For American politicians, claiming that “the United States is the greatest nation in [the history of] the world” is just as much of a requisite as professing a religious belief. For, while (pace the old saying) there maybe plenty of atheists in foxholes (if today’s fighting forces still use foxholes), there are none, at least admitted ones, in American capitols, executive mansions and city halls.
There is, of course, a nexus between the two beliefs: America is the greatest nation because God willed it so, and it is so regardless of the ungreat facts of the American past (slavery, indigenocide) and present (social and economic inequality, militarism).
But there are differences. American religiosity tends to be of the tolerant variety. Except for some extremists among traditionalist Christians (as well as fundamentalist Muslims and ultra-orthodox Jews), religious Americans generally profess respect for other religions. And faith is essentially an expression of humility, being the acknowledgment of a power (however personalized) higher than oneself.
The so-called American exceptionalism is another matter. It is, for one thing, absolute. President Obama was once criticized for relativizing it by comparing it to the putative exceptionalism of other nations, but he is now seen as having embraced it.
For another thing, it is a blatant expression of pride. And here’s my problem: most religious Americans are Christians. In Christianity, regardless of sect, pride is one of the seven deadly sins, along with lust, gluttony etcetera. But when an American politician gets caught acting on, say, lust, he (it’s usually he, except perhaps Helen Chenoweth) asks for forgiveness (from God and/or spouse). Expressing nationalistic pride, on the other hand, requires no apology. It is done, well, proudly.
I wonder if some day a journalist, when facing a politician spouting a prideful assertion of American exceptionalism, will ask: “But aren’t you a Christian? And isn’t pride a sin?”