Daily Archives: June 12, 2015

ISIL, the Caliphate and Manifest Destiny: Two sides of the Same Coin

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today another section of my Gettysburg Staff Ride text, taken from the second introductory chapter which deals with how religion and ideology plays a huge role in conflict and how it was used during the American Civil War.  This section discusses how a people’s worldview is strongly linked to culture and religion. It deals with the rather uncomfortable truth that the Islamic concept of the Caliphate differs little from the American idea of Manifest Destiny, a concept which may have created our nation as we know it but in practice was as barbaric and dishonorable as nearly conquering power has ever done, in fact there are many on the political right in this country, especially the Christian Right who are apologists for what occurred in the past and who advocate more of the same now. 

This might be an uncomfortable read for some people, and I hope that is the case. Of course in no way am I condoning anything that the Islamic State is doing in its quest to create a Caliphate, that needs to be condemned and fought wherever possible, preferably by the people most affected by it, the Arabs. 

But the truth is, religiously based imperialism, be it Manifest Destiny or the Islamic State’s dream of a Caliphate are two sides of the same coin of evil. 

So with that I bid you a happy Friday.


Padre Steve+ 


One can never separate war and the means by which it is fought from its political ends. According to Clausewitz, war is an extension or continuation of politics. Of course Clausewitz understood the term politics or policy in the light of the concept of a “World View” or to use the German term Weltanschauung. The term is not limited to doctrine or party politics, but it encompasses the worldview of a people or culture. The world view is oft used by the political, media and religious leadership of countries and can be quite instrumental in the decision by a people to go to war; who they war against, their reasons for going to war, the means by which they fight the war, and the end state that they envision. This concept includes racial, religious, cultural, economic and social dimensions of a worldview.

One of the problems that modern Americans and Western Europeans have is that we tend to look at the world, particularly in terms of politics and policy, be it foreign or domestic, through a prism from which we cannot see the forest for the trees. We look at individual components of issues such as economic factors, military capabilities, existing political systems, diplomatic considerations and the way societies get information in isolation from each other. We dissect them, we analyze them, and we do a very good job in examining and evaluating each individual component; but we often do this without understanding the world view and ideological factors that link how a particular people, nation or party understand these components of policy.

Likewise policy makers tend to take any information they receive and interpret it through their own worldview. This is true even if they have no idea what their world-view is or how they came to it. Most often a worldview is absorbed over years. Barbara Tuchman wrote “When information is relayed to policy-makers, they respond in terms of what is already inside their heads and consequently make policy less to fit the facts than to fit the notions and intentions formed out of the mental baggage that has accumulated in their minds since childhood.” [1]

Policy makers often fail to see just how interconnected the most primal elements of the human experience are to the worldview of others as well as their own.

Because of this, many policy makers, be they military or civilian do not understand how critical the understanding of worldview is to designing effective polices. Likewise, many fail to see how the world view of others influence their application of economic, political, diplomatic and military power as well as the use and dissemination of information in their nation or culture. This is true no matter which religion or sect is involved, even if a people or nation is decidedly secular, or at least outwardly non-religious.

Perhaps this is because we do not want to admit that our Western culture itself is very much a product of primal religious beliefs which informed politics, philosophy, ethics, law, economics, views of race, and even the arts for nearly two millennia. Perhaps it is because we are justifiably appalled and maybe even embarrassed at the excesses and brutality of our ancestors in using religion to incite the faithful to war; to use race and religion justification to subjugate or exterminate peoples that they found to be less than human; or to punish and conquer heretics.

The United States Military made a belated attempt to address ideology, culture and religion in terms of counter-insurgency doctrine when it published the U.S. Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Manual. The discussion of these issues is limited to two pages that specifically deal with various extreme Moslem groups that use that religion as a pillar of their ideology, strategy and operations. But the analysis in the counterinsurgency manual of is limited because its focus is very general and focused at a tactical level.

Likewise the analysis of world view, ideology and religion in the counterinsurgency manual is done in an “us versus them” manner. While the manual encourages leaders to attempt to understand the cultural differences there is little in it to help leaders to understand why this understanding of religion and ideology is important at the strategic and operational levels of war.


Commendably, the manual discusses how terrorist and insurgent groups use ideology, which is frequently based on religion to create a narrative. The narrative often involves a significant amount of myth presented as history, both Al Qaida and ISIL use the idea of the Caliphate as a religious and political ideal to achieve, because for many Moslems the idea of the Caliphate “produces a positive image of the golden age of Islamic civilization.” [2]

But Islam is not the only religion to do this. Most Americans are blind as to how previous generations Americans have used the Christian religion and race as a theological tool to justify subjugating other peoples and how that impacts us today. Beginning with the “landing of the Mayflower Pilgrims, the notion that the British colonies in the New World had been founded with divine assistance, in order to fulfill a providential mission, was commonly accepted.[3] The idea that it was God’s will for White Protestant settlers to push west, conquer and settle the continent of North America crystalized in the term Manifest Destiny. This concept was what motivated Americans to move into lands claimed by Britain as well as those which belonged to Mexico. The fact that the lands belong to other nations “was a small matter…Because most Americans considered it their “manifest destiny” to absorb these regions into the United States.” [4] There was a hunger in the land for more and Congressman John L. O’Sullivan, the inventor of the phrase proclaimed “Yes, more, more, more!….More…till our national destiny is fulfilled and…the whole boundless continent is ours.” [5]


The issue came to a head when American settlers moved into Mexican territory in what is not Texas. The Mexican government allowed the settlers on the provision that they would become Catholic and swear allegiance to Mexico. The settlers did this but had no intention of honoring their word for they believed that their race and the Protestant religion they had denied to settle in Mexico “made them naturally superior to the mestizos – people of mixed Indian and European blood – who governed in the name of Mexico.” [6] This caused serious issues. Especially when the settlers, many of who were Southerners refused to give up their slaves when Mexico abolished slavery in 1829. The American colonists disregarded every agreement they had made with the Mexican government, they flouted the Catholic Church, and they refused to learn Spanish and refused to obey Mexican law. Eventually “their numbers dwarfed the tiny Mexican population of Texas.” [7]

One of the most prominent of the early settlers, Stephen Austin declared “for fifteen years, I have been laboring to Americanize Texas” noting that his enemies were a “population of Indians, Mexican and renegados, all mixed together, and all the natural enemies of white men and civilization.” [8] Eventually General Santa Anna attempted to seal the border between Texas and Louisiana to forestall the movement of any new settlers into the territory, but the move backfired and the Texans revolted and in the ensuing war secured their independence. The agreement pledged that Texas would remain an independent nation and not become part of the United States, but this agreement was broken as well and in 1845 Texas was admitted to the Union as a Slave State, furthering the cries of those advocating Manifest destiny for more. One Congressman asserted that:

“When God crowned American arms with success in the Revolution…he had not “designed the original States should be the only abode of liberty on earth. On the contrary, He only designed them as the great center from which civilization, religion, and liberty should radiate and radiate until the whole continent shall bask in their blessing.” [9]

The year after Texas joined the Union the administration of President James K. Polk provoked a war with Mexico which secured most of the rest of what we now know as the United States. In the process the Americans decided to violate treaties they had made with Native American tribes, and the “manifest destiny that represent hope for white Americans thus spelled doom for red Americans,” [10] and through war and disease the Americans decimated the Indian populations over the next fifty years.

A few voices were raised against the war with Mexico, former President John Quincy Adams said in the House of Representatives that in a war with Mexico “the banners of freedom will be the banners of Mexico; and your banners, I blush to speak the word, will be the banners of slavery.” [11] Abraham Lincoln doomed his reelection prospects in 1848 by condemn the war and criticizing President Polk. Alexander Stephens, a Southern Whig and later Vice President of the Confederacy assailed the President:

“The principle of waging war against a neighboring people to compel them to sale their country, is not only dishonorable, but disgraceful and infamous. What. Shall it be said that American honor aims at nothing higher than land…..never did I expect to live to see the day when the Executive of this country should announce that our honor was such a loathsome, beastly thing, that it could be satisfied with any achievements in arms, however brilliant and glorious, but must feed on the earth – gross, vile, dirt!” [12]

Walt Whitman prophetically noted that “the United States may conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man who swallows arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” [13] Whitman would be proven right as it was the territorial acquisitions gained in the war with Mexico which lit the fuse which ignited the Civil War.


The deeply Christian and imperialist civil-religious concept of Manifest Destiny of can still be seen in pronouncements of some politicians, pundits and preachers who believe that that this is America’s mission in the world. Manifest Destiny is an essential element of the idea of American Exceptionalism which often has been the justification for much American foreign policy from the time of President McKinley. Former President George W. Bush alluded to this in his 2003 State of the Union Address, “that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” [14] Throughout the Bush presidency the idea that God undergirded the policy of the United States led to a mismatch of policy ends and the means to accomplish them. Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. and historian Michael Oren wrote:

“Not inadvertently did Bush describe the struggle against Islamic terror as a “crusade to rid the world of evildoers.” Along with this religious zeal, however, the president espoused the secular fervor of the neoconservatives…who preached the Middle East’s redemption through democracy. The merging of the sacred and the civic missions in Bush’s mind placed him firmly in the Wilsonian tradition. But the same faith that deflected Wilson from entering hostilities in the Middle East spurred Bush in favor of war.” [15]

Policy makers and military leaders must realize that if they want to understand how culture and religious ideology drive others to conquer, subjugate and terrorize in the name of God, they first have to understand how our ancestors did the same thing. It is only when they do that that they can understand that this behavior and use of ideology for such ends is much more universal and easier to understand.

If one wants to see how the use of this compulsion to conquer in the name of God in American by a national leader one needs to go no farther than to examine the process whereby President McKinley, himself a veteran of the Civil War, decided to annex the Philippine in 1898 following the defeat of the Spanish. That war against the Filipinos that we had helped liberate from Spanish rule saw some of the most bloodthirsty tactics employed in fighting the Filipino insurgents, who merely wanted independence. It was a stain on our national honor which of which Mark Twain wrote: “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land. . .” [16]

A doubtlessly sincere McKinley sought counsel from God about whether he should annex the Philippines or not.

“He went down on his knees, according to his own account, and “prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance.” He was accordingly guided to conclude “that there was nothing left to do for us but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos. And uplift and civilize and Christianize them, by God’s grace to do the very best we could by them, as our fellowmen for whom Christ died.” [17]

On the positive side the counterinsurgency manual does mention how “Ideology provides a prism, including a vocabulary and analytical categories, through which followers perceive their situation.” [18] But again it does so at a micro-level and the lessons of it are not applied at the higher levels of strategic thinking and policy. This is often due to the fact that American and other Western policy makers “as a set of theological issues rather than as a profoundly political influence in public life.” [19] Even after nearly a decade and a half of unremitting war against enemies for whom religion is at the center of their politics policy makers still misread or neglect the importance of religion and religiously based ideology in the political motivations of their opponents. In many cases the religion of a people is stronger part of their identity than that of the state. Nations which were created during the post-colonial era “continue to see religion, clan, ethnicity, and other such factors as the markers of community identity.” [20]

Thus when faced with cultures for which religion provides the adhesive which binds each of these elements, such as the Islamic State or ISIL we attempt to deal with each element separately, as if they have no connection to each other. But that is where we err, for even if the religious cause or belief has little grounding in fact, science or logic, and may be the result of a culture’s attempt to seize upon mythology to build a new reality, it is, in the words of Reggie Jackson the “straw that stirs the drink” and to ignore or minimize it is to doom our efforts to combat its proponents.

Perhaps that is because people do not like to look at themselves and their own history in the mirror. People tend to be uncomfortable when the face that they see in the mirror is face too similar to those they oppose, especially those who are perfectly willing to commit genocide in the name of their God. It really does not matter if one holds a predominantly secularist worldview and lives a secular lifestyle, or if one is religious yet embarrassed by the religiously motivated criminal actions of their forefathers, the result is strikingly and tragically similar; it makes them blind to the religious motivations of others and causes them to misread events in often tragic ways.


[1] Tuchman, Barbara W. Practicing History Alfred A. Knopf, New Your 1981 p.289

[2] ___________ U.S. Army/ Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5 15 December 2006 with and forward by General David A Petraeus and General James Amos, Konecky and Konecky, Old Saybrook CT 2007 p.26

[3] Gonzalez, Justo L. The History of Christianity Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day Harper and Row Publishers San Francisco 1985 p.246

[4] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.42

[5] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.48

[6] Ibid. Gonzales The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.248

[7] Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.59

[8] Ibid. Gonzales The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.248

[9] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.48

[10] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.48

[11] Ibid. Gonzales The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.249

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening: p.63

[13] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.51

[14] Bush, George W. State of the Union Address Washington D.C. January 28th 2003 retrieved from Presidential Rhetoric.com http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/01.28.03.html 10 June 2015

[15] Oren, Michael Power, Faith and Fantasy: America and the Middle East 1776 to the Present W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2007 p.584

[16] Twain, Mark To the Person Sitting in Darkness February 1901 Retrieved from The World of 1898: The Spanish American War The Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/twain.html 12 December 2014

[17] Ibid. Tuchman Practicing History p.289

[18] Ibid. U.S. Army/ Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual p.27

[19] Rubin, Barry Religion in International Affairs in Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1994 p.20

[20] Ibid. Rubin Religion in International Affairs p.22


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