Messiah Complex

The United States is far from the only nation to believe it represents an idea. But America’s self-image is more deeply bound up with a sense of having a special place in history than most other nations’ are. The American idea has had various emphases, good and bad, over the years: equality, social justice, racial purity, freedom—and in the 20th and 21st centuries in particular, material abundance. But among the most powerful forms of the American idea has been the conviction that the nation has a special, moral mission in the world. America was to be a “city upon a hill,” as John Winthrop said of 17th-century Boston, and the “last best hope of man on earth,” as Abraham Lincoln said at the time of the Civil War. “We are the pioneers of the world,” Herman Melville wrote in 1850. “The political Messiah has … come in us.”

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

For much of American history, this messianic sense of the nation’s destiny was a largely passive one. The United States was to be a model to other nations—a light shining out to a wretched world and inspiring others to lift themselves up. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, as America has ascended to global preeminence, that sense of mission has become linked to a series of attempts—after World War I, World War II, and the attacks of September 11, 2001—to reshape the world. Despite the many frustrations those efforts have produced—in places such as the Philippines in the early 20th century and Iraq in the early 21st—the idea of American mission has shown remarkable durability.

One could argue that a national idea is an inherently dangerous thing. But given America’s powerful traditions, and given its currently unmatched power in the world, there is little reason to believe that this country will abandon its belief that it is destined to lead the world. And yet our present travails suggest that there may be room to redefine how we exercise leadership, that we could embrace elements of the American idea that have in the past—and might again—make the United States not just a feared military power but an exemplar of ideals of potentially universal appeal: human rights, environmental responsibility, and a commitment to peace and stability as a precondition of progress, and indeed, survival.

Presented by
History Professor and Provost, Columbia University

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