What it Means to be American: Manifest Destiny and the Language around “Civilization”

The narrative of western expansion and Manifest Destiny tell a split story. One story is that settlers moved west in an unpopulated, untamed land and brought civilization to it. The other story is how the “west was won”. In this story, native populations existed, but they were uncivilized, which is often coded for savagery, and the settlers civilized and “saved” these populations. Invasion of the New World by French and Spanish monarchs stemmed from their belief in a divine mission to evangelize the Native populations. Manifest Destiny was a religious claim that it was self-evident God meant for settlers to have the American land; Manifest Destiny was simultaneously a white supremacist doctrine that denied any land claims to non-white, specifically Native American, persons on the basis of their skin color and culture. Settlers believed that if they could survive and thrive in this wild land, then that was a sign from God that they were meant to be there and meant to cultivate it in God’s image.

“American Progress” by John Gast Shows Westward Expansion, Abuse of Resources and Genocide of Native Populations (and America, in essence) as Divined by God.

“And if a possessive and tightly constricted attitude towards sex, an abhorrence of racial intermixture, and a belief in humankind’s innate depravity had for centuries been hallmarks of Christianity, and therefore of the West’s definition of civilization, by the time the British exploration and settlement of America has begun, the very essence of humanity also was coming to be associated in European thought.”

The attention to the “innate depravity” of general humankind, and specific depravity towards sex and racial mixing, creates essentialist basis that all people sin, but some people are inherently more sinful than others. Essentialism is the basis of all types of discrimination and states that some character trait is true for all people of the same race (“Asians are naturally good at math”). Combine this with the religious racial formation of Christian “saviors” versus dark “heathens” and essentialist and stereotypical notions of race become formulated.

The other critical part of this aforementioned reading is the concept of “civilization”. Civilization is classically an organized group of people with similar backgrounds that survive through time and maintain their identity. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, with the boom of anthropology, a linear progression of human societies include “savagery, barbarism and civilization”. In this model, it is thought that civilization is characterized by “urban settlements… class structure and state-level organization (government)”. This thinking is flawed. There are great civilizations that do not have all of the defined characteristics (Incas did not have a writing system and therefore no standardized communication and Stonehenge societies did not have writing or a state organization). The Western world is constantly evolving itself to survive indicating that it is in fact not “civilized”. So-called uncivilized communities (like the uncontacted Sentinel islanders who recently killed a missionary that was trying to convert them) that have been able to maintain their society for centuries with relatively little change and should instead be considered “civilized”.

White missionization towards Native groups was a part of cultural genocide. Racist notions of Native “savagery” prevailed and explains the push to evangelize the Native Americans (making them docile enough to abuse, exploit, and both culturally and physically exterminate). From the perspective of the enslaved Africans who were owned by the Indians, they were proving their worth to God and to the white missionaries that they were more civilized than the Native peoples. Whiteness and Christianness were and are associated with civilization and civility and thus helped to “other” nonwhites as violent, animalistic, uncivilized savages.

Civilization and Barbarism

This is a history and an analysis of the Supreme Court case Worcester v. Georgia (1832) that dealt with land ownership and tribal sovereignty. There is constitutional basis for the United States to take any and all land from the Native Americans and determines that the relationship between the US and tribes is one of legislated abuse. Native Americans are literally second-class citizens, as they are an independent nation of peoples under the constraint of the U.S. government because native peoples were determined to be “uncivilized” and thus were undeserving of treaty rights that would have been observed if they were a “civilized” nation like the French or British. This case also shows the arrogance of their righteousness that the United States had over the original land “owners” of this new Canaan (with the Native populations being the Palestinians and the Settler Americans being the “Chosen” people). The settlers took their success at living in the wilderness of North America as a sign from God that it was meant to be their land.

People may argue that all this horribleness is in the past, so what is the point of preaching it. Well, all this horribleness has lasting contemporary ramifications. The “exclusivism” of Catholicism, for instance, states that “there is no salvation outside of Christ” meaning that all other faiths and beliefs are wrong, destined and deserving of punishment. The far-reaching influence of the millennia-old Catholic church has contemporary impacts, particularly in countries that were colonized by Catholic kingdoms (like France). In general, this exclusivity is in all tenets of Christianity, however, and indicates that all practices of evangelism attempt to “other” those who do no accept Christ as their savior. This means that anyone who does believe in Christ (those who are “othered”) are formed into a second class because the world order is based in Christian evangelicalism and Christian hierarchies of power. This work relates to the “othering” of races and religions in America and shows how white supremacy has created a hierarchy of acceptability within the US. Americans are more likely to associate Islam with the Middle East and thus more likely to allow policies to ban this group for security reasons more than African Islamists, who remain out of the popular American limelight.

Mission work is a contemporary continuation attempting to equalize or “similarize” (as opposed to “othering”) peoples, emphasizing that those of Christian faith are more deserving of attention and resources (like how Trump was going to push for allowing the Christian refugees from Syria entrance to the U.S. and not the Muslim refugees from the same conflict). Mission work is a continuation of cultural genocide in the attempt to ignore culture practices and religious standings to better establish “heathen” peoples in the Christian world order.

Drake University International Relations (MENA focused), Socio-Legal studies, religious studies and Arabic graduate. This is a blog-like post to learn and share