America’s Moral Mission

In the paper “Tradition as Cultural Tool,” author Scott Atkins offers a very interesting review of the cultural traditions of the American Puritans and Pilgrims that merged in colonial America and became the ideological foundation upon which the American revolution was premised. Atkins suggests in his paper that it was a cultural merger between these two groups that became the synergy and legitimizing force behind the idea of political separation from the British. According to Atkins, “in the year directly preceding the revolution the establishment of the” Old Colony Club” and with it, the celebration of “Forefathers Day,” provide a clear example of how, from the beginnings of an official nation, nationalistic tendencies used the past as current self-justification.” Atkins goes on to describe the cultural distinctions between the Puritans and the Pilgrims. He describes the Puritans as ” a conservative establishment of men satisfied with their present positions and happy they could claim priority in being descendants of the Mayflower pilgrims,” while describing the Pilgrims as “the company in the taverns.” Atkins suggests that it was the coming together of these two classes of colonists that ultimately shaped the American identity, and that became “analogical proof of the justice of political separation” from Britain, calling it a “transcendent unity between the two,” founded upon a “national myth of origins.”

Reading Atkins description of the two groups, one can assume that Atkins believes that the Pilgrims, having formed the “Pilgrim Sons of Liberty,” and who upon relocating the Plymouth Rock from the Colony Club to the town square, wrote: ” [We] took its removal to the town square, with the intention to place over it a liberty pole, as an excitement to vigorous efforts in the approaching revolutionary struggle, and to quicken the zeal of such persons as hesitated to join the standard of independence,” provided the revolutionary zeal of the movement. The Puritans for their part provided the jeremiad that became the clarion call for American independence and liberty, through the establishment of a moral government, which distinguished the goals of the American Revolution from those of the French revolution.  Atkins looks to Sacvan Berovitch’s critique of the pre-Revolutionary Puritan oratory, and writes, ” in simultaneously prophesying a future ideal and warning, against the damning consequences of failure, (Puritans) proposed a “social idea” of “independence” and of a “republic”; it challenged patriots to resist England as the “modern Babylon” and to guard against “European fashions and royal agents.”  Within the Puritan political discourse, was a clear reference to “mission” causing the American Revolutionary idea to be a potent mixture of ideological purpose, and religious mission, or ideas and activism. In this respect, Atkins quotes Samuel Adams, who said, ” every part of God’s providential proceedings justifies the thoughtéGod does the work, but not without his instruments, and they who are employed are denominated his servants éwe may affect humility in refusing to be made servants of divine vengeance, but the good servant will execute the Will of the Master.” Atkins, seems to suggest here that Adam’s oratory depicts how the colonists “historicized religion,” which allowed, according to Atkins, ” the proponents of independence to place themselves in a moral and spiritual trajectory which to them must follow the cause of increasing liberty.”

Atkins seems to believe that what he calls the “appropriation of a cultural symbol,” and the “violent disturbance of hereditary tradition,” referring to the Pilgrim challenge to Puritan exclusivity, or ownership of the colonial culture symbolized by the Plymouth Rock, was based upon perceived loyalties to a “higher will” or what Atkins calls, “an authority that transcends the authority against which the revolutionaries stand.” In this respect, Atkins attests to the fact that the revolutionary movement took its understanding of authority and rights from reason and world history, yet, says Atkins, the American revolutionaries situated “the basis of worldly power beyond the more predetermined modes of hereditarianism and aristocracy.” Atkins says the American Revolution was a lesson in “national genealogy” where “what fathers began, the sons were bound to complete.” They “transported” according to Atkins, ” a socio-political impulse to the level of nationalistic moral necessity.” He says further, ” The Pilgrim Fathers became the sires no longer to just their-blood related ancestors, but to the product of what was retrospectively seen as their liberty driven errand- the nation itself.”

This sense of American mission and idealism did not end with the victory of the American colonists over the British. Many Americans continue to see the United States its history, and the idea of a national mission, which succeeded at least in carrying the small American revolutionary militias to victory over the British, as a national preoccupation, to which every citizen should be not only educated, but also committed. In 1820, Daniel Webster in his famous Plymouth bicentennial speech said, that America has a “peculiar mission,” and that all Americans were “chosen not only for heaven, but as instruments of a sacred historical design.” He cautioned that we are all under the “threat of divine retribution,” should we fail in this mission. The obvious, and immediate problem with such idealism is that just as the United States has reached the stage where it can now perhaps, as never before, spread its revolutionary ideals beyond its own borders, encouraging the establishment of government structures similar to that envisioned by our nation’s founders, as best suited for human progress and development, we find ourselves a nation of many races, religions and varying visions of our shared future.

If, indeed the United States is a work in progress that is moving towards the fulfillment of a revolutionary vision, that only began to take shape in the 1700s, and continues until today, the immediate challenge that is facing the nation might be the same challenge that originally faced the Puritans and Pilgrims. This challenge was to create a myth of national origin that is more inclusive. This original creation of an American national myth of origin allowed a greater number of New England colonists to see themselves as sharing ownership of the ideals, and thereby a certain amount of responsibility for the success of this mission.

The modern mission might be similar to the mission as defined by John Agresto, and interpreted by Atkins, as a mission to advance “an idea of constitutionalism: the notion of a law superior to the specific, changeable, mundane local laws, the realization that liberty required written limits on the exercise of political power; and the formulation of these concepts into an overarching constitution which would express what its framers conceived of as the basic principles of a nation, and which would project these principles into the future, establish them as a kind of moral foundation upon which regardless of everyday legal details, every citizen would be able to rely.” The Puritan/Pilgrim political ideology through which the first stage of this mission came to fruition in the form of an American constitution having been completed, the next stage might be to reinstall its moral bearing, and expand our own social contract domestically to include those racial and religious groups who presently feel excluded.

Those who are prepared to declare the American ideal fit for export are comfortable that they are included. Yet, a good number of America’s citizens do not feel so entitled, which is reason to make the contract more inclusive, bolster its power, and protect it’s true intent and authority from usurpation and the dilution of its purpose, through misinterpretation, and fraud. Our first President George Washington in his farewell speech, cautioned the nation in this respect saying, ” toward the preservation of your government and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretext,” prejudice and discrimination are arguably two such innovations.  Going back to Webster’s historic speech, it seems that he touched upon this concept of national mission, and the need to preserve the national idea, saying: ” If God prosper us, we shall here begin a work which shall last for ages.”  The work as seen by many historians, was not simply to create and export ideas tantamount to the realization of a socio- political utopia, or “city on the hill,” but to first and foremost unite the people of the nation, and preserve the nation’s unity, and its citizen’s understanding, commitment and loyalty to the mission. This cannot be accomplished so far as a good number of racial and religious minorities remain excluded, if not from the rhetoric of equality, certainly by the prejudice and discrimination that continues to plague our nation. This problem is highlighted by the social disturbances in Cincinnati, and an attempt following the September 11th attacks, to stereotype all Muslim Americans and Arabs as terrorists, or potential terrorists.

So far as any group of people or any individual reasonably feels that they are not included, or welcomed by the other citizens as equals, or that they have no opportunity to share in the promise, and the struggle to realize the objectives of republican democracy, there is no reason to expect that these ideals can be sustained against the pull upon our national fabric by political and social dissent, and the creation of sub-cultures. The American fabric is a fabric that was woven by men who joined not only across cultural and class lines to forge the initial union, but who also joined the political pursuit with a moral imperative that gave strength to the idea of liberty, and raised it above a national pursuit for material gain, to a higher aspiration for justice. Webster called this unity ” a consciousness of alliance with excellence.”

Atkin’s says in his paper that George Bancroft sought “to locate in his terms the faith that linked republicanism with Christianity, and that in so doing he offered his account of the principles which bound the seventeenth to the nineteenth century: “the equation of social and political stability with the fulfillment of universal law; the participation of the common man is that fulfillment; and the unity of humanity as an expression of God’s love.” Atkins says that Bancroft, “elevates the common man-the ideal and sin qua non of democracy, and an especially powerful trope of the Romantic perspective and in understanding the Jacksonian era, and places him in relation to Puritanism as a standard of well-intentioned self improvement, for which Bancroft suggested the Puritans stood.” ” Democracy then becomes,” says Atkins, ” bound with Puritanism in a kind of organic moral whole. While the individual then remains prey to the fallibility and inconsistencies that have plagued the human race throughout history, the fact of the progress of the whole race itself (emphasis mine), is undeniable.” In a brief critique of Bancroft’s “The Office of the People in Art, Government and Religion,” Atkins states that, “Bancroft transforms the almost mechanistic and calculative perspective one encounters in Federalist #10, where Madison proposes republic over “pure democracy” and large over small republic, as a means of “curing mischief of factions. “Bancroft” states Atkins, “sees popular government as charged with the moral force of Puritanism, so that “Truth emerges from the contradictions of personal opinions” and the conclusion is reached, that “the decrees of the universal conscience are the nearest approach to the presence of God in the soul of man.”

Mohamed Omiesh, Ph.D., author of “Muslim Perceptions of Prejudice and Discrimination in American Academia: Challenges, Issues, and Obstacles, and the Implications for Educators, Administrators, and University Officials, draws our attention to the important role that our institutions for education play in creating and sustaining unity in a society. He examines several social psychological theories that can be employed to meet the needs of Muslim and Arab minorities in the academic setting, and gives special attention to person-environment theories. Omeish says: ” person-environment theories focus on behavior as a function of the interaction between the individual and the environment. They emphasize the importance of establishing a healthy environment for growth and development. They consist of a number of models, such as physical, human aggregate, perceptual and structural organization models. The main components/ factors of these models, are heterogeneity/ homogeneity, support/ challenge balance, social support, social climate, and the physical environment. The concept central to all of the above factors is congruency. Researchers have found that for student development to progress in a normal and healthy manner, congruency must be present between the individual and his/her environment.”   Omeish’s statement suggests that through educative processes, citizens can be helped and encouraged to feel they fit within their society.  Education can also serve to change the prejudiced and discriminatory temperaments of those in the majority who feel that minorities are not also owners of the dream and the promise, and represented equally as co-signors to the contract.

A national education campaign that focuses on the principles of the republic and its moral mission that is inclusive, and that might be defined as a ” radical transformation on a political and social level justified as a fuller realization of a Godly order,” a definition originally proffered by Webster, could work even in a more secular America, if we can translate the Godly order into perhaps a “higher” order.” This Godly, or “higher” order, as Webster interpreted it in his historic speech, was free from racism and discrimination. Webster made this clear when he said, ” I deem it my duty, on this occasion to suggest that the land is not wholly free from the contamination of a traffic, at which every feeling of humanity must forever revolt-I mean the African slave trade.”  Atkins believes that Webster, sought to use the Puritan/Pilgrim revolutionary tradition to energize the abolitionist movement, perhaps in the same way that it was used to fuel the American Revolution. Atkins offers a very important critique of Webster in this respect that could serve as a guide in any nation’s attempt to peacefully reconcile its past troubles with issues related to inclusion, saying that the abolitionist project “was a negative one.” He premises this statement upon his opinion that, ” it sought to correct an existing evil by doing away with it, rather than transforming it into an ideal of liberty whose worldly repercussions most of its proponents would benefit from and experience first hand. And more, in seeking to act within the existing social order, Puritanism was reduced to a political program, and was equated by its opponents to “the legislation of righteousness.” Atkins believes that “it came to be used and seen less as a system of religious faith and religious ethics, than an “ideological rationale” of social control.” Atkins might be saying here that it would require intellectual transformation and attitude changes that are more than merely ideological, but also perhaps moral, and that reach deep into the psyche of the nation to eliminate prejudice and discrimination. These types of transformations levels playing fields for minorities not as a matter of legislation, or social control, but as the product of an evolution of thought and desire, or rather a maturation of the national conscience. For the inclusion of minorities to be peaceful, and successful in a society, it must originate in the will of a majority to abolish what it has ascertained through reason, evils that will prevent the realization of national goals, which among its priorities are stability and unity.

Whereas groups of minorities may become weary of the time taken to extend to them the promise of the republic in goodwill, a voluntary national education program, mounted by religious institutions and civic organizations where all people can contribute perspectives, and efforts, might be able to provide immediate, although gradual relief realized through local dialogues among familiar groups seeking to address the issues apparent within their own communities, keeping in mind that a new moral message must sink into the hearts not only of our majorities, but also of our minorities who have perhaps become embittered by their experiences with prejudice and discrimination.

Atkins closes his discussion on American culture as a tool, saying “the Puritans who had served as such a powerful explanation of the United States as a moral Republic were in large part discarded along with that ideal, and its attendant faith in Providential order. ”  He attributes this to the fact that the moral republic lost its morality, and became one of many political ideas. Yet, there are some who believe that moral republicanism is alive and well in the United States, and so it should be, since it is the model for human progress and development upon which the nation was founded, and that has guided this republic through numerous trials and to unequalled prosperity. Today’s challenge to the Puritan concepts of liberty and democracy, and the success of its moral mission, is a test of its ability to achieve and sustain political and social development, in a larger and more diverse United States.

The writer is the Founder and President of the National Association of Muslim American Women.