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Is God on our side?

The myth of manifest destiny


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Do you remember the appearance of U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia's 3rd District on the "Colbert Report" last year? The Republican had recently made a name for himself (and our state) by co-sponsoring a bill to display the Ten Commandments in both houses of Congress and the nation's courthouses.

When Stephen Colbert asked the self-anointed defender of the faith to recite the Commandments, he rolled his eyes heavenward for assistance but was only able to name three. (He also admitted to being "one of the two do-nothingest" members of the House, his vocal opposition to renewal of the Voting Rights Act notwithstanding.)

During last week's House debate over a resolution to condemn President Bush's escalation of the Iraq War, Westmoreland chastised Bush's opponents this way: "Some people from the other side seem to believe that if we pull out of Iraq, the Iraqi people are going to go back to tending sheep and herding goats."

Had Westmoreland not already distinguished himself as a bona fide bozo, I would have thought such profound ignorance of Iraqi culture was a joke. But, of course, it was not. Just as most Americans still seem not to have a clue that American troops are in the impossible position of supporting an Iraq government whose Shiite leaders are allied with Iran, Westmoreland exhibits the chronic and widespread failure to exercise simple curiosity about one's assumptions.

Why the hell aren't Americans in an uproar over the same things -- preemptive war, torture, imprisonment without legal recourse -- that have the rest of the world looking at us with incredulity? Why, when other democracies so obviously operate much more humanely than ours by, say, providing universal health care and free higher education, do Americans unblinkingly still regard themselves as privileged among all others on the planet?

These questions are taken up in a must-read essay, "Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America" by William Pfaff, in the Feb. 15 issue of the New York Review of Books. Pfaff doesn't mention Westmoreland in his essay, but the Georgia lawmaker's behavior does starkly exemplify the worst of the American collective psyche.

Pfaff argues that our "national conceit" is a belief that America has a unique moral role to play in the world, and he says this originated in the religious beliefs of the New England colonists. The sense that God has ordained America to exemplify the ideal of democracy to the world developed into the idea of "manifest destiny," by which settlers moved westward, overtaking most of the continent. Then, under Woodrow Wilson, the idea was applied to international politics and it has remained basically unchanged ever since.

This insupportable belief, that the United States government is appropriately the entire world's moral arbiter, enables people such as Westmoreland to post the Ten Commandments in government buildings in direct violation of the separation of church and state. And it permits George Bush to go about the business of torture and preemptive warfare while claiming, as Wilson did, that he is acting as an instrument of God's will.

At the same time, though, a streak of isolationism has characterized America since its beginnings. Indeed, the doctrine of manifest destiny was in service to perpetuating America's isolation. For immediate evidence, check out the shocking geographical ignorance of public school students. Or have a conversation with Rep. Westmoreland, whose complete ignorance of Iraq echoes the same kind of ignorance the Bush administration exhibited in its failure to anticipate the easily predictable civil war following Saddam's overthrow.

The same ignorance explains American hubris despite the overall higher quality of life in other democracies. Instead of actually checking out the assumption of our superiority, many Americans still reflexively respond that one must love America as it is or leave it.

The belief that America is superior and has, among other democracies, a special role to play in the world is so ingrained that our policies are not likely to change much even under leadership by the Democrats. "We have gone beyond the belief in national exception," Pfaff writes, "to make an ideology of progress and universal leadership into our moral justification for a policy of simple power expansion."

Thus, when Bush began his saber-rattling about Iran last week, a shocking number of journalists reported his claims without question, despite having been burned by administration lies in the months preceding the Iraq invasion. Until America's citizens come to grips with the fact that we can no longer claim moral superiority, we are likely to continue on a path that, Pfaff writes, has "invariably ended in tragedy."

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to


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