Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

God and American Expansionism

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

God and American Expansionism

Article excerpt

Although the United States constitutionally is a secular state, God always has been an integral part of policy. This can be traced back to colonial times when some of the earliest colonies were established for religious reasons. And because the very establishment of those colonies constituted expansion by Europeans into the New World, God therefore became the basis for expansion both before and after independence.

In modern, more cynical times, we might see it simply as using God as a justification for conquest, subjugation and exploitation. (1) Certainly these were integral parts of expansion. Nevertheless, religion of itself was co-equal to conquest, subjugation and exploitation in the belief that the American people have something unique to offer the world. As late as 2003, a Pew Center poll showed that 71 percent of evangelical Christians, 40 percent of "mainline Christians" (i.e. mainstream Protestant), and 39 percent of Roman Catholics feel the United States has the "special protection of God." (2) When one considers that 75 percent of all Americans consider themselves Christian, these figures show how deeply this view of a special relationship with God permeates American society, no matter how illogical it may seem to some outsiders.

It is not the purpose of this paper to defend or condemn the policies of the United States since its initial settlement by non-Indians. That would be imposing the values of the present onto the past. Every nation with any pretentions of power--including those no longer identified with expansion such as Sweden, Poland and Cambodia--has tried to impose itself outside its borders. It is rather to explain the role of religion in the shaping of American policy, and more importantly, the development of the vision that Americans have of themselves and their mission in the world.

Even before the establishment of permanent English colonies in the New World, Spain already considered the role of religion. Part of the charges given to Columbus was that he was to propagate the faith in any lands he might encounter on his voyage. It was a role he took very seriously, to the point that he signed his given name in the Latin "Christo Ferens," the bearer of Christ. The role of God was given additional strength in 1537, when Pope Paul III issued the Bull Sublimis Deo, declaring the American Indians to be children of God and worthy of salvation. Henceforth, Spanish policy required evangelism to accompany colonial expansion. Consequently, the later religious-based communities established by the Separatists, or Pilgrims, and the Puritans in what is now New England simply reflected an already existing condition farther south in New Spain.

New England is most often cited in this paper, because these colonies were religious in origin, and have had the most far-reaching influence on American outlook. Yet even in Virginia, where commerce and wealth were primary motivations for settlement, the English viewed the Indians as candidates for salvation. In 1610, a full decade before the first New England colony, the governing council of Virginia reported that settlers used trade as a means of leading the Indians to "the pearles of heaven." The Word of God, then, accompanied trade goods and weaponry as the Virginia colonists moved out from the immediate Chesapeake area, and deeper into the interior. (3)

[Here it should be said that one reason the New England influence has been so all pervasive is that New Englanders followed the frontier as it progressed beyond the Hudson River, into the Ohio Valley, and even as far as Oregon. During the first eighty years of national existence, much of the nation had no particular quarrel with New England values, even if there was not total agreement. The only region openly and actively hostile to New England was the South, and this opposition was removed with secession in late 1860 and early 1861. During the subsequent Civil War, the federal government's war aim gradually shifted from the official position of preserving the Union to the abolition of slavery championed by the New England states, giving the region even more stature. …

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