Recently, I was re-reading a favorite book of mine that has been on my shelf within eyesight for decades. That book is Ernest Lee Tuveson’s Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago, 1968). Though Tuveson does not use the phrase "American exceptionalism," likely because it had not yet become commonplace among American pundits and professors, he does capture the essence of that idea. The first quotation he uses, on the book’s flyleaf, hints at this point: "America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world"—Woodrow Wilson. Early in the Preface, Tuveson continues to make his point that America had seen herself as a "redeemer nation." This idea he finds in a speech by Senator Albert J. Beveridge, whom he quotes:
God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration…. And of all our race He marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.
Responds Tuveson, "Here in capsule form, are the elements of the idea I have called ‘redeemer nation.’" In the language of American exceptionalism, America’s calling as a "redeemer nation" sets it apart from other nations, and through time she was conscious of her special mission, believing that in this she was set apart from other nations, therein being "exceptional." Dozens of other books make the same point, though in recent years a few writers call the whole idea of "American exceptionalism" a myth.
Meanwhile, as I was re-reading Tuveson, a piece by the Hoover Institution’s Shelby Steele appeared in the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 28), titled, "A Referendum on the Redeemer," referring to the upcoming Nov. 2 election. Among Steele’s underlying assumptions are the following: that Americans always had hope, always had a sense of mission, always believed that they were specially blessed, and assumed they were exceptional. Then, Steele notes, came the radical social/moral revolution of the 1960s. The heart of that revolution was a rejection of the "good [not perfect] American past." In place of that, taught by radicals like William A. Williams, C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, and Saul Alinsky, was a view of America as an evil force in the world. As evidence of this, these writers listed America’s sins of omission and sins of commission, with the principal ones being slavery, failure to protect women’s rights, the Vietnam War’s alleged "imperialism," and more. During the next two decades, generations grew up thinking that it was their duty to eradicate these evils from American society. To paraphrase professor Steele, one might say that "damning" America’s past became a virtue. The result would be "progress."
Here is professor Steele’s main point: Barack Obama is the first American president with a mindset that reflects this view of America. Further, Obama has convinced himself that he is specially chosen—not by God—but by wise, awakened voters of the Left to lead this nation in a new direction. This has led to a limitless number of "reforms." Thus, Obama sees himself in messianic terms, as a "Redeemer," with a mission and a vision—to eradicate or correct the large number of evils he sees in American society, from healthcare to card check for union organizers to more. Further, in foreign policy he has made a distinct departure from tradition and begun to treat certain enemies like compatriots. His self-image also accounts for his decision to brush aside policy suggestions by others, especially Republicans, that do not square exactly with his goals. Moreover, since America’s "evil past" has been so gigantic, only the power of the federal government is big enough to erase and replace that evil.
It should be clear that the America described by professor Tuveson is different from the one envisioned by this premier "child of the ’60s."
I conclude with two more points: First, the Nov. 2, 2010 election was an instinctive rejection of the Obama vision, an instinct likely based on a deeply embedded feeling that America was more like the one Tuveson describes—something Americans instinctively know without having ever heard of Tuveson. Second, it was clear in President Obama’s Nov. 3 press conference that he did not understand that the America of Tuveson exists. The America he knows is the one deeply ingrained in his soul by radical mentors. One can only conclude, at least to date, that Obama will continue to see himself as America’s Redeemer President. Without a "conversion," odds are very high that he will be a one-term president and then sink to the bottom tier of unsuccessful and misguided presidents.
— Dr. L. John Van Til is a fellow for law & humanities with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.