AMERICA and Russia don’t agree on many things these days, but on both sides of the old (and re-emerging) cold-war divide, you can hear a common concern, one that smaller countries sometimes find hard to understand. It is summed up by the word “exceptionalism”. In both Washington and Moscow, those who hold or seek power like to speculate out loud on whether their country’s very existence serves a higher, divine purpose. The parallel shoudn’t be pushed too far, but the language is sometimes similar. 

Of course exceptionalism—the idea that there is something extra-special about one’s own nation, tribe or family—is a common human sentiment that comes in many forms. But it’s the religious kind (claiming not just special-ness but a sacred mission) which resonates loudest because it seems to be trump all other arguments.

Such exceptionalism has been in the American news recently because of a row over history teaching in Oklahoma. A state legislator there, who is also a pastor, tried to axe funding for an education programme which in his view paints the nation’s past in dark colours and fails to take due account of…American exceptionalism. Supporters of this view usually insist that the founding principle of the United States was not religious freedom, but a particular form of Christianity. They play down the freethinking, deist convictions of some founding fathers and stress the Christian beliefs that were widespread in early America. 

Dan Fisher, the Oklahoma preacher-politician who objected to the “Advanced Placement” history curriculum (a programme that is designed to offer college-level instruction to high-school students), belongs to a group called the Black Robe Regiment, which harks back to clerical supporters of the American Revolution and urges people to “protect the freedoms and liberties granted…in the divinely inspired US Constitution.”

Mark Silk, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut has shown in detail how an exclusive form of religion-based exceptionalism (one that brands people who disagree as unpatriotic) is replacing America’s more inclusive “civil religion” (typified by war memorials) in which the whole nation could join. The perils of American exceptionalism, even in the very mild form endorsed by Barack Obama, have been noted by none other than Vladimir Putin, who in September 2013 concluded an op-ed in the New York Times with the words; “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation…We are all God’s creatures, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

And yet over the last two years, Mr Putin has been ever-bolder in making assertions that Russia has a unique vocation to follow in the world, as the nucleus of a distinctive civilisation (around which smaller nations can cluster) and as a guardian of traditional mores in a decadent, gender-bending world. Sometimes his overt messages are at odds with his subliminal ones. In a speech in December 2013, for example, he mixed insistence that “we don’t have superpower aspirations” and “we are not going to lecture others” with the assertion that “more and more people in the world support our approach of protecting traditional values.” He then made a glancing, revealing allusion to Nikolai Berdyaev, a Christian philosopher who saw “Russian messianism”—the desire to deliver some great message to the world—as a leitmotif in his country’s history, linking Orthodox Christianity with communism. (That doesn’t imply that he approved messianism; he simply diagnosed it as a Russian syndrome.)

On the wilder fringes of the American right, Mr Putin’s emphasis on “traditional values” has found some admirers. But there is one big difference between the “exceptionalism” debates in the two countries. American advocates of a national “Judeo-Christian” mission may try to tar those who disagree as Benedict Arnolds, but they don’t get very far; even if they elect a more sympathetic president, they will never monopolise America’s ideological arena. Mr Putin does already virtually monopolise his country’s media and public discourse, and when he brands his domestic critics as “traitors”, they don’t just feel indignant, they feel frightened.