The US and Philippines: “God’s Arbiters” by Harris

The United States unshackled the Philippines from Spanish tyranny in 1898, a move that was lauded as an example of the moral responsibility of a superpower. However, the next move was widely discussed as to whether the US should take part in the annexation of the islands. The opposing parties differed greatly but agreed on the fact that the US was a divine messenger responsible for bringing freedom, democracy, and the white Protestant culture to the world. The book God’s Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898-1902 examines the critical role played by religion and racial bias in the appropriation of the Philippines during and after the Spanish-American War. As mentioned, Americans believed that they had a celestial obligation to bring freedom to the entire world. Harris incorporates research material from a wide variety of resources: letters, poems, speeches, and textbooks. For instance, he includes Mark Twain’s anti-imperialist essays, the Bible, congressional debates, evangelical fiction, and literature from children’s textbooks. All texts are adequately used to support different arguments. She uses several American textbooks as resources that are monumental in the development of American identity. The writings of Fredrick Douglass are used as a demonstration of the successful application of education in the molding of American identities. The book is organized into three major sections for clarity: American narratives, creating citizens, and the eyes of the world.

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In the book, Harris argues that all the parties involved held a similar belief that the US was divinely mandated to model freedom in the world. Moreover, they shared the contradictory idea that only Anglo-Saxon Protestants could spearhead and fulfill such an enormous mission. In that regard, two arguments can be presented. First, the United States was responsible for the annexation of the Philippines since its Catholic population that was predominantly dark-skinned needed to be educated on matters of Christianity. Second, it can be argued that maybe the United States was not responsible and should have refrained from interfering in the affairs of the archipelago because the mission necessitated a religious homogeneity that could have caused rifts between blacks and whites, as well as Catholics and Protestants. The principal arguments in the book include the role played by the US, religious rhetoric, national identity, and the integration of republican ideologies with Protestantism and essentialism’s perspectives of racial difference. Harris uses epigraphs effectively to emphasize the religious ideologies that dominated imperialism debates. They show how the opponents and proponents of expansionism relied on the idea of “manifest destiny” to support America’s mission.

The book is a great resource because it explores the development of American national identity from the perspective of religious teachings, and exposes inherent contradictions. Harris abdicates the proclivity by writers to favor the US about its interactions with other global entities. She devotes the section “The Eyes of the World” to the diverse opinions and reactions of people outside the US geopolitical boundaries (Europe and Latin America) about the appropriation of the Philippines (Harris 2011). The author’s prose is clear and captivating, even though it requires an educated reader to fully enjoy the text and understand its themes. A major strength of the book is that the author does not assume that readers are conversant with the numerous theories and hypotheses that are used. Therefore, she explains the different economic and sociological theories incorporate in each section for enhanced comprehension. Harris invites the reader to recognize the pervasiveness of the God-mandated mission to spread freedom amidst opposing political ideologies. Mark Twain is a key figure in the book because of his views on imperialism. Initially, he was for the annexation of the Philippines but later changed his stand by arguing that the move betrayed the principles that the US promoted.

The book has three main strengths. First, Harris’s unbiased exploration of religious rhetoric and the role of religion in the Philippine-American War is commendable. The discussion attracts the attention of the reader because it is provocative. Future research could focus on the intersections of various Christian denominations and politics. Second, the wide array of resources used offers the reader an opportunity to explore the opinions of individuals in other parts of the world. Third, the author’s accounts expose the contradictions and weaknesses of the US as an imperial power, especially with its move to annex the Philippines. America’s national identity could have been the force behind its actions as a global imperial power. One of its weaknesses is the superficial discussion of Twain’s ideas of imperialism. She disregards the importance of exploring his actions to keep some of his views private and publish others.

The book is a great academic resource that I can recommend to other people. It promotes earlier analyses of imperialism by integrating religion with race. Its arguments and discussions are interdisciplinary, and it explores the ideologies of the conquerors and the conquered. In that regard, it is anti-elitist as it represents the perspectives of various groups of people with disregard to socioeconomic class, race, or status. It uses language that is easy to comprehend, thus accessible to the contemporary reader.


Harris, S. K. (2011). God’s arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898-1902. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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