A couple of weeks ago Steven Levingston’s Political Bookworm blog shared a story about Ronald Reagan, Manly Hall, and the secret destiny of America that Mitch Horowitz included in his Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation.
As Reagan told it, a mysterious man in a black cloak appeared in the statehouse in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776 and exhorted the faltering delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence. “God has given America to be free!” he thundered, before he just as inexplicably disappeared. Reagan used it as the centerpiece of an article about the meaning of Independence Day that he personally penned for Parade magazine in 1981; it also featured largely in the commencement address he delivered at Eureka College in 1957 (Eureka was his alma mater and the speech bears his personal touch; it’s not canned-sounding at all, though a sour note does creep in when he goes off on a rant about how after heroically purging the communists from its unions, Hollywood had allowed itself “to become a sort of a village idiot on the fringe of the industrial scene fair game for any demagogue or bigot who wants to stand up in the pulpit or platform and attack us. We are also fair game for those people, well-meaning though they may be, who believe that the answer to the world’s ills is more government and more restraint and more regimentation. Suddenly we find that we are a group of second class citizens subject to discriminatory taxation, government interference and harassment.” The personal is never far from the political where Ronald Reagan is concerned–a great source of his strength and, I believe, of his insufficiently acknowledged strangeness).
Horowitz says that Reagan first encountered the story in the spiritualist Manly Hall’s short 1944 book, The Secret Destiny of America.
Was this, Manly Hall wondered, “one of the agents of the secret Order, guarding and directing the destiny of America?” Hall himself adapted the story from an 1847 anthology of speeches put together by George Lippard (who admitted to pretty much making it up). Lippard’s version–which for all its gothic Poe-like touches, is decidedly non-supernatural and far more Jacobin than anything Reagan would have approved of–can be found here.
The notion of American Exceptionalism, of course, is as old as America–it goes back at least to the Puritan John Winthrop’s Arabella sermon about the City on the Hill (another trope that was dear to Reagan’s heart). Reagan, like many other Hollywood types on both the right and the left, had an equal taste for the histrionic and lite spiritualism like astrology; it’s not surprising that he would have taken to this Twilight Zone-worthy scenario. Reagan’s Fundamentalist friends wouldn’t have approved of Hall’s Masonic and Theosophical inclinations and they would have been alarmed by the notion that a secret society of necromancers has been pulling America’s strings. But if the mysterious visitor were understood to be angelic, they’d have no problem with the story at all.
I just finished reading Jeff Sharlet’s THE FAMILY, which traces American evangelicalism’s identification of salvation with corporatism, of Jesus with free enterprise. It’s weird and disturbing and not at all intuitive, but it helps explain why, for all his Hollywood airs, fundamentalists love Reagan so deeply–and also Glenn Beck’s disdain for the Social Gospel.