It's easy to see where Romney, for example, gets his belief. Mormonism is the only all-American religion, placing Jesus in America itself ("I just got crucified, you guys"). But for Christians, the notion of God preferring one land-mass or population, apart from the Jewish people from whom the Messiah came, is obviously heretical. As a Catholic, I see no divine blessing for any country, and the notion that God would make such worldly distinctions strikes me as surreal as it did when I first wrapped my head around the phrase "Church of England". If God is God, one island on one planet in a minor galaxy is surely the same as any other, and the truth about our universe surely cannot be reduced to one country's patriotism. Yes, we can ask, as Lincoln did, for God's blessing. But seeking God's blessing is not the same as being God's country - with all the hubristic aggression that can lead to.
Some Straussians see Lincoln as the Second Founder and the abolition of slavery as the return of the West to natural rights. And it certainly seems true that in Lincoln's words and America's example, key ideas about human equality and dignity gained momentum - and you can hear those ideas today in the mouths of a new Arab generation, in a culture so alien to our own it is close to impossible to understand in its complexity. What deeper proof that these ideas are universal and true?
But this also reveals the limits of American exceptionalism. If America's ideals are universal, they cannot be reduced to the ownership of one country. And that country's actual history - as opposed to Bachmannite mythology - is as flawed as many others. Why, after all, did America need a Second Founding under Lincoln - almost a century after it was born? Which other advanced country remained so devoted to slavery until the late nineteenth century? Which other one subsequently replaced slavery with a form of grinding apartheid for another century? Besides, much of the thought that gave us the American constitution can be traced back to European thinkers, whether in Locke or Montesquieu or the Enlightenment in general. Seeing America as the sole pioneer of human freedom is to erase Britain's unique history, without which America would not exist. It is to erase the revolutionary ideas of the French republics. It's historically false.
But was the discovery of America some kind of divine Providence? The Puritans certainly thought so. And the blessing of a vast continental land mass with huge resources is certainly rare in human history. But, of course, that land mass was available so easily because of the intended and unintended genocide of those who already lived there - which takes the edge off the divine bit, don't you think? Call me crazy (and they do) but my concept of God does not allow for God's blessing of genocide as a means for one country's hegemony over the earth.
This is not to say that America doesn't remain, by virtue of its astonishing Constitution, a unique sanctuary for human freedom. ...
Sullivan took his PhD from Harvard in Political Science under Harvey Mansfield.