Thursday, August 19, 2010

Beck and Manifest Destiny

The Glenn Beck Program on the FOX News Network has always been something of an intellectual high wire act as Beck explores American politics with a daring sensibility that is sometimes brilliant and sometimes on the edge of implausibility. On his August 18, 2010, installment, he may have gone too far even for many of the loyal fans in his audience. Already this week, his statement that our nation’s problems are too great for us to solve without God’s help caused many to complain that he had given up on any solutions. At this, Beck demurred. As a twelve-stepper, he does not believe that just because man cannot solve his problems without God’s help, that this means that he cannot solve his problems at all. If Beck believed that, he would still be rising from his own sick only to head for the nearest bar. Rather, the problems we face are so daunting that we need to fortify ourselves with faith, according to Beck. Then we need to role up our sleeves and dive in.

Although I am a nonbeliever, I am actually in agreement with Beck’s view that religion is a necessary touchstone for an American revival of limited government Constitutionalism even though the doctrine of limited government does not require religion. The fact remains that, across the United States, Americans believe in God and would not respond to a political message that denied God. If you do not think so, just try getting someone elected president who does not have a plausible religious affiliation or allegiance.

Glenn Beck is intellectually more curious than most other talkers on radio and TV. He reads history books incessantly, causing dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep. His choice in authors is not entirely impeccable but it is more right than his critics would allow. I am reminded of another scholar I admire when I contemplate Beck’s use of sources. Ordinarily, Beck is right to seek original sources when he is looking at history, however, when looking at the historiography of a scientific question such as the origins of Native Americans, going back to older sources is not necessarily the best strategy. The writer Vardis Fisher wrote a series of novels based on his reading in anthropology. He based his Testament of Man series on a self-educated course in anthropology. Fisher had a Ph.D. in English literature, so he understood the methods of scholarly research and did well in some respects, but he essentially went back to the theories of nineteenth century anthropology, opening himself up to the criticism that his work did not take advantage of the most up-to-date insights into the origins and cultures of human beings.

On August 18, Beck delved into the origins of Native Americans in a way opens him to criticism that he is or at least is on the verge of preaching a highly dubious theory of their origins. I use the word “preaching” advisedly. Beck is a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church. They teach that Native Americans are the long lost tribe(s) of Israel, and similar in culture and language to the ancient Hebrews. Beck offered this view as one of the theories advanced during the nineteenth century, and, although he did not explicitly endorse it, the fact that he did not refute it but instead gave it almost pride of place, suggests that Beck is putting himself in danger of losing a predominantly Christian audience that has tolerated his Mormonism so long as he did not emphasize doctrines that differed from mainstream Christianity. (The idea that native Americans are from the near east is enshrined in the Book of Mormon, the volume peculiar to Beck’s church.)

Beck has not gone wrong by arguing that Native American origins are debatable. There is much modern scientific controversy about how long ago Native Americans arrived in the Americas and whether or not others from the Old World continued to sojourn in the Americas. A skeleton has been found in the Pacific Northwest, for example, that has surprisingly European features and yet is older than the known arrival of Europeans in the Americas.

Beck also used the same episode of his show to present another inchoate theory of his that I find intriguing if underdeveloped. He posits a distinction between Divine Providence and Manifest Destiny. The former is characterized by humility (Not my will but Thy will, oh Lord) whereas as Manifest Destiny is characterized by the sin of pride (I’m on a mission from God; so get the hell out of my way, I’m coming through). Divine Providence was often invoked by the Founders of the United States, many of whom believed that God showed his blessing on their revolutionary enterprise by granting the success that, by the odds, should have eluded the colonies in their fight against Great Britain, the most powerful country in the world in the late eighteenth century. As Beck describes it, they did what they believed to be right, notably without having might on their side, and afterward felt that their success proved that they had been guided by God all along.

In contrast, Manifest Destiny begins with having the power to do what one wants to do and justifying it by the arrogant claim to having been ordained by God to realize one’s ambitions. Again, if the distinction is not easy to grasp, remember that belief in Divine Providence tends to inspire humility while Manifest Destiny is rooted in hubris; belief in Divine Providence dictates doing what you believe is right even against the odds, while Manifest Destiny justifies the exercise of power to get what is usually, by no small coincidence, self-aggrandizing. Noting that the term Manifest Destiny did not arise until about 1845, Beck links the idea to the administration of President Andrew Jackson (in office 1829-1837). 1845 is an interesting year. It was the first year of the administration of James K. Polk, whose support of the annexation of Texas, by the way, won him the endorsement of former President Jackson. Polk fomented a war with Mexico, which the United States won, and saw the expansion of United States territory into the Southwest.

An interesting note about this expansion: Due to the Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Jefferson in 1804, the United States already had expanded westward in the north. Although the border with Canada was at issue when Polk became president, the general outline of that border was not as radically changed as the one with Mexico soon was. I have long suspected that the objection of Abraham Lincoln and a few other northern congressman to Polk’s adventure against Mexico was that they saw expansion into the Southwest as a benefit solely to the Southern slave states and of little or no benefit to northerners who could feel relatively more secure that they practically had their own Manifest Destiny already. (I am, however, underemphasizing the passion that many northerners had for establishing Oregon and California as American territories.) As a representative of Illinois, Lincoln saw no advantage to his constituents if the United States took over New Mexico, but his constituents did not see it that way and voted Lincoln out of office largely because of his opposition to the Mexican War.

An even more intriguing aspect of Beck’s thesis is his connection of Manifest Destiny with Progressivism in the late nineteenth century. Modern progressives are sure to hate this connection because they now think of progressivism as being opposed to Manifest Destiny; but historically, I think that Beck has read the late nineteenth century Zeitgeist accurately. The Progressive Era was characterized by the same missionary zeal and arrogance that characterized Manifest Destiny. Expansionists and progressives both believed that they were on a mission from God to extend the influence and dominance of the United States government. The two eras also overlap as Manifest Destiny was fully realized in the late nineteenth century with the closing of the frontier, just as progressivism was emerging as a kind of expansion into an inner frontier, within a more settled society.

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