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Raymond Haberski, Jr. Headshot

Mitt Romney and a Theology of American Exceptionalism

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"Let me make this very clear," Mitt Romney declared in a speech he gave at the Citadel in 2011. "As President of the United States, I will devote myself to an American Century. And I will never, ever apologize for America."

Indeed, and that is a serious problem.

I am not naïve enough to imagine that for a presidential candidate humility will ever be a trait to trumpet. The specter of Jimmy Carter still looms over those who aspire to sit in the Oval Office. Thus we cannot be surprised that Romney used his most important speech on foreign affairs to affirm his belief in American Exceptionalism. "I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world," Romney told his audience in an attempt to distinguish himself from President Obama's statement (of fact) that many countries have their own versions of exceptionalism. "We are a people who, in the language of our Declaration of Independence, hold certain truths to be self-evident: namely, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. It is our belief in the universality of these unalienable rights that leads us to our exceptional role on the world stage, that of a great champion of human dignity and human freedom." In short, the United States is good, great and under God.

Like his fellow Neocon exponent, former president George W. Bush, Romney's misguided understanding of the American founding turns a unique historical moment (as every moment is) into a normative claim about the nation's exceptional character. In a witty and biting 2007 piece for World Affairs, essayist David Rieff called this kind of logic a "theology of American exceptionalism": "At its most extreme, this faith -- and it is faith in the sense of being a religious rather a political construct -- can lead to the claim ... that the United States is an 'inherently' good country."

To put it another way, America is so exceptional that even in failure -- Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, to name a few -- it still succeeds because it is, at base (in its soul) good.

Is there an alternative to this tradition of hubris? Reinhold Niebuhr, the great Protestant theologian of the early Cold War, thought so and he believed another kind of theology might help. Niebuhr offered a post-exceptional view of America in what is still perhaps his most popular book, "The Irony of American History" (1952). After surveying his era's troubled world affairs -- from international communism to nuclear weapons -- Niebuhr turned to a civil religion espoused by Abraham Lincoln. Niebuhr believed that Lincoln's "combination of moral resoluteness about the immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning and judgment must be regarded as almost a perfect model of the difficult but not impossible task of remaining loyal and responsible toward the moral treasures of a free civilization on the one hand while yet having some religious vantage point over the struggle." Niebuhr believed that religion could bring perspective to an exceptionalist view of the nation.

Mitt Romney is a man of faith and so it seems sensible to ask if his faith might provide a "religious awareness of another dimension." In short, how might Romney's Mormonism matter?

Like the Old Testament, the Book of Mormon is filled with scenes of war and parables about fighting, struggling and sacrificing. Patrick Mason, a leading light among scholars of Mormon history, explains that Mormonism has a just war theory and its leading prophet (for whom the book is named) saw war as both an evil but necessary and even glorious. The prophet's "willingness to canonize both pacifist martyrs and Christian warriors within a few pages of one another leaves us with no clear and consistent message about which path is most appropriate for a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, in the face of violent conflict." Yet, as with most religious traditions, the paradox of war grow less complicated when a church confronts military action.

Since the Spanish-American War, Mormons have followed a tradition of accommodation toward American military efforts. The Mormon church, like other millennialist faiths, often viewed wars over the last 100 years as signs in the temporal struggle to realize God's will in the world. In other words, Mason writes, "loyalty to the state has typically drowned out discussions of any fundamental moral problems that may arise as a result of such loyalty." Romney's Mormonism, like Bush's Methodism, does not automatically provide a substantially different understanding of American exceptionalism. How, then, will Romney's faith matter?

Consider Romney along side two former presidents, one of whom he imagines he is most alike and the other whom he is most similar to. In his speech at the Citadel, Romney echoed the memorable spirit of Ronald Reagan's foreign policy, citing Reagan's "Peace through Strength" as his motto as well. Yet, while Reagan could sound religious and garnered support from the Christian right, he ultimately founded his policies on optimism, not faith. When it came to matters of war, Reagan was no millennialist -- he was not confident that America would "win" the Cold War. He feared the terrible danger nuclear weapons posed and worked to avoid embroiling American troops in a Vietnam-like hot war. Reagan's optimism was decidedly this-worldly; idealistic, yes, given to flights of religious imagery, sure, but at base it was designed to counter the pessimism and cynicism born of the debacles of Vietnam and Watergate.

In contrast to Reagan, George W. Bush had real faith - -religion mattered to him in ways that it never did to Reagan. On the surface, Bush seemed to share Reagan's optimism in America. But Bush was not merely optimistic, he was confident. He imagined that because he led a nation under the judgment of a God he understood, he had an obligation to drive that nation toward extraordinary accomplishments. The War on Terror, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq existed nearly outside of history for Bush; where Reagan saw nuclear weapons and the legacy of Vietnam as reasons to want to end the Cold War, Bush saw the American past as pretext for moral achievements in war -- all war. In his 2003 State of the Union Address, Bush revealed his axis of faith and foreign policy: "We Americans have faith in ourselves, but no in ourselves alone. We do not know -- we do not claim to know all the ways of providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life and all of history." As David Rieff observed, such a vision of America drifts away the political arriving squarely in the religious.

And this is Mitt Romney's vision as well: his faith is in a confidence to trust forces he does not need to see. Whether it is the abstraction of the market or a theology of American expceptionalism, Romney's Mormon faith undergirds his exceptionalist view of America. Like Bush, he is, at base, confident in his understanding of God.

"God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers," Romney asserts "...I will never, ever apologize for America."

Fair enough -- Romney is not Jimmy Carter; as Ari Berman argues, he is a Neocon.

As Patrick Mason explains, the Mormon church has with in it the resources to temper such confidence. But that tradition, like the one Niebuhr identified with Lincoln, will prove unsatisfying to Romney. Like George W. Bush, Romney abides by a theology of American exceptionalism not despite his religious faith but because of it. It is a familiar combination.