In the United States, despite a Constitution that mandates the separation of church and state, religion and politics have become inseparable. To lend authority to their views, presidential aspirants of both parties regularly press God into service. They know what he intends.
So the claims made by Republican front-runner Mitt Romney in a recent speech at the Citadel managed to be both striking and unexceptionable. "God did not create this country to be a nation of followers," Romney announced. "America must lead the world." Absent the "clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place," with freedom itself in jeopardy. To avert this catastrophe, Romney declared, "this century must be an American century," with the United States economically preeminent and wielding "the strongest military in the world."
Whence do these insights derive? "Why should America be any different than scores of other countries around the globe?" Romney asked rhetorically. His answer captures the essence of our present-day civic religion: "I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world."
The Hebrew Bible provides no evidence to support this proposition. Nor do the teachings of Jesus Christ and his disciples. Yet the American Bible incorporates a de facto Third Testament, which validates this assertion of American uniqueness. That testament, fashioned from a carefully tailored rendering of the 20th century, recounts the story of a new chosen people serving as God's instrument of salvation, leading humankind onward to the promised land.
For anyone aspiring to high office, professing fealty to this Third Testament has become all but obligatory. And Romney took care to do so in his Citadel speech. Genuflecting before the "generations that fought in world wars, that came through the Great Depression and that gained victory in the Cold War," he summoned his listeners to "seize the torch" their forebears had held aloft, continuing the inexorable advance toward "freedom, peace and prosperity." This, he made clear, defines America's calling, one to which citizens of all religious persuasions (or none at all) can subscribe.
"This is America's moment," Romney insisted. He likened those who disagree to Third Testament villains, proposing that the nation should "crawl into an isolationist shell" and "wave the white flag of surrender," acquiescing in the claim that "America's time has passed." All of this Romney dismissed as "utter nonsense."
Now duty confers prerogatives. And God's elect are not bound by rules to which others must submit. Among other things, they need not admit error. "I will never, ever apologize for America," Romney promised. Apologies imply misjudgments, mistakes or wrongdoing, none of which figure in the Third Testament's depiction of a nation unsullied by malign intent or sordid action.
Above all, the United States need not apologize for its pursuit of permanent military supremacy or for its propensity for violence. "When America is strong," Romney declared, "the world is safer." The post-Cold War era, with unquestioned U.S. military preeminence going hand in hand with widespread disorder, offers little to substantiate this proposition. Even so, an insistence that American military power and its application are conducive to peace remains one of the Third Testament's central tenets. So, whereas a single Chinese aircraft carrier poses a looming danger, a dozen American aircraft carriers make the U.S. Navy a global force for good. A brief Russian incursion into Georgia threatens peace; protracted wars resulting from the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan advance it.
In his Citadel speech, Romney said nothing that a thousand politicians and pundits have not already said a thousand times and will say again. The significance of his presentation lies not in its originality but in its familiarity. Are Mormons really Christians? Romney has rendered the question moot. In all the ways that count politically, he has shown himself to be a true believer, committed to a faith-based approach to statecraft.
No leading contender for the Republican nomination will challenge the positions that Romney laid out. After all, they share his certain knowledge that God has designated America as his earthly agent. They endorse Romney's emphasis on enhancing U.S. military power as the key to perpetuating an American century. And they mirror his lack of interest in the world as it is, indulging instead the pretense that it's still 1945.
The eventual Republican nominee, whoever that may be, will argue that President Obama believes none of these things — hence his unworthiness for a second term. For his part, the president will exert himself to prove otherwise. As he has done before, Obama will signal his own allegiance to militant exceptionalism, offered as positive proof that he is authentically American. Rival messianic visions will compete.
Most experts expect bread-and-butter issues to decide the upcoming election. Yet regardless of the final outcome, the real winner is going to be the concept of American exceptionalism. Whoever takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2013, will be someone who believes in the American Bible's Third Testament. In that regard — whether for better or worse — the outcome appears foreordained. One might even say that God wills it.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the editor of "The Short American Century: A Postmortem," to be published next year.