During the 19th century the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States was one of “God-ordained” expansionism. African slaves, indigenous peoples, Mexican nationals and other “non-Europeans” were deemed aliens and enemy combatants, anathema to the democratizing force of America. Using that “old time religion” to shepherd the flock on the 47th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington Glenn Beck’s “Divine Destiny” revival deftly mines this history.
Beck’s decision to hold the event on the March on Washington anniversary has elicited outrage amongst civil rights organizations who accuse him and the radical right of hijacking the legacy of the civil rights movement. Reeking of sulfur, hubris, and the visionary charlatanism of 1920s revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson, Beck claimed that the Divine Destiny event will provide “an inspiring look at the role faith played in the founding of America and the role it will play again in its destiny.”
Decrying the cultural primitivism and backwardness of the Muslim world, twenty-first century Christian zealots seeking to preserve human rights as the province of white supremacy continue to put the lie to American exceptionalism. Over the past week the Islamphobic vitriol of demagogues like Beck, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich have paid off in cold blood. The recent stabbing of a Muslim cabdriver in New York and the hate attack against a Fresno, California, Islamic center (by an organization calling itself the American Nationalist Brotherhood), are the tragic but all too predictable results of the nationalist chest beating that masquerades as empathy for the victims of 9/11.
In a climate in which the militant right wants to dismantle civil rights freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution, Beck’s evocation of “divine destiny” is all of a piece. Throughout American history, recourse to the transparent word of God has always been the last refuge of scoundrels wielding the Bible and the bayonet as protections from the ungovernable hoard. Thus, it is fitting that this naked evocation of the language and legacy of Manifest Destiny comes during a period when the right has launched a campaign to repeal the 1868 14th amendment, which was originally initiated to confer citizenship onto freed African slaves.
As Kevin Alexander Gray writes in Counterpunch, “in the Reconstruction period, as now, racism and white supremacy loomed large in public debate. Back then, opponents of the amendment talked about ‘public morality’ being threatened by people ‘unfit for the responsibilities of American citizenship.’’ Now the self-appointed defenders of public morality have come full circle, drunk on a cocktail of xenophobia, anti-immigrant hysteria and jingoism.
The Birthright Citizenship Act
Vaulting ahead of the pack, Republican Congressman Lamar Smith, one of the staunchest critics of the 14th amendment’s provision of birthright citizenship, introduced the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2009 into the House. The statute would deny citizenship to children born in the U.S. to undocumented women, stripping away yet another civil right that ostensibly distinguishes the U.S. from fascist governments.
Smith’s legislation is a reminder of the connection between slavery and expansionism. In the 1840s, the concept of manifest destiny was used to justify the U.S.’ brutal occupation of Mexican territory. Cultural propaganda demonizing and dehumanizing indigenous Mexican populations provided American imperialism with the aura of moral righteousness. Commenting on the U.S.-Mexico War, it was no less than “radical” poet Walt Whitman who stated: "What has miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the new world with a noble race? Be it ours, to achieve that mission!"
Back in the good old days of docile slaves and vanquished savages, there were no ambiguities about who deserved to be accorded rights. God ordained the universality of European American experience, civilization and moral worth. Non-white peoples either submitted to the Enlightenment principles and values of the culturally superior West or were extinguished. States rights were citizens’ last vestige of protection from the trespasses of big government.
So it is no mystery then why the ideology of 19th century expansionism and evangelical Christian revivalism has gained fresh currency amongst a “reloading” white nationalist insurgency. As the freshly inked graffiti on the vandalized Islamic Center in Fresno proclaimed, “Wake up America, the Enemy Is Here."
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America. She is a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies.