People will believe anything if it flatters their vanity. Think of the idea that Americans are God’s favorites and that the Almighty directs history for America’s benefit, even when that harms non-Americans, particularly non-Whites.
From the belief that divine providence guides America’s destiny came two more bad ideas. American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny were heroic-sounding euphemisms used to justify the trampling of Native Americans and Mexicans in the course of the US Empire’s mad dash across the continent.
Divine providence was such a transparently self-serving and chauvinist notion that we can be thankful that it has vanished from American thinking. Except that it hasn’t. Michael Medved, nationally syndicated conservative radio host, makes the case for heavenly intervention on behalf of the United States in his new book, The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic.
Medved argues that the rise of the US cannot be explained naturalistically; there must have been a divine guiding hand. The American Miracle opens with the “extraordinary coincidence” of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both dying fifty years to the day from the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Such a wildly improbable conjunction of events, writes Medved, could not have been mere coincidence. In another early chapter, Medved describes how unusual weather conditions saved the Continental army following the disastrous Battle of Long Island. A fierce storm on the night of August 29/30, 1776 kept British troop ships from reaching vulnerable American positions. A dense fog, unprecedented during the Summer months, rose up towards morning and continued past daybreak, concealing the Americans and allowing them to make a strategic retreat from Long Island across the East River to Manhattan. Incredibly, not one American life was lost during the retreat.
The Almighty also brought about the freeing of the slaves. President Lincoln had determined not to issue an Emancipation Proclamation until there was a major Union victory; otherwise, Emancipation would be seen as an act of Northern desperation. The Union victory at Antietam on 17 September 1862 gave Lincoln what he wanted. That victory, Medved writes, came about through a literal miracle. Confederate battle plans wrapped around three cigars were found by Union soldiers in a campground which Confederate troops had vacated the day before. Possession of the Confederate plans ensured Union victory. Five days later, on September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
Medved finds in such wildly improbable occurrences “a pattern for which the influence of some higher power remains the most rational explanation.”
Baloney. Strange concatenations of unlikely circumstances happen everywhere, not just to Americans. People in every nation can point to “evidence” that God loves them best. Were George Washington’s many escapes from death testament to divine protection, as Medved insists? Fidel Castro survived dozens of assassination attempts by the CIA and lived to be 90. Washington only lived to be 67. Did God love Castro 34% more than George Washington?
Washington and Fidel may just have been lucky. Still, if you want to believe that God kept Jefferson and Adams alive long enough so that they could expire on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, be my guest. That belief is harmless. And if you believe as does Medved that the attempt on the life of President Andrew Jackson failed because God kept the powder in the assassin’s gun from igniting, that belief is harmless too (although even the reviewer for the conservative Commentary magazine questioned why God would want to save the life of this slaughterer of thousands of Native Americans).
What should disturb us, however, is occasions when, to hear Medved tell it, God’s intervention on behalf of America harms non-Americans, particularly non-Whites. On such occasions, ruling elites use divine providence to justify American imperialism and racism.
Consider Medved’s chapter on the Mexican War. The Mexican War divided the US public between extremists who wanted to seize all of Mexico and moderates who just wanted half. Moderation won out. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed by the US and Mexico on February 2, 1848, formally ended the war and ceded California and large chunks of what would become New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado to the United States for $15 million.
Unknown to both Mexico and the Administration of President James K. Polk, gold had been discovered nine days earlier on January 24 at Sutter’s Mill, California. The deal would not have gone through had Mexico known what it was losing. Medved says that the timing of the discovery was no accident. Medved quotes a French prospector who said at the time: “It had been so ordered by Providence, that the gold might not be discovered until California should be in the hands of the Americans.”
What the hell had the Mexicans done to piss God off? The US had been the aggressor in what Mexicans aptly call la intervención norteamericana. The Mexican War was a blatant land grab which the US cloaked in the half-baked notion of Manifest Destiny. In asking for a Declaration of War, President Polk told Congress that Mexico had “invaded” US territory. Polk knew that was false. Americans were the invaders. Washington sent troops into Mexico pursuant to a bogus claim that the border of Texas (which had become a US state in 1845) extended as far south as the Rio Grande (p. 241). Medved unquestioningly accepts Polk’s bogus claim as sincere. The US House of Representatives did not. In November 1848, the House voted to censure President Polk for starting an unnecessary war.
As for Manifest Destiny, Medved is fine with it. Medved told a caller to his December 2 show that he was glad the US acquired California. California, he said, had been going to waste under the Mexicans. The Mexicans, and the Spanish before them, had done nothing to develop California. Or to populate it. Medved tells us that in 1848, a mere “7,500 people of European ancestry” (because Whites are the people who matter) lived in California. California must have seemed to Americans like a land without people for a people without (enough) land.
Today, the phrase “Manifest Destiny” has gone out of fashion, replaced by the secular doctrines of “humanitarian intervention” and the “right to protect” (with its hip abbreviation “R2P”). Don’t be fooled. These are simply this season’s imperialist styles. The US still goes where it pleases and takes what it wants.
Why then does God “shed his grace” on America rather than let loose the thunderbolts we deserve? It is not because Americans are better than other people, Medved assures us. Medved explains that God blesses the US “not as reward for distinctively righteous behavior but as an exercise of his inscrutable will” (p. 21). I’ll say it’s inscrutable. In the case of the Mexican War, God’s will was downright perverse if we believe that God gave victory to the nation that started the war.
Medved insists that God’s grant of His favor imposes “obligations” on America towards the rest of the world. Tell that to the Pentagon and State Department. Medved is aware of the left’s criticism of US foreign policy, but rejects it. Medved points out that America’s military interventions in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. (it is a lengthy “etc.”) added no territory to the US. Yes, but what Medved does not consider is that it is less hassle for an imperial power to rule indirectly from outside than directly from inside. Medved also declares that US military interventions have largely not benefited the US, but are carried out at great expense. To US taxpayers, certainly, but the military-industrial complex does just fine.
I told a priest in my antiwar group about Medved’s book. He replied by telling me about eisegesis. Don’t confuse that with exegesis. In exegesis, believers approach a biblical text with an open mind with the purpose of determining the text’s meaning. Eisegesis, on the other hand, is imposing your own meaning on Scripture. My friend said that it sounded like that is what Medved was doing.
Medved sees himself in The American Miracle as telling history’s greatest success story. It has not been a success story for non-Whites. It still isn’t. The US robbed Mexicans of half of their country in the 1840s. Medved’s subtext, whether he intends this or not, is that God hates Mexicans. Why else would He hand half of Mexico—including California’s gold—to the American aggressors? It seems like many Americans hate Mexicans, too. We have just been through a Presidential election where 62,979,636 voters cast their ballots for a candidate who promises mass deportations. That’s 46.1% of all votes cast. (To his credit, Michael Medved rejects Donald Trump’s plans for mass deportations.)
God must hate Native Americans, too. Western expansion drove Native Americans from their homes, and to this day, Whites continue to displace Native Americans. Running an oil pipeline through a mostly White city like Bismarck, ND is unthinkable. But Whites don’t have a problem with the Dakota Access Pipeline fouling Native American water and destroying Native sacred grounds at Standing Rock. (Medved has referred to the water protectors on air as “morons.”)
My purpose has not been to attack religion. My purpose has been to attack the misuse of religion in the service of imperialism. It is a misuse of religion to suggest that God blesses one people by bringing calamity down on another. It is a misuse of religion to suggest that God favors the strong over the weak, Americans over non-Americans, Whites over non-Whites. I prefer to think that God blesses the downtrodden, the victims of injustice, not the conqueror. I do not know how many Americans share Medved’s views. Let’s hope it is not many. That would be a blessing.
 The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History remarks that “The American takeover of California caused an indigenous population decline that was sharper than in any other time or place in U.S. history. In 1848 the California Indian population was probably about 150,000. By 1860, it was only 30,000.” See Jeffrey Ostler, “Genocide and American Indian History,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History (Mar. 2015).