Religion & Public Life
Your link can go here
Your link can go here

Rogue exceptionalism

Deconstructing Sarah Palin’s rhetoric

By Bruce T. Murray
Author, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective


In her public speeches, Sarah Palin often espouses an ideology known as “American exceptionalism” — the idea that the United States occupies a unique place in the world that represents, what Palin calls, a “perfect ideal.”

During her Oct. 2, 2008 debate with Joe Biden, Palin said she shared “that world view that says that America is a nation of exceptionalism. And we are to be that ‘shining city on a hill,’ as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope and that we are unapologetic here. We are not perfect as a nation. But together, we represent a perfect ideal.”

One the one hand, this rhetoric might be viewed as idealistic, or even commonplace. The imagery of America as a “city on a hill,” as Palin attributes to Reagan, goes back to colonial times; and American politicians – Barack Obama included – have been conjuring it ever since.

Palin's rhetoric also raises a number of problems: She fuses and jumbles several ideologies and sentiments – including civil religion, patriotism, anti-socialism – under the “exceptionalist” rubric, and in the process, panders to baser political impulses. Following her “unapologetic” train of thought, Palin casts suspicion on people she deems to be outside the “perfect ideal” – or those who don't buy into this view.

“We see America as the greatest force for good in this world. Our opponent though, is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country,” Palin said at an Oct. 4, 2008 campaign rally.

The underlying message here is not a transcendent vision of America, but the division of America into opposing camps: believers and un-believers; real Americans and un-Americans; us and them. Such divisive rhetoric reduces politics to its most primitive, tribal impulse: “You're not one of us.”

In terms of its ideological basis, Palin's rhetoric of American exceptionalism is to be distinguished from a related national ethos known as civil religion – the view that America has a unique mission in the world, sanctioned by God, representing “a light to all nations.” American civil religion does indeed contain within it an element of exceptionalism, making it easy to confuse the two. Civil religion, however, does not place the nation beyond apology; and indeed, civil religion has been used to call the nation to account on its shortcomings.

Although Palin liberally appropriates the language of civil religion into her rhetoric – such as the reference to a “city on a hill” – placing this in the context of an exceptionalist ideology contradicts the spirit of civil religion.

Read more about civil religion in the University of Massachusetts Press book, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective by Bruce T. Murray. The book includes a chapter on civil religion – tracing this phenomena from colonial times right up to the 2008 presidential election campaign.

Notes on American exceptionalism

‘The only religious, enlightened and free people’

“For the last fifty years no pains have been spared to convince the inhabitants of the United States that they are the only religious, enlightened, and free people. They perceive that, for the present, their own democratic institutions prosper, while those of other countries fail; hence they conceive a high opinion of their superiority and are not very remote from believing themselves to be a distinct species of mankind.” — Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

‘When the president does it, it is not illegal’

Richard Nixon brought the logic of American exceptionalism to his version of the “unitary power of the president.”

Notes on civil religion

News updates

‘The exceptional nature of America’

“We're not educating our youth about the exceptional nature of America. For America to survive, we've got to pass that on to the next generation.” — Sarah Palin, June 25, 2010 at California State University Stanislaus

Palin to get $75,000 for Cal State Stanislaus speech

Cal State fights release of documents on Palin speech

Cal State Stanislaus president says Palin papers stolen

Calif. Atty. Gen. launches probe into Cal State Stanislaus foundation over Palin event

Cal State Stanislaus foundation refuses to divulge fees for Palin speech

Palin canny on religion and politics


Hate Sarah Palin? She loves that

“Palin is playing that same card on the gamble that anti-elitism will trump her own inexperience, incompetence and lack of knowledge. She knows that the more pundits harp on these so-called deficiencies, and the more the media cover it, the more she can claim that they are really just engaging in an old sport: expressing contempt for ordinary Americans, of which she is the self-proclaimed political exemplar.” — Neal Gabler, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 29, 2009

Rogue like Jesse Jackson?

“For years the clergyman and civil rights activist spoke to the most viscerally committed factions of the Democratic base in a way no other political figure did. Sarah Palin appears to be something similar. ... Her connection to her base is grounded in a common set of resentments and grievances, a sense of being always on the defensive. All that runs through Going Rogue like a thread.” — Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 17, 2009

Palin the political chameleon

“Sarah Palin has a talent for reinvention. Since her first campaign in 1992, she's gone through a wardrobe full of political personas. Study her career and you count no less than five different identities: Sarah the culture warrior, Sarah the watchdog, Sarah the reformer, Sarah the veep and now, Sarah the celebrity.” — Matthew Continetti, Los Angeles. Times, Nov. 18, 2009

No ‘there’ there

“There is no Palin movement – or organization of any depth and substance. There is no Palin philosophy beyond bromides about smaller government, the evils of abortion and the dangers of popular culture (which, right this moment, is making her a rich woman). While she easily won election as governor of Alaska in 2006, her victory was built largely on her fresh, attractive face and her predecessor's unpopularity.” — Michael Carey, L.A. Times, Nov. 18, 2009

Politics as Religion

“Perhaps the single most profound change in our political culture over the last 30 years has been the transformation of conservatism from a political movement, with all the limitations, hedges and forbearances of politics, into a kind of fundamentalist religious movement, with the absolute certainty of religious belief.” — Neal Gabler, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 2, 2009

Hope in ‘Palinism’

“If there's any hope, and there always is, their denial of global warming gives them away, shows that underneath the death cult they're scared, and that fear in its way is proof of their humanity. Science scares them, because they're afraid of being lost in the leap of imagination to reconcile faith and science. Their fear stupefies them, and they fear the loss of God and the fall into chaos if science is right; they're too nervous to consider that science is fact and religion is poetry and that there can still be a God, but that he leaves science to us and reserves for himself the right to make up stories and delight himself with metaphor.” — Michael Tolkin, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 20, 2009