English

From Plymouth Rock to Baghdad, Iraq

Nov 25 2004

Analysis – By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Nov 25 (IPS) – As U.S. families partake of the turkey, yams, and other staples of the traditional Thanksgiving feast Thursday, they are unlikely to reflect on the enduring ideological — as opposed to the gastronomic — influences of that hardy band of Pilgrims that celebrated their first year of survival in the Massachusetts colony on the American continent back in 1621.

Yet, if they did, they might find startling convergences between the notions of those early settlers, who braved the rough voyage across the North Atlantic aboard their tiny vessel, ‘The Mayflower’ to Plymouth Rock, and the prevailing ideas and worldview of the administration headed by President George W Bush.

Indeed, the religious and ideological influences of the first Pilgrims — mainly ”Separatists”, who called themselves the ”Saints” — have been pervasive in U.S. thought and, even in foreign policy, since their landing in 1620.

While many analysts look to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as the key to understanding the national character, those documents were essentially products of the Enlightenment. What is often overlooked is that the original New England colonists, who also impressed their worldview on the future nation, were products of the Protestant Reformation, and radicals ones at that.

The Separatists were the most extreme of the Puritans. They believed that the Roman Catholic Pope embodied the Anti-Christ, but were also determined to either overthrow or separate from the Anglican Church precisely because it too closely resembled Catholicism. They also avoided or ”separated” from less zealous Puritan congregations for fear of spiritual contamination.

The notions, for example, that the early colonists were a ”chosen people” who enjoyed a special covenant with God to fulfill a providential ”mission” are ideas that were central to the Puritans’ identity, forged by the religious persecution that they fled in England and honed by the harrowing ocean passage and the difficult hardships of the first winter in the ”New World”. God had clearly preserved them for a purpose.

As Calvinists, Puritans, who were drawn disproportionately from the rising commercial class, believed that God intervened directly in people’s lives and that the accumulation of wealth, if obtained by just means, showed moral worthiness and God’s favour.

As pointed out recently by British writer George Monbiot in an essay comparing Bush’s worldview with that of the Puritans, ”Success in business became a sign of spiritual grace: providing proof to the entrepreneur …that ‘God has blessed his trade”’.

While Puritans shunned ostentation and were expected to aid, hopefully ”uplift”, the less fortunate — call it ”compassionate conservatism” — their poverty was always taken as evidence of moral failing.

As with wealth, so with power. While the Puritans depended on help from local Native Americans to survive the first year and teach them about local crops and wildlife, within just a few years, the first settlers were pushing them westward into the wilderness, through their superior firepower when necessary.

Indeed, by the time the founders had passed away, their children were selling Indians into slavery in Virginia, the Caribbean, Spain, and Morocco, according to Robert Venables, author of the two-volume ‘American Indian History’ who teaches at Cornell University.

As ”savages”, of course, the Indians were seen as lesser beings, an interpretation that was naturally bolstered by the belief that God rewarded the righteous. As with all of the Indian Wars that followed over the next nearly 300 years, the steady conquest of the continent and beyond by the Pilgrims’ descendants was understood as the fulfillment of God’s will, or ”Manifest Destiny”.

It is no great leap to believe that Washington’s unequalled power in the world today is nothing less than a reflection of its moral goodness.

Tightly bound up with this notion and central to the Puritan worldview was the idea that they had a mission to redeem the world. After all, the Puritans were, above all, a religious community and one that believed fervently that they had a purpose to fulfill, if only to act as a beacon for other religious groups and nations to follow toward salvation.

The most famous and earliest statement of this faith came in 1630 — just nine years after the first Thanksgiving feast — when John Winthrop, who would soon become the colony’s governor, called on the colonists ”to Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us”.

In their eyes, if not those of the rest of the world, the Massachusetts Bay colony was a holy land, a ”new Israel”, and their arrival in that land was as miraculous as the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt.

This mission of redemption is one that is echoed by U.S. religious and political leaders down through centuries, according to an excellent new book, ‘The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson’, by political commentator John Judis.

”The mission is, above all, religious or moral in nature and defined as a struggle between good and evil and for redemption and salvation”, writes Judis. ”In 1919, arguing for the ratification of the treaty establishing the League of Nations, President Woodrow Wilson declared, ‘For nothing less depends upon this decision, nothing less than the liberation and salvation of the world”’. George W. Bush called on the United States in his 2002 State of the Union address to defeat an ”axis of evil”.

He declared in November 2003 that ‘the advance of freedom is the calling of our time.

‘’It is the calling of our country… We believe that liberty is the design of nature. We believe that liberty is the direction of history”. (END/2004)
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“Other News” is a personal initiative seeking to provide information that should be in the media but is not, because of commercial criteria. It welcomes contributions from everybody. Work areas include information on global issues, north-south relations, gobernability of globalization. The “Other News” motto is a phrase which appeared on the wall of Barcelona’s old Customs Office, at the beginning of 2003:â€?What walls utter, media keeps silentâ€?. Roberto Savio

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