Based on the last two posts, it’s pretty much obvious that conservatives base the pathos of their rhetoric in the Christian lexicon. But it doesn’t really explain how the roots of exceptionalism lie in religious language and thought. For that I’d have to turn to one of two books (the other of which is not around right now, and I’ll use it later in a post about the Israel myth and America’s role in it). Richard Hughes is a great writer who basically destroyed the myth of a “Christian America” in his appropriately named “Christian America and the Kingdom of God.” In this and other books of his, he identifies and analyzes several claims, including that America is a “chosen nation”. This is a nationalistic myth that’s been repeated many times over around the world; from the Third Riech to “Rule, Britannia!” and further back. Any nation with imperialistic aspirations has to justify it’s intentions and even its existence with mythological overtones that tie it to deeper cultural roots for greater significance (something I discussed in the previous post). I would argue especially the United States: as the country has no significant cultural identity it hasn’t appropriated from outside itself, aside from the Hollywood creation of the “Old West”and the WASP dominated homogeneity of the 40s and 50s. While there are significant American cultural achivements such as jazz, baseball, and some literary and artistic movements, none of them are as identifiable with the country as they are with the people who inspired them, all of whom were influenced and led by forces outside the country. And some would argue that’s true of everything; nobody lives in a vaccum. But I digress!
The chosen nation myth, Hughes writes, has been repeated from the Puritans to the present day. William Tyndale was a biblical translator that lived in the 1500s who found the twin themes of covenant and chosen people especially compelling; that God would bless those who honored “Him” (I use the language of the day) , and smite those who disobeyed. He felt this applied to England, and the concept stuck with the Christians who made a literal exodus to the colonies. A national coveneant is central to the theme of the old testament, and “New England Puritans typically understood themselves as God’s New Israel”, led out of bondage into the promise land. Amazing that the anti-semites of old England likened themselves to the Jews and Jeruselam through their hymns (” And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon Englands mountains green”) and religiousness, as an exceptional kingdom beset by enemies (the continent & everybody else).
Hughes reflects how “numerous New Testament passages redefined the meaning of chosen to point not to Israel alone, but to all in every nation.” American ministers and politicians ignored this as it failed to suit their purposes, and men like Albert J. Beveridge, senator of Indiana, used Christian justification to support imperialist agression, in the United States and Teddy Roosevelt’s annexation of the Philipeans in the early 1900s. As cited by Hughes, he said
God has not been preparing the English-speaing and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration… he made us master organizers of the world to establish systems where chaos reigned… and of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.
The “redemption” of the Phillipeans included the Moro Crater Massacre, in which more than 600 unarmed Muslim villagers (including many women and children) were slaughtered by American troops. God’s will (at least according to Beveridge) was indeed furious, to put it mildly.
To jump ahead, a similarly selfish and ignorant justification existed when Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize recently – although he has done a great deal to avoid promoting American exceptionalism, he said
I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear. Pent-up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence. We also know that the opposite is true. Only when Europe became free did it finally find peace. America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. No matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests — nor the world’s — are served by the denial of human aspirations. So even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal.
These statements, although in oposition to the blatant patriotic fervor of Bush, still echo an Americentric perspective (which is natural for an American president to have!), but more seriously, ignore a long and rich history of underhanded aggression motivated by personal and selfish interests – whether they be strategic, economic, or containing ulterior goals (such as the many, many “externalities” of cold war interference for the sake of global posturing with Russia. Obama is honest when he links the “denial of human aspirations” to America’s interests. As Coolidge said, the business of America is business, and as I’d extrapolate from that, expansive neoliberal globalization is closely related towards an individual’s ability to be manipulated by those open markets. We are not so much worried with the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (at least 869,720 deaths as of Feb 16, 2010 according to this site) as we are with the economic liberties and opportunities of the markets there. That’s why a corrupt, US approved government is so important.
There’s more to write on this, but limited abilities with which to do so. Most important is to remember that American exceptionalism is a nationalistic tactic that will always extend to US interests regardles of their implications, and to a lesser extent, the behavior of allies such as Israel, the UK, and so forth.