Romney, Obama and God: Who sees America as more divine?

This year’s presidential campaign has had its share of arguments over issues long thought settled — contraception, for one. But another wrangle between Republicans and President Obama dates far earlier than that 1960s throwback and centers on the very origins of the nation.

Republicans have argued that the president fails to understand that the country was divinely inspired, based on the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that citizens were “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

The “American exceptionalism” argument, as it is known, is meant to curry favor with tea party adherents who revere the founding documents, inspire a religiously tinged sense of optimism and -- not least -- portray the president as out of the American mainstream.

“Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do,” Mitt Romney said recently in Wisconsin. Voters have an opportunity “to restore to this country the principles that made this nation the greatest nation in the history of the Earth.”

The implication that Obama doesn’t understand the nation’s inception has struck critics as a variation on earlier unfounded accusations by others that he was foreign-born or a Muslim. Obama himself responded this month when asked about Romney’s statement.

“My entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism,” Obama said, pointing to the 2004 Democratic convention speech that lofted him into the running for the presidency. That speech repeatedly struck the very themes and quoted the same Declaration of Independence passage often invoked by the GOP candidates.

The concept of “American exceptionalism” is not new -- French historian Alex de Tocqueville espoused such a sentiment in the 1800s. There is disagreement about when the phrase itself was coined, but it may have come from liberal political scientist Louis Hartz in the 1950s.

It reemerged as a de rigueur part of the GOP vocabulary after Obama was asked during his first overseas presidential trip in 2009 whether he subscribed to the theory.

“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he said, before reiterating that his belief came from the values enshrined in the Constitution, including free speech and equality. “I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.”

Republicans emphasized his first line and brushed aside the rest.

“It launched some of the early criticism of the president to the effect that he was insufficiently willing to assert the supremacy of the American way of life,” said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former advisor to President Clinton. “I would bet that the president wishes he hadn’t phrased the point that way.”

Almost every politician who has run or considered a run for the 2012 GOP nomination has raised the matter to pummel Obama. Romney and Sarah Palin weighed in on it in their books, with Palin titling a chapter “America the Exceptional.”

In March, during a campaign stop in Mississippi, Newt Gingrich said that he believed in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

“Now this is the opposite of Obamism. Because Obamism is a repudiation of the Declaration of Independence,” he said.

Rick Santorum so regularly cited the passage about a creator establishing rights that his audiences routinely filled in the words for him.

Some say the exceptionalism argument is a benign way to offer comfort during difficult economic times. They see it as a sunny, optimistic continuation of President Reagan’s 1984 biblically based statement that America was a “shining city on a hill” and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 admonishment that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Kenneth Khachigian, Reagan’s speechwriter during the 1980 and 1984 campaigns, said during the primary the GOP candidates lacked the late president’s tone and emotional connection. He advised easing into more restorative, visionary language in the general election.

“You can’t let Obama out-hope you in this campaign,” he said.

The religious bent of the exceptionalism argument is in line with popular belief. Nearly six in 10 Americans agree that “God has granted America a special role in history,” according to a 2010 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution.

But others see more malignant intent. Donald E. Pease, author of the 2009 book “The New American Exceptionalism,” said he believes fealty to the notion echoes Cold War-era anti-communism loyalty oaths. Pease said he views Gingrich’s comments in particular as an attempt to identify Obama as un-American.

“I do think there’s a kind of coding going on there,” said Pease, a Dartmouth professor.

Voters nonetheless respond to such language. Peter Draganic said Romney’s recent remarks in a Cleveland suburb reminded him of seeing Reagan speak when he was 10.

“I felt pride in America and those values we don’t hear about too often anymore,” he said. “A lot of what you hear today is a lot of putting down America ... and you forget we are a country made of great people who do great things. It’s nice to hear somebody talk about that -- it gives you hope and encouragement for the future.”


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Times staff writer Alana Semuels contributed to this report.

Romney, Obama and God: Who sees America as more divine?