than trumpeting the special mission for which God had chosen his Puritan colony, Winthrop was instead reminding his listeners that the enemies they were leaving behind in England would be closely watching their every move and hoping that they would stumble. If they did so, there would be no concealing the fact: like a “city upon a hill,” their venture would be visible for all to see.
The concept of manifest destiny is still salient today, and still worth our thinking about, both Christianly and historically. Just this past autumn, the popular clothing retailer The Gap created a mini firestorm when it added to its “GC Collection” a black and white t-shirt with “Manifest Destiny” blazoned across the chest. (You can read about the episode here.) A chorus of righteous indignation immediately assailed the corporation for its egregious insensitivity. Incredulous critics circulated a Facebook petition condemning the retailer for promoting “a belief that has resulted in the mass genocide of indigenous people” and suggesting that, if the t-shirt continued to be sold, it would serve “to normalize oppression.” Predictably, The Gap quickly backed down, responding to the threat of a boycott by announcing that, “based on customer feedback,” it was withdrawing the shirt from its stores.
As a historian, what struck me most was that this was one of those rare, fleeting moments when history seems to matter in contemporary popular culture. At the heart of almost every scathing condemnation of the hapless Gap was a lecture about the corporation’s unfathomable historical ignorance. And yet with history seemingly so central to the controversy, the episode evoked a boatload of dogmatic historical pronouncements but almost no serious thought about the past. More specifically, they seethed with moral judgment at the expense of moral reflection. Moral judgment, as I am defining these terms, is directed outward, as we strive to understand the world around us. Moral reflection is directed inward, as we attempt to understand ourselves. As applied to history, we engage in moral judgment when we use our critical faculties primarily to determine the guilt or rectitude of the people, events, or belief systems we encounter in our study. In contrast, we approach history as a medium for moral reflection when we determine to make ourselves vulnerable to the past, when we figuratively resurrect the dead and allow their words and actions to speak to us and ask hard, probing questions. The Gap t-shirt tempest elicited an outpouring of cheap moral judgment—moralizing that renders a verdict but requires nothing of the knowing heart.
In my next post I will share some thoughts about what it might look like to grapple with a historical phenomenon like manifest destiny with the goal of genuine moral reflection.