Demythologizing American Exceptionalism

Dec 30 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Our conservative Christians (identical these days with the Republican Party) are all about American Exceptionalism; they like to talk about America as a divinely ordained nation, chosen by God to be special, as Israel was once special, a vehicle for his divine plan (whatever that might be). Witness Tom DeLay back in ’08:

I know that America was created by God and it was created by God, not for wealth, personal wealth. It wasn’t created by God so that we would have the resources that we now have. It wasn’t even created by God to have the freedom that we have now. America was created by God to spread the Gospel; to spread the word of Jesus Christ and to propagate Christianity.

Or Rep. Bill Sali (R-Idaho) a year earlier, who doesn’t like that we have Hindus and Muslims in this country. Reported OneNewsNow at the time:

Sali says America was built on Christian principles that were derived from scripture. He also says the only way the United States has been allowed to exist in a world that is so hostile to Christian principles is through “the protective hand of God.”

The mythical shining city on a hill. It is amazing how thoroughly a religion that claims to be historical can separate itself from historical forces – and from reality itself.

There is plenty more of the same and the hyperbole has only gotten more extreme in the years since President Obama was elected. They like to harp on how God created the United States, but God had very little to do with it, though the oft-times fanatical  devotion of his believers played a great role indeed, at the very least in creating the mythology being pushed today, hundreds of years later.

What did the Native Americans in was not force of arms but disease. Disease of all sorts – measles, smallpox, typhus, influenza – against which the indigenous population had no defense. They had never been exposed to these killers before and had no immunity to them, nor any understanding of how they were spread.

When Columbus arrived and popularized the New World – Vikings, Basques, Celts and others had been sailing over the seas for centuries – the Americas teamed with human as well as animal life. The early reports of various explorers – of all nations – show that there was scarcely any room on these shores for the newcomers. They could sail up and down the American Atlantic coast and go away disappointed. America was not the trackless wilderness of myth. White people from Europe did not “discover” anything and they certainly did not do anything with the land the natives had not already done, from irrigation, plowing and planting, and even canals and huge cities with complex societies and intricate networks of trade and alliance.

John Smith, after his adventures in Jamestown, sailed along the New England coast and fell in love with it, but there were Indians everywhere, and he spoke again and again of the multitude of people already living there.

America, as it turns out, was quite a success even without any Europeans.

Of course, the Europeans cared very little for native rights, just as we have continued to care very little for them today (a lesson well learned, it seems). They couldn’t defeat the Indians – there weren’t enough Europeans to even establish a viable toe-hold against such odds, which were only exacerbated by disease, ignorance, and the super power rivalries of the era. Unwittingly, the Europeans had the answer to hand, however – germ warfare.

Estimates which once offered a round million persons now reach to a stratosphere previously unimagined – possibly tens of millions (many estimates range from thirty to fifty) of pre-Columbian (before Columbus) Indians inhabited the Americas, with from 2 to 18 million in North America alone. The Native American population of North America before the Europeans began to establish colonies in the late fifteenth to early sixteenth centuries has recently (1992) been estimated to be in the area of 3.8 million with a million or so inhabiting the region between the Appalachians and the Atlantic.

According to census estimates, the population of that area (the American colonies) was not this high again until the mid-eighteenth century.

Even FOX News reported in 2007 that “While there is no reliable figure on Mexico’s population in the 1500s — estimates range from 6 million to 25 million — it is clear that by 1600 only around 2 million remained.”

The indigenous population was melted away by disease within a few short years. When DeSoto was raping and pillaging his way across the Southeastern United States to the Mississippi there was a thriving, centuries old mound culture (Southern Ceremonial Complex). One tribe along the Spanish route, the Coosa, lost an estimated 95 percent of its population to DeSoto alone, mostly through disease. A century and a half later French explorers found the once populous area to be inhabited only by ghosts, free for the taking.

Entire tribes were wiped out almost overnight. When Squanto returned home after five years captivity in England, he was eager to see his thriving village again, but it was empty of all but bones. Everyone he had known was gone, in just five short years. Suddenly, land was abundant. The overcrowded area John Smith had yearned for emptied of people from 1616 to 1622. According to one early seventeenth century account, that of Thomas Morton, there were not even enough Indians to tell anyone what had happened to all the rest.

The settlers thanked God, for it was the hand of God in their eyes that cleared the way for their colonies and farms. Divine providence.

But it is this:

Not this:

Conservative Christians should be thanking for “White” America.

It is understandable that religious people knowing nothing about the germ theory of medicine might give their God the credit for murdering millions to make room for a filthy and backward-thinking few thousand, which doesn’t say much for religion, admittedly. But hundreds of years on, we know what did kill those people. And we know it wasn’t God. Science explains the success of the American colonies that grew into the United States. And God had no role in it.

Thomas Morton saw it differently, of course, wrote of the plague in 1637 that “By this means the place is made so much more fit for the English nation to inhabit in, and erect in it Temples to the glory of God.” And of course, if Indians remained, you could always make like a Puritan and overthrow the local order with the Sharia law of the seventeenth century: the Bible said untilled land was for the taking.

There is no crime for those who have Christ.

The question which must be asked is why are we still hearing the same song and dance four hundred years later?

It was no more God who settled North America successfully than it was God who won the American Revolution. It was not God who established this great nation, but men and women and children who suffered and labored long and hard in the face of terrible conditions – and all because the diseases they brought with them had wiped out the original inhabitants.  It is easy to imagine no America at all had disease not wiped out the original inhabitants.

It is impossible to say of course what might have come but it is known that European intervention was not required to build great cities on these shores, or canals or to develop complex cultures and viable ethnic religions. This the native inhabitants managed on their own.  We cannot say there would not in our place be some great nation, possibly developed by the Iroquois or perhaps the Mississippi mound builders or perhaps some other native culture, or possibly several great nations. To pretend that there is only an America today because an invading culture’s deity willed it is absurd.

It is time for America to grow up, and time for conservative Christians to acknowledge the role of science in their environment, to get past the mythologies which depend on a pre-scientific outlook long discredited. We have more useful things to teach our children and a realistic appraisal of our place in the environment, how we got to where we are, would be a nice start. We might even be able to skip a few wars as a result.

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