Dan McCarthy’s observation about the American character has stuck with me since first reading it a few years ago:

“The Religion of America is America.”

We have both a robust and flexible social and legal culture, our entrepreneurial instincts keep us healthy, and our military and good intentions make the world both safe and pleasant. Does America exist to make the world “safe for democracy?” Adopt a global humanitarian mission? Export our entrepreneurial habits abroad? Export our cultural attitudes abroad? Solve problems of global peace? Commerce?

All of the above, and more. It’s in this sense that the American ideology is basically a religious impulse—a missionary impulse to shape global attitudes and cultures. We are unique in this way, in our ability to adopt a sort of cultural colonialism without recognizing what we’re doing as even potentially nefarious.

Consider just the global institutions post-World War II: the United Nations, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the World Bank, the International Court of Justice, etc. These are all institutions whose defaults are basically Western and usually American-default views on what constitute human rights. These institutions, I believe, have done more good than harm.

The extent to which we shape global attitudes and approaches can go to our head, fueling our ambitions as much as our vices. Our belief in ourself as an historically distinct force helped us reach the moon within 9 years of President Kennedy’s call to the skies. But it’s also what made George W. Bush believe that our enemies “hate us for our freedom.” And it’s what let Barack Obama hail his own politics as marking a moment when “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

The religion of America is America. I think this should be understood as a call to pride as much as to caution about our place in the world.