What is exceptional about America? What distinguishes it from the rest of the world?
I think John Gray gets it right in Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. Gray quotes Anatol Lievan who argues that "far from being a "new" or "young" state, America therefore has some claim to be almost the oldest state in the world." Exactly. American uniqueness is rooted in its antiquity. Along with Iceland and Switzerland, America has the oldest set of political institutions in the world. So how did the ancients go about understanding antiquity? Not scientifically, of course. I've been ploughing through Schuck and Wilson's laboriously social scientific Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation -- a 650 page yawn which contains only one interesting thought: social scientists don't understand America. No, social science is a casualty of antique America rather than a cure. Instead, Gray points us toward mythology as a guide to America:
Happily, humanity has other myths, which can help it see more clearly. In the Genesis story humans were banished from paradise after eating from the Tree of Knowledge and had to survive by their labours ever after. There is no promise here of any return to a state of primordial innocence. Once the fruit has been eaten there is no going back. The same truth is preserved in the Greek story of Prometheus, and in many other traditions. these ancient legends are better guides to the present than modern myths of progress and Utopia."
If mythology can help explain America and American exceptionalism, that might explain the country's fetish with the Christian Bible -- the most magically mythological of texts. Reading the Bible, then, is an American version of self-analysis. That's probably why all American hotel rooms offer a free Bible for their guests.