The Blast-Furnace of Zion: America as Missionary Ideal

In Usonia as much as anywhere else, there is a political establishment and an associated civic religion. As we have previously articulated, this religion centers around the concept of America—a formerly ethnogeographical term which has taken on a certain ideological significance—and thus we will call it by its usual name, that being the American civic religion. Much has been written on the scriptures and saints of this religion, but one aspect in particular makes it especially distinctive among civic religions and is seldom discussed in any detail, namely that it is missionary—that is, that it seeks converts by means of immigration.

The ancient Roman civic cult, for example, could be seen as missionary, but only in the sense that any empire is missionary, imposing its format of loyalty-signalling on the peoples it conquers; and certainly there are established interests around the world in spreading certain ideas, certain loyalties, which are closely associated with the American civic religion. But unlike historically usual cults of State, the Usonian formulation is one which actively seeks immigrants to convert to it; it no longer expands geographically, but rather calls new members to move into its current geographical claim and become Americans in Usonia. There is a longstanding basis for this missionary impulse, and the purpose of this treatment is to discuss its earliest origins and its subsequent development.

First, we must note the two dominant mythic views of America which compete politically (and do so asymmetrically) within the civic religion. These form the ideological basis of the two-party system, though the governing methods of the two parties do not, of course, reflect the extent of the cultural divergence seen “on the ground”. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party—as well as the “conservative” and “progressive” mercantile, media, and lobbying circuits which are, respectively, associated with them—simply put, both appeal to Usonians on the basis of imperial unity; they differ in their audience, however, and thus attribute different qualities to their images of America.

The “conservative” view of America, found most often among the middle class and below, is perhaps most concisely embodied in the American’s Creed:

I believe in the United States of America, as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic; a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon these principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes. I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it, to support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.[1]

In this view, America is an ideal. Nowhere in this creed—do note that it was passed as a resolution by the United States House of Representatives in 1918—is there mention of a North, a South, and a West; “the people”, though repeatedly invoked, is referred to as a unity. Indeed, there are the words “a perfect union, one and inseparable”—which would seem to contradict the words just prior: “many sovereign States”.

This sort of semantic confusion is probably the result of innovation in the civic religion appearing alongside accretions from older formulations; “many sovereign States” is evidently one such accretion, for the Southern States acted as sovereign entities in seceding from the United States and forming another union, and their defeat in the ensuing war meant the defeat of the old principle by which the States could be called sovereign—whereas the older union, in winning the ensuing war, affirmed a new principle—that it was indeed “one and inseparable”.

Thus the curious language of the above creed reflects the victory of, in particular, one Usonian people over another, and more generally of certain interests over common Usonians generally. The Usonian norm in public discourse since the time of Lincoln, then, is to argue for regional, ethnic, or class interests with the assumption that imperial unity is inviolable, and thus with appeals to American values. Even the Southern States which had formed the Confederacy could appeal to American principles as a justification for secession[2]—for had not the United States seceded less than a century before from Britain?

This assumed unity is also present, albeit in a different form, in the “progressive” view. Prominent in the academy, this view is expressed most poignantly in Langston Hughes’ Let America Be America Again (1935):

O, let America be America again-
The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be![3]

Here we see “the people” called to rally against another group: “those who live like leeches”. The concept of America has thus been even further abstracted from its ethnogeographical basis, and made into an imperative, an ideal: “where every man [must be] free”. It is stated explicitly that if the conditions and mores of what is called America do not reflect such an ideal, then America does not exist—”the land that never has been yet”.

The distribution of these views among the Usonian social classes follows a pattern: those with more education and a higher income are not only more likely to have a view of “American values” and related concepts more like that of Hughes,[4] but are also liable to disparage “Americanness” to the extent that they perceive America to refer to the former conception, which, though it contains no explicit ethnic character, marks one who adheres to it unmistakably as one of the middle or lower classes.[5]

The trend in the civic religion is one of abstraction from prior specifications about American nationality, which are more and more unprincipled exceptions to—to quote the American’s Creed—”these principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes”; as hard as it may have been for even a suffragette in 1918 to imagine the importance of a figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civic religion today, no widely respected conservative would today question it. This makes the “conservative” conception not only lower in status, but also archaic: it reflects, as the Creed would suggest, in an older form of the civic religion. It is thus poorly equipped to defend itself, rhetorically or electorally, against the more advanced form, which builds upon its premises (foremost among them being the ideal of America itself).

Indeed, the abstraction and distortion of the former ethnogeographical meaning of America does not stop with the “progressive” myth outlined above; for there is an even more advanced formulation of the myth. For this we can look to Amiri Baraka, “one of the most respected and widely published African-American writers”,[6] who has written on the matter:

We get clear enough to elect Obama
the terrorists take off they Klan clothes
put on some suits , they the t party, now. TEA
The Evil Assholes, they terrorists & Nazi’s
like always. They do anything to stop America’s getting rid of it’s craziness.
They never let all of us
be Americans. They terrorists
And the Republicans they even got negroes
Real Public Coons, they terrorists too
like Tom Ass Clarence & his evil wife …

We facing the sickness
of terrorists. Been terrorizing all of us
for hundreds of years. When we gonna catch em
and lock `em up! These terrorists. Catch em
and lock `em up! Then we can cure ourselves,
America, of what has always
Ailed us!

As illustrated by the fact that this very piece of writing has been praised by Brian Leiter,[7] one of the most powerful figures in academic philosophy in Usonia[8]—as well as, again, the fact that Baraka himself is “respected and widely published”—those whose personal and professional associations place them above the middle class are not wont to see Baraka’s view of America as threatening, but rather find with it much agreement.

In other words, the “progressive” view of America is a point of intersection between minority resentment of, and elite contempt for, common Usonians (also called middle Americans). Thus, before we have even undertaken to examine the missionary nature of the present-day American civic religion, we see an impetus for missionary efforts—that is, efforts at mass conversion by immigration, and thus mass replacement of common Usonians—already present in its central myth, namely that Usonia must be redeemed or vengefully transformed in order to qualify as America. As author and demographer Ben J. Wattenberg has put it:

Something is happening: we are becoming the first universal nation in history. Holy smoke! The half-true evolving, poetic proclamation of America is becoming truer and truer: we are a free people; we do come from everywhere. There are some specific potential problems and some specific potential blessings associated with this development, which will be discussed in a moment. But if you believe, as the author does, that the American drama is being played out toward a purpose, then the non-Europeanization of America is heartening news of an almost transcendental quality.[9]

Now that we have established a possible basis for it in the central civic myth, we will discuss this missionary impulse and its origins in further depth. It is based, again, not only on the idea that anyone can be an American—for this idea can be found among common Usonians, albeit far from universally—but also that it is the telos of America to host members of every people in the world. Perhaps the earliest well-known articulation of this idea is in “The New Colossus”, the poem by Emma Lazarus which was engraved in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903. It ends thus:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”[10]

Emma Lazarus, it is to be noted, was not an immigrant. She was descended from a line of Sephardic Jews, originally from Portugal, who had been living in New York since the colonial period. For an even earlier—and less poetic, more explicit—rendering of the same idea, we turn, reliably, to an Anglo-Saxon. Lazarus’s portrait of America has little to differ with that of one L.P. Brockett, who coäuthored a book—the very one we are about to cite—with Charles Louis Flint, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His, however, provides not only for the intermixture of all the peoples of the world in America, but also for the continued supremacy of his own people. He writes a generation before Lazarus’s poem is engraved:

But the future man of the American Republic will be a thoroughly composite being. It is not simply the union of the Mongolian and Caucasian types to which we are to look forward, but an agglomeration of almost all races and nationalities to make up the coming man. The old English stock of New England, Virginia, and the Carolinas, already blended with Huguenot, Norman French, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, German, French, Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian blood, will receive from the Canadian French on the one side and the Hispano-Americans on the other, an accession of French, Spanish, and Portuguese blood not wholly free from an admixture in all degrees with the Northern Indian, the Aztec, and the Negro races, and these, with the blending in our own Southern and Southwestern States with the African stock, and the combination in the not distant future of Chinese, Japanese, Hindoo, Malay, and Polynesian, will give to the average American of a hundred years hence, a darker complexion and very different intellectual and moral characteristics from those which we possess to-day. Still we have faith in the predominance of the Anglo-Saxon type, if not in numbers, at least in sway over the hundreds of millions who will then people this broad land. Its resolute will, its ability for governing and controlling, its rare executive power, and its high intelligence, secure for it here, as on the Eastern continent, the position of the foremost nation of the earth in all the highest qualities of manhood.[11]

Flint’s conception of his own people is a rather confident one, to say the least. Where lie its origins? In his own words, the Anglo-Saxon tells us: in the very same place as the missionary impulse we have been discussing. Abiel Abbot, another Massachusetts Yankee, writing more than three generations before Flint:

It has been often remarked that the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel than any other nation upon the globe. Hence OUR AMERICAN ISRAEL is a term frequently used; and common consent allows it apt and proper.[12]

Not only was America a land of promise in that it was a frontier, but its most influential people—the Yankees of New England—were Calvinists, who had much reverence for the Old Testament and its harsh portrayal of a personal god who favored some peoples over others.[13] Accordingly, a certain “chosenness” was felt by those who had come to the promised land of the New World. Bernard A. Weisberger, writing in 1964, confirms Abbot’s view:

“But the stranger that dwelleth among you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself.” So the Lord had spoken, through Moses, to the Israelites. The Americans, as the Chosen People of the 19th Century (in their own eyes), took all such commandments with proper seriousness. Moreover, in 1858 Abraham Lincoln had boldly tied together the Republican program for freedom in the territories and the American ideal of proffering to the world’s oppressed a gateway to hope. The West, he declared, should be “an outlet for free white people everywhere, the world over—in which Hans and Baptiste and Patrick and all other men from all the world, may find new homes and better their condition in life.” To the generation which took up the nation’s business after the Civil War, it was unthinkable to ignore a mandate of Jehovah and Lincoln.[14]

And ignore it they did not: millions of immigrants from all over Europe came to Usonia to become Americans over the following generation.[15] This very process, while perhaps, according to Yockey, invigorating the American stock with renewed enthusiasm for its identity,[16] furthered the abstraction of that identity, both in the popular mind and in the formulation of imperial policy.

For this generation, however, there were still limits to the extent of this missionary call—and therefore to the abstraction of America as a concept—for it was not sounded to the peoples of Asia or Africa as it was to those of Europe. Immigration from East Asia, China in particular, did occur in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, but various Acts were passed in order to limit it.[17]

Indeed, the aforementioned limits went even further: in 1924 an Immigration Act was passed, which established an annual quota at 2% of the number of foreign-born persons of a given nationality who were present in the United States at the Census of 1890.[18] This had varying effects, as one might imagine, depending on the said nationality: immigrants from Northwestern Europe were fewer in number, but still formed the greatest share; those from Southern and Eastern Europe less so; immigration from Africa, Arabia, and East Asia was negligible.

The passage of the 1924 Immigration Act demonstrates that whatever views Brockett and his associates had on the “future man of the American Republic”, such views were not consistent with imperial policy or the popular conception of America at the time.[19] The idea of the melting pot as such would not enter the American consciousness until Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play of the same name.[20]

Even before that, however, the idea of a “melting together” of immigrant peoples did exist in Usonia—but it was keenly described as a coming together of Northwestern Europeans, not of all the world; and at that a fait accompli, something already evident to the observer. J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur wrote of such a mixture in 1782:

…whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes… What, then, is the American, this new man? He is either an European or the descendant of an European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country.[21]

Nearly a century later, a magazine article made the precise analogy of the melting pot—but in relation to Englishmen, Irishmen, and Germans, with no mention of Jews or even Italians or Slavs, let alone non-Western peoples:

The fusing process goes on as in a blast-furnace; one generation, a single year even– transforms the English, the German, the Irish emigrant into an American. Uniform institutions, ideas, language, the influence of the majority, bring us soon to a similar complexion; the individuality of the immigrant, almost even his traits of race and religion, fuse down in the democratic alembic like chips of brass thrown into the melting pot.[22]

Thus the promotion of the melting-pot analogy by Zangwill marks an important turn, for he speaks of the American composite more as a thing to come or a work in progress, and a work of God at that, sounding more like Abbot, Lazarus, or Wattenberg—all that is wanting is the replacement of “Europe” with “the world”—than like the men quoted just above:

Understand that America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, your fifty languages, and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to – these are fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.[23]

Thus the missionary character of the American civic religion and its theological girding are on full display, even before the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act—whose strictures were later reversed, indeed by people who were particularly interested in making Abbot’s account even more “apt and proper” than he is likely to have imagined.[24] A discussion of how this reversal was effected is beyond the scope of the present treatment; our aim here has been merely to illustrate the missionary character of the American civic religion and its ethnic and religious origins.

[1]: William Tyler Page, “The American’s Creed”, 1917.
[2]: See Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to William H. Crawford”, June 20, 1816; and James Buchanan, “Fourth Annual Address to Congress on the State of the Union”, December 3, 1860.
[3] Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”, 1935.
[4] Data suggest that more affluent and educated Usonians are more likely to support the Democratic Party; see Stephen Ohlemacher, “In Congress, Democrats Are The Party Of The Rich”, AP, March 31, 2014.
[5] The history of the ‘Murica meme illustrates the association of White middle- and lower-class, particularly Southern, cultural elements and political views with a low-status conception of America.
[6] As per the brief biography given at Portside along with the quoted “poem”.
[7] Leiter linked and excerpted the piece, calling it “apt, and often outrageously funny”, in a blog post dated October 21, 2013.
[8] The Boston Globe has referred to Leiter as “the philosopher kingmaker”; he gained fame for his regularly updated list of what he considers to be the best philosophy departments in the American academy, which began to circulate, in his words, “like samizdat in the Soviet Union”; see Mark Oppenheimer, “The philosopher kingmaker”, Boston Globe, April 20, 2008.
[9] Ben J. Wattenberg, The Good News is the Bad News is Wrong, 1984, p. 84.
[10] Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”, 1883.
[11] L.P. Brockett, Marvels That Our Grandchildren Will See, an appendix to One Hundred Years’ Progress of the United States, 1873, p. 515.
[12] Abiel Abbot, Traits of resemblance in the people of the United States of America to ancient Israel; In a sermon, delivered at Haverhill, November 28, 1799.
[13] The New England Puritans saw an affinity between themselves and the ancient Israelites, and as with those labelled Puritans generally, preached a theology which, taking after Calvin, emphasised the total depravity of man and the complete dependence of man’s Election for salvation on divine grace. This affinity, and these emphases, persisted in American Protestantism up to and beyond the time of Abbot. See not only the sermon listed in note 10, but also Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, A Sermon Preached at Enfield, July 8th, 1741.
[14] Bernard A. Weisberger, The LIFE History of the United States, volume 8, 1964, p. 59.
[15] See ibid., pp. 59-60.
[16] See Francis Parker Yockey, Imperium: The Philosophy of History and Politics, 1948, p. 136.
[17] One may read here the text of two such pieces of legislation restricting Chinese immigration.
[18] The text of the 1924 Immigration Act can be found here, and there is a chart of its quotas here.
[19] Even in 1924, however, one could be found to object to such measures on the grounds that they were un-American; see the address to Congress of Robert H. Clancy, a Republican congressman from Detroit whose constituency had a high immigrant population, here.
[20] See Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture, 1986, p. 66.
[21] J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, 1782, Letter III, “What is an American?”
[22] Titus Munson Coan, “A New Country”, The Galaxy, volume 19, issue 4, April 1875, p. 463.
[23] Israel Zangwill, The Melting-Pot, 1908, Act I.
[24] See Kevin MacDonald, The Culture of Critique, 1998, pp. 240-303.

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