GOP Presidential Hopefuls Are Alienating the Rest of the World by Fusing Christian Superiority with Blatant Revisionist American History
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Generations of American politicians have long proclaimed the United States the greatest nation in the world to win over voters. And it very often works.
Now a new breed of Republican leaders -- politicians like former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Sen. Jim DeMint, Rep. Mike Pence and Sen. Marco Rubio -- are working overtime to reclaim the well-worn idea of "American exceptionalism" as their own.
Rather than using a traditional “we’re number one” cheer, however, these and other GOP leaders, all potential 2012 contenders, have created a new hybrid narrative, one that fuses blatantly religious ideology with fiscal conservatism. While it’s a practical tactic for securing elections here at home, this brand of American greatness puts our nation in a precarious international position.
Tea Party leaders are fusing a notion of Christian superiority with revisionist American history to create a new exceptionalist narrative. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who led the Tea Party insurgency in the midterm elections for U.S. Senate, proclaimed the Tea Party movement to be a “spiritual renewal” in an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network. And in a November 2010, speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Mike Pence of Indiana, who is said to be exploring a White House bid, made an explicit connection between American free enterprise, exceptionalism and Christianity.
"The free market is what made America’s economy the greatest in the world," Pence declared. "To renew American exceptionalism, we must recognize that our present crisis is not merely economic, but moral in nature... As we seek to build national wealth, we must renew our commitment to the institutions that nurture the character of our people -- traditional family and religion.”
DeMint, meanwhile, offered his own take on the same idea: "You cannot be a real fiscal conservative if you do not understand the value of a culture that’s based on values," DeMint said in his speech at the Values Voter Summit in September. "When you have a big government, you’re going to have a little God. You’re going to have fewer values and morals...."
And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also a GOP presidential hopeful, had this to say last August: "To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.” In these politicians’ collective view, exceptionalism isn't only about our country's unique character; it's a divine calling.
Pastor Tony Campolo, the liberal evangelical preacher who served as an adviser to former President Bill Clinton, told Newsweek's Lisa Miller, "The marriage between evangelicalism and patriotic nationalism is so strong that anybody who is raising questions about loyalty to the old, laissez-faire capitalist system is ex post facto unpatriotic, un-American and by association non-Christian." Fiscal and social conservatism have become one.
Nowhere has the alignment of American exceptionalism and right-wing Christian theology been more dangerous than in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Since the free market includes the entire globe, conservatives claim, our biblically inspired, capitalism-driven democratic values must be exported, an idea that threatens our international standing.
It’s this theology that drives the international exploits of a secretive group of Capitol Hill elites -- including Jim DeMint and Mike Pence -- known alternately as the Fellowship or the Family. The Family made rare headlines last year, when it was revealed the group had supported the Ugandan lawmakers who proposed an anti-LGBT bill that would make certain practices punishable by death.
The organization also operates the C Street House in Washington, where, according to Jeff Sharlet, author of C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, DeMint is "ideologically influential." And that ideology, as the senator told the right-wing magazine, World, in August 2009, includes the belief that "[t]he decline of America's power and prestige has been directly related to the secularization of our country."
But the Family’s influence on U.S foreign policy doesn’t begin or end in Uganda, or on the subject of LGBT rights. The group has also helped former Somali dictator Siad Barre buy arms, and facilitated U.S. support for various other despots, including Indonesia’s Haji Muhammad Suharto and Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti. And now the Family’s congressional members are ascendant in the U.S. Capitol; most of them are allied with the Tea Party movement, and in an unprecedented position to shape our nation’s policy.
Still, the Family and its members don’t have a monopoly on American exceptionalism-spouting evangelicalism, even in Uganda.
Huckabee likewise has links to the forces behind the African nation’s “kill the gays” bill, thanks to his friendship with Rev. Lou Engle, an outspoken opponent of LGBT people who last year, at the height of the controversy, invited one of the bill’s foremost proponents, Pastor Julius Oyet, onto the stage at a revival he headlined in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala.
Meanwhile, in Florida, Tea Party insurgent Marco Rubio of Florida shaped his electoral stump speech around the idea of American exceptionalism, a theme he trumpeted again during his victory speech, insisting, “The vast majority of [Americans believe] that the United States of America is simply the single greatest nation in all of human history, a place without equal in the history of all mankind.”
And, like his party peers, Rubio’s Christian Americanism has worrisome roots: Glenn Beck's "historian" friend David Barton, leader of the conservative Christian group Wallbuilders, which frequently questions the validity of global warming and contends that church and state were never meant to be separated.
"Christianity is the religion that shaped America and made her what she is today," Barton wrote on his Web site. "In fact, historically speaking, it can be irrefutably demonstrated that Biblical Christianity in America produced many of the cherished traditions still enjoyed today."
Huckabee, too, has ties to Barton, whom he calls "maybe the greatest living historian on the spiritual nature of America's early days, and Palin draws inspiration from Barton’s revisionist history, claiming that the Founding Fathers never meant to separate church and state.
The former Alaska governor, whose ignorance of foreign policy was famously revealed during her 2008 run for the vice presidency, waded into the international arena recently by embarking on a "humanitarian mission" to earthquake-ravaged Haiti's cholera camps. Though some suggested that Palin wanted to bolster her foreign policy credentials ahead of a 2012 run, she insisted her presence was simply part of her obligation as a good American. "We are so fortunate in America,” she said, “and we are responsible for helping those less fortunate."
The trip wasn't simply about spreading love, though. It was organized by Samaritan's Purse, a Christian nonprofit headed by Rev. Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelical powerhouse Billy Graham, that come under fire for putting missionary work ahead of material assistance.
The New York Times in 2001 described Samaritan’s Purse’s religious work in the aftermath of two earthquakes in El Salvador: "An American evangelical relief group that is using private donations and United States government money to help victims of two earthquakes has blurred the line between church and state as its volunteers preach, pray and seek converts among people desperate for help," the Times reported. And leader Graham has been criticized for calling Islam a "wicked" religion.
Seen in that light, Palin's nascent foreign policy suddenly becomes less about diplomacy and more about American-made proselytizing.
The stage for the Christian-inspired notion of American exceptionalism was set, ironically enough, by a man many in the Religious Right view as a disappointment, President George W. Bush, who along with his neoconservative allies, relied on the doctrine of American exceptionalism to justify the invasion of Iraq. It’s our sacred duty to deliver democracy to the masses, the reasoning went: "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity," Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address.
But Bush’s crusade to spread that purportedly divine gift ended up looking a lot more like imperialism than exceptionalism, costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives, stretching our military capabilities and tarnishing our nation's name.
"The administration's belief in its own good motives explains much of its failure to anticipate the highly negative international reaction to the war," wrote Francis Fukuyama in his book, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy. The former president’s model, emulated by today’s GOP leaders, remains flawed, putting too much faith in a presumed destiny, and not enough in pragmatic cooperation.
Perhaps more dangerous than depleted military resources are accusations that we wield our military might for religious reasons, as happened during the Bush administration, when the president’s foreign policy memos came complete with Biblical passages.
And, yes, the image of Bush as a missionary had a detrimental impact on our foreign standing: U.S. approval rating fell below 50 percent among the populations of longtime allies France, Germany and Spain, and took a particularly devastating hit in Arab nations, where our ratings plummeted to the single digits and people regularly complained of American jingoism.
Proclamations of America’s singularity began even before the nation's founding, when, in 1630, preacher John Winthrop, drawing on the New Testament Book of Matthew, told Puritans en route to colonial Massachusetts, "We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."
But "American exceptionalism” didn’t always convey America’s greatness. The term, attributed to French theorist Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic work Democracy in America, simply corresponded with the unique set of circumstances, like our geographical isolation and wide open spaces, that allowed our nation’s evolution. "The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional,” wrote Tocqueville, “and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one."
President Barack Obama appears to know this history of the exceptional idea, and used it to help spread his message of American humility on the international stage, a move that won applause from allies and recriminations from Tea Party Republicans. "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism," Obama told the Financial Times of London in 2009. "We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional."
Reacting to the president, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came out swinging. "President Obama's secular socialist philosophy is profoundly in conflict with the heart of the American system and is a repudiation of the core lessons of American history," Gingrich contended at Liberty University last October. “[American exceptionalism is] a term which relates directly to our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God.”
Furthermore, Gingrich likened those who don’t agree with his perspective, tacitly including President Obama, to Cold War-era Soviets, saying, “We have not had such an important national conversation about basic realities and basic truths since the late 1940s. In the period 1946-1950 [when] Americans had to come to grips with an existential threat to their very survival as a free people.”
Gingrich wasn’t the first of these men and women to draw a parallel between Democrats like Obama and socialist Soviets, of course. Jim DeMint also tried to discredit Obama on the grounds of American exceptionalim. "We now see all too clearly that the hope and change the Democrats had in mind was nothing more than a retread of the failed and discredited socialist policies that have been the enemy of freedom for centuries all over the world," DeMint told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2010.
Conservatives’ collective misreading of Obama's exceptionalism ignores one of the commander-in-chief's key comments to the Financial Times: "I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world toward peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."
The president has a valid point: the days of the American empire have passed. No matter what leaders on the Right want to believe, our demands and chest-puffing no longer yield the foreign policy results to which we’ve grown accustomed. As a waning superpower, we need as many friends as possible. And the exclusionary religious and fiscal brand of American exceptionalism that DeMint, Pence, Palin and colleagues are championing may further alienate our allies -- just when we need them most.