That same dispute divides liberals and conservatives regarding the rise and the role of the United States. On the right, there’s a much stronger tendency to credit the notion of America as a “heaven rescued land” (in the words of The Star Spangled Banner), and to see evidence of Divine favor in the emergence of the world’s most powerful civilization in a corner of North America which, a mere 400 years ago, counted as perhaps the least developed portion of the planet.
For liberals, however, the idea that God decreed prosperity and prominence for the United States smacks of swaggering jingoism, and imperialist arrogance. They are far more likely to see America’s success as the result of good luck, or even rapacity and ruthlessness, rather than the consequence of Providential intervention.
One of the moment’s most emotional debates centers on the related notion of “American exceptionalism”: does our country represent a uniquely blessed, beneficial development in human history, or a flawed nation state like many others, displaying a maddening mix of admirable and appalling characteristics? A recent Gallup poll asked respondents whether other nations of the world should follow America’s example: Republicans overwhelming said “yes” while Democrats split evenly on the proposition.
Conservatives felt outraged when President Obama declared that he believes in American exceptionalism only in the same sense “the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” As Sarah Palin sneers in her new book, America By Heart, “Which is to say, he doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism at all. He seems to think it is just a kind of irrational prejudice in favor of our way of life.”
While neither Obama nor Palin has ever provided definitive discourse on their view of life on other worlds, it’s easy to imagine the president maintaining a more open attitude than the former Alaska governor. If you believe that the United States is utterly unique in human history, an unprecedented and potently purposeful experiment under higher power protection, then it follows that earth itself enjoys similarly singular status, freakishly favored within a lonely universe. On the other hand, the suspicion that America counts as only the latest in a long succession of rising and falling world powers can easily co-exist with assumptions that our planet joins countless other centers of intelligent life in a teeming cosmos.
A liberal slant in politics or policy doesn’t make you an automatic believer in extraterrestrial visitors, any more than a conservative worldview compels the insistence that human beings will never discover other-worldly counterparts. But an impassioned affirmation of American exceptionalism naturally connects to comparable assumptions of earthly exceptionalism, and helps define one of the most significant but least noted divisions defining the current gulf between right and left.