July 6, 2001
In 1160 A.D., John of Salisbury, angry at Frederick Barbarossa’s interference in the election of a Pope, famously asked "Quis Teutonicos constituit judices nationum?" – "Who made the Germans the judges of nations?" In our times, there must be many people, the world over, who ask themselves "Who made the Americans the judges of nations?" On this website, we have some idea of who did that. The short answer is northeastern elites assisted by scalawags and other allies, but the whole thing calls for some sorting out.
The late Murray Rothbard was convinced that a particular religious outlook, post-millennial Pietist Protestantism, had served as a mighty ideological force for statism in America from the 19th century forward.1 According to this point of view, it was the duty and mission of the faithful to improve the world by removing "occasions for sin" (slavery, alcohol, polygamy, whatever), thereby ushering in a thousand-year period of peace and plenty preceding the return of Christ. This would be the Kingdom of God on Earth (KGE). Bringing this about, of course, might well require a lot of state intervention and organized violence (wars against the Bad) before the peace-and-plenty phase came into being. I think we can see where this is going.
A classic study of American millennialism is Ernest Lee Tuveson’s Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968). Tuveson traces the notion of a special American world mission to sectarian English Protestants, who were especially given to prophetic, apocalyptic and millennial ways of thinking, during and after the English Civil War and Puritan Revolution (1642-1660). Such thinkers repudiated the Catholic and Augustinian view that secular history was spiritually of secondary importance. They sough guidance in the Book of Daniel and in Revelations, two bodies of work that have always proved perilous to those who wished to find future events outlined in them.
The millennialist notion of the KGE came to American via New England ministers, who were its logical transmission belt. A whole series of New England divines – "Yankees" in the most historically specific sense of that term – handed down and refined that outlook through the 18th and 19th centuries. Toward the end of the 19th century, many of their successors retained the post-millennialist program of state intervention and endless reform but wished to play down or throw out the sentimental bits (God, Jesus, and so on). This last stage, which might be called the Protestant deformation, gave us such worthies as Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, and many, many others. (See Rothbard.)
Already in the American Revolution there were those who saw in it the fulfillment of prophecy and the unleashing of a New Age (Novus Ordo Seclorum, anyone?). It seemed a perfect fit. As Tuveson notes, English millennialists had already fused Sir Francis Bacon’s notion of material-scientific progress through knowledge-as-power with their vision of the future. The spirit of the whole thing is captured somewhat in William Blake’s "Jerusalem," into the song version of which the Monty Python crew were always launching at appropriate times in their sketches.
In America, where a relatively free economy and immense unexploited natural resources held out prospects of boundless progress, such ideas became second nature. It remained only for Americans to suppose that the mission to regenerate the world had shifted westward to their side of the Atlantic Ocean. The words of Bishop George Berkeley could only have encouraged them:
the course of empire takes its way;
The four first acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last..." (Tuveson, p. 94)
By the mid-19th century, post-millennial Protestantism had made great strides in the North. You can trace its migration through the Yankee belt from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. All Northern Protestantism was falling under its sway, with the exception of conservative Presbyterians and Lutherans. The South remained immune 'til long after the War of 1861-1865.
Combined with Manifest Destiny and the notion of Anglo-Saxon superiority of blood and institutions, the doctrine of an American mission of world salvation served well as an ideology of war and expansion. From this standpoint, the "Civil War" could be seen as a religious crusade to purify and redeem the Nation, rather than as a struggle over economic and political issues, which might have been resolved by other means.
I have given only the barest outline here. Tuveson’s book should be read in its entirety by anyone who wants to understand the long-standing American sense of boundless world mission. I should not be understood as saying that Yankee clergymen and their secularized doctrinal successors, all by themselves, brought into existence the present U.S. empire. The doctrine does suggest, however, why American wars take on the moral tone of the Crusades and why no weapon can be too destructive or cruel to use in these wars.
With the Soviet Union out of the picture as threat and embodiment of evil, we can expect to hear a lot more about the positive, philanthropic mission of the empire. We heard a lot about it under the administration of the Arkansas Caligula. The Yankee school marm’s lessons continue in more muted form under George W.
1. Murray N. Rothbard, "Origins of the Welfare State in America," Journal of Libertarian Studies, 12, 2 (Fffall 1996), esp. pp. 198-210.
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