At its best, the study of the past can provide a marvelous context for serious moral inquiry. One of my favorite statements to this effect comes from historian David Harlan. In his book, The Degradation of American History, Harlan writes movingly about history’s potential to facilitate a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”
In practice, secular historians today frequently write implicitly as moralists—criticizing past views about race, class, gender, and colonialism with which they disagree without building a systematic moral argument for their views. And yet officially, for more than a century academic historians have insisted that moral inquiry has no legitimate place in responsible historical scholarship. They usually make their case by equating moral inquiry with heavy-handed dogmatism, painting nightmare scenarios in which the historian becomes a “hanging judge,” passing out sentences left and right for the moral edification of the audience.
Obviously, this is not the only form that moral inquiry may take, however. I like to distinguish between moral judgment, defined as outward directed inquiry focused on determining the guilt or rectitude of people or events in the past, and moral reflection, an inward directed undertaking in which we engage the past in order to scrutinize our own values and behavior more effectively.
The concept of manifest destiny and its role in American history is one of those topics that cries out for moral engagement. Most of the contemporary allusions to manifest destiny in popular culture evoke the worst kinds of self-righteous judgments, however. The furor over the Gap t-shirt with “Manifest Destiny” on its front was one such instance. But what might it look like to think historically and Christianly about manifest destiny with an eye toward moral reflection?
There is no one single way to do so responsibly, but here is what I would recommend: To begin with, we need to purpose to go to the past in search of illumination, not ammunition. Next, we must determine to take seriously Christ’s injunction to “judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). The starting point of moral reflection is “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), or if you prefer, Paul’s declaration that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (I Timothy 1:15). In thinking about the past, this means that we purpose to identify with those whom we are trying to understand, acknowledging that their propensity to sin is no more developed than our own, glimpsing shadows of our own struggles in theirs. When we do that, whatever is morally troubling about the mindset of manifest destiny becomes a clue to what we might expect to find in our own hearts if we look closely enough.
As a Christian and a historian, what strikes me most about manifest destiny in its original nineteenth-century context is the degree to which its advocates were able utterly to confuse the work of Christ and His Church with the role of the United States. This comes through clearly in the writing of John O’Sullivan, the Democratic journalist from New York City who is commonly credited with coining—or at least popularizing—the term manifest destiny. In his capacity as editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review during the 1840s, O’Sullivan became an outspoken advocate of American westward expansion and of the annexation of Texas, in particular. In his 1845 editorial titled “The Great Nation of Futurity,” O’Sullivan told his readers, “We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can. We point to the everlasting truth on the first page of our national declaration,” the editor went on to say, referring to the Declaration of Independence and its pronouncement of equality and inalienable rights. “We proclaim to the millions of other lands that ‘the gates of hell’—the powers of aristocracy and monarchy—‘shall not prevail against it.’”
Do you see what O’Sullivan was doing in this passage? In referring to “the gates of hell,” the editor was actually quoting Christ. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus asked his disciples, “who do you say that I am?” When Peter replied, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus affirmed him, saying, “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:15-18).
In O’Sullivan’s editorial, in contrast, the bedrock truth is not Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, but Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment proposition of natural equality. The edifice built upon that foundation is not the Church, but American democracy. The enemy it will vanquish is not the forces of hell, but the power of aristocracy. Without the slightest apparent sense of incongruity, O’Sullivan adopted language given by Christ to conceptualize the church, and used it to convey divine approval for the territorial expansion of the United States.
When the following year the United States Congress declared war against the Republic of Mexico, a mass meeting of patriotic New Yorkers gathered in celebration and listened to a new “national anthem” by popular song writer George Pope Morris. The lines perfectly captured the conflation of Christian and democratic themes that O’Sullivan had earlier perfected:
Freedom spreads her downy wings / Over all created things; / Glory to the King of Kings! / Bend low to Him the knee; / Bring the heart before his throne / Bow to Him and Him alone / He’s the only King we own, / and He has made us free! / Arm and on, ye brave and free! / Arm and strike for liberty!
By going to war with Mexico, the anthem proclaimed, the nation would be striking for liberty and bringing glory to God. Expanding the territorial domain of the United States would be an act of homage to the King of Kings.
I write this not to condemn those who joined in this self-congratulatory (and arguably, blasphemous) chorus. Sir Herbert Butterfield, one of the leading Christian historians of the twentieth century, argued persuasively that judging the dead does them no good and, to the extent it feeds our self-righteousness, may do us much harm. In Butterfield’s words, it is an action “not merely dangerous to my soul but unfitted for producing improvement in human nature anywhere.”
Rather than condemn O’Sullivan and Morris and all who were thrilled by their rhetoric, I think it is more important to remind ourselves that the temptation to conflate our identity in Christ with our identity as Americans is real, powerful, and often subtle. Like Butterfield, I doubt that the best response to wrong-doing in the past is moral outrage. It sounds a little too much like the Pharisee’s prayer, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). Wouldn’t the better model be the entreaty of the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24a)?