The Magazine

Evil Under the Sun

Barack Obama and American exceptionalism.

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Over time, the goal would change from sectarian piety to political freedom, but the religious dimension remained. Though "the collective salvation of the community was transformed into a form of government that would protect the rights of all citizens," as law professor Steven G. Calabresi was to put it, "the idea of America as a special place with a special people called to a special mission was never to go away." As a result, the United States was formed as the first country to be built on the idea of itself as a prime moral actor, on behalf of itself, and the world. "Americans are utopian moralists who press hard to institutionalize virtue, to destroy evil people, and eliminate wicked institutions and practices," wrote Seymour Martin Lipset in his book on the subject. "As Samuel Huntington has noted, Americans give to their nation and its creed 'many of the attributes and functions of a church.' "

As much as the first settlers of the Massachusetts Bay colony, the fathers of the Revolution and then of the new federal government took it as a matter of course that they were acting not just for themselves but on behalf of humanity, and that if they fell short of their mission, they would be forever and justly disgraced. Benjamin Franklin said a failure would be "a reproach and a byword down to future ages," John Adams that it would "merit .  .  . the indignation of heaven." In 1790, when President George Washington addressed the congregation of the synagogue at Newport, Rhode Island, and embraced them as fellow parishioners of the faith of the union, it was a sign that the creed of American nationhood had transcended the limits of sectarian difference, and was accessible as a civil religion to people of all faiths and none. As the American saga progressed on its way, its unique parallels with religious tradition--the flight of the chosen from bondage to freedom; the handing down of the law (the Constitution, and the Ten Commandments); the Original Sin of slavery and the bloody passion of the Civil War, ending in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on, of all days, Good Friday--only deepened the sense of a singular destiny. And so it goes on to this day.

The great wars of our history--the Revolution, the Civil War, the World Wars, and the Cold War--the ones by which the country defined itself, involved the defense and expansion of liberty, which became as one with the nation itself. Typically, the men we remember are those who express this, and we love most those who expressed it best. Abraham Lincoln conflated the fate of the Union with the hopes of men everywhere. Elihu Root called the American soldier "different from all other soldiers of all other countries. .  .  . He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace." This was the feeling of his friend Theodore Roosevelt. In a similar utterance, Woodrow Wilson, the son of a minister, said World War I gave his country the "infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world." Franklin Roosevelt, who coined the phrase "rendez-vous with destiny" in regard to his country, said after Pearl Harbor that American force would be directed "toward ultimate good as well as against immediate evil," and declared in his last inaugural address that "[God] has given to our country a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world." Crusade in Europe was the title Dwight David Eisenhower gave to his wartime memoir. Even in the one place in which America failed, it was the genius of Martin Luther King Jr. to cast his appeal for racial equality in this aspirational context, as the step that would certify the country's greatness, by erasing its one mortal flaw. His dream was, he said, "the American dream, that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed--we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal"--a promissory note handed down from the Founders, to which Americans of all races were heirs.