A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian examines the fanatical secular religion of American exceptionalism and why it is leading government officials and the electorate astray in an increasingly violent world.
McDougall (History and International Relations/Univ. of Pennsylvania; Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1820-1877, 2008 etc.) opens with the errors of the George W. Bush presidency based on American civil religion and closes with the errors of the Barack Obama presidency based on nearly identical misguided thinking. In between, he produces a mostly chronological tour de force highlighting the eras of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. During the 1950s and ’60s, Kennedy's Catholic faith certainly generated controversy, but McDougall is more interested in the young president's invocation of civil religion to justify his democracy's manifest destiny. At his inauguration, Kennedy stated that human rights derived not from compassionate governments but rather from the power of God. As a result, on God's Earth, the United States of America was required to further God's plan of individual freedom across national borders. Later in this impressive multicentury survey, McDougall demonstrates how both of Obama's inaugural ceremonies carried the American civil religion to a more pronounced zealotry in the fevered post–9/11 atmosphere. McDougall writes with admirable passion, but he never forgets to ground that passion in rigorous scholarship. Perhaps the only flaw—if it is, indeed, a flaw—is the author’s high-flown, multisyllabic vocabulary, quite likely to send many readers to a dictionary. McDougall's scholarship does not lead him to upbeat prognostications about the future role of the U.S. in the global community. Instead, he predicts that further extensions of American exceptionalism could lead to the citizenry devouring itself on the global stage.
A book remarkable for its depth, breadth, and intellectual daring.