American Exceptionalism: The Third Testament

American Exceptionalism: The Third Testament November 3, 2011

Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, had a really compelling op-ed piece in the LA Times a couple weeks about the concept of American exceptionalism and how it has become a necessary position for any politician. He looks at the issue as one of Christian nationalism, but with no support at all in the Bible.

So the claims made by Republican front-runner Mitt Romney in a recent speech at the Citadel managed to be both striking and unexceptionable. “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers,” Romney announced. “America must lead the world.” Absent the “clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place,” with freedom itself in jeopardy. To avert this catastrophe, Romney declared, “this century must be an American century,” with the United States economically preeminent and wielding “the strongest military in the world.”

Whence do these insights derive? “Why should America be any different than scores of other countries around the globe?” Romney asked rhetorically. His answer captures the essence of our present-day civic religion: “I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world.”

The Hebrew Bible provides no evidence to support this proposition. Nor do the teachings of Jesus Christ and his disciples. Yet the American Bible incorporates a de facto Third Testament, which validates this assertion of American uniqueness. That testament, fashioned from a carefully tailored rendering of the 20th century, recounts the story of a new chosen people serving as God’s instrument of salvation, leading humankind onward to the promised land.

For anyone aspiring to high office, professing fealty to this Third Testament has become all but obligatory. And Romney took care to do so in his Citadel speech. Genuflecting before the “generations that fought in world wars, that came through the Great Depression and that gained victory in the Cold War,” he summoned his listeners to “seize the torch” their forebears had held aloft, continuing the inexorable advance toward “freedom, peace and prosperity.” This, he made clear, defines America’s calling, one to which citizens of all religious persuasions (or none at all) can subscribe…

Now duty confers prerogatives. And God’s elect are not bound by rules to which others must submit. Among other things, they need not admit error. “I will never, ever apologize for America,” Romney promised. Apologies imply misjudgments, mistakes or wrongdoing, none of which figure in the Third Testament’s depiction of a nation unsullied by malign intent or sordid action.

Above all, the United States need not apologize for its pursuit of permanent military supremacy or for its propensity for violence. “When America is strong,” Romney declared, “the world is safer.” The post-Cold War era, with unquestioned U.S. military preeminence going hand in hand with widespread disorder, offers little to substantiate this proposition. Even so, an insistence that American military power and its application are conducive to peace remains one of the Third Testament’s central tenets. So, whereas a single Chinese aircraft carrier poses a looming danger, a dozen American aircraft carriers make the U.S. Navy a global force for good. A brief Russian incursion into Georgia threatens peace; protracted wars resulting from the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan advance it…

No leading contender for the Republican nomination will challenge the positions that Romney laid out. After all, they share his certain knowledge that God has designated America as his earthly agent. They endorse Romney’s emphasis on enhancing U.S. military power as the key to perpetuating an American century. And they mirror his lack of interest in the world as it is, indulging instead the pretense that it’s still 1945.

The eventual Republican nominee, whoever that may be, will argue that President Obama believes none of these things — hence his unworthiness for a second term. For his part, the president will exert himself to prove otherwise. As he has done before, Obama will signal his own allegiance to militant exceptionalism, offered as positive proof that he is authentically American. Rival messianic visions will compete.

He does ignore Ron Paul, who will be the only major Republican contender to not use such rhetoric and to be opposed to nearly all foreign military adventures. Indeed, he has spoken loudly and often about the effect of America’s interference in the rest of the world and how it fuels terrorism and anti-American sentiment. But Ron Paul isn’t going to get the nomination or even come close. And American exceptionalism will still be an article of faith on the right long after he is gone.

America behaves in the world like all those incredibly insecure men we have all known in our lives, the ones that feel the need to bluster and strike macho poses at every turn. The ones who makes themselves feel strong by bullying the weak and need to constantly remind themselves and others of how special and powerful they are. The kind that everyone else rolls their eyes at and wishes would just shut up.

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