If you are planning to run for president, here’s a word of advice: you must assert regularly and with great conviction your belief in American Exceptionalism. This seems especially true if you are vying for the Republican nomination. The particular phrasing varies a bit, but the general message is the same: America is the greatest nation in history; America has done more good for the world than any other nation in history; we are the envy of the world because we are unique among nations. The flip side of these assertions is less often stated but present nonetheless: don’t question American goodness; support for America means supporting American foreign adventurism; criticism of the American way of life is unpatriotic.
First off, patriotism is a good thing. Love of one’s place is a natural affection that serves to bind communities together and induce concern for the common good. However, American Exceptionalism is not the equivalent of patriotism. If it were, then patriotic citizens of other nations would be expressing their own version of exceptionalism—Russian Exceptionalism, German Exceptionalism, Egyptian Exceptionalism, etc.—and while these nations might have some notion of exceptionalism, to suggest that this is equivalent to American Exceptionalism is to speak heresy, for American Exceptionalism is, well, exceptional.
When people speak of American Exceptionalism they are not simply claiming that America is unique. From a certain perspective virtually all nations are unique in some fashion. Rather, American Exceptionalism is the belief that America has a special status among nations. It is a nation that stands apart, qualitatively different from other nations and possessing a special destiny with global significance.
This sense that America is a chosen nation has roots extending deep into our colonial past. Some Puritan settlers saw themselves as re-enacting the Biblical story of the exodus as they fled the tyranny of European kings and settled in a new promised land. The role of “chosen people” fits naturally into the narrative. John Winthrop, in his 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” described his vision for a Christian settlement in the New World.
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
Of course, the city on a hill metaphor is taken from the Sermon on the Mount where Christ tells his followers that “you are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” There is, however, a crucial difference between the church and the nation. What should we think, then, when the words of Christ, mediated by Winthrop, show up in the mouths of political leaders as they speak of America?
The sense of uniqueness and even a special historic role for America was expressed by Alexander Hamilton in the first of the Federalist Papers.
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
In short, the American founding was a crucial moment, and the future of freedom itself hung in the balance. America was a nation founded on an idea, on a creed, and the world anxiously awaited the outcome of this audacious experiment. While Hamilton might have exaggerated a bit to suggest that the future of freedom itself turned on the success or failure of this enterprise, the founding moment does set America apart from other nations. We have a unique history, one we should learn, understand, and celebrate.
Yet when the theology of a chosen people is combined with a profound sense that American is a unique nation among the nations, the stage is set for bad theology as well as bad politics.
The idea that America has a divine destiny is a persistent theme in our history. The Manifest Destiny of the 19th century was followed by Wilson’s messianic nationalism that sought to reshape the world through the force of Wilson’s own rhetoric, the power of the American military, and the compelling nature of American ideals. President Kennedy invoked the city on a hill metaphor in a 1961 speech. But by then the idea no longer referred to a church or an intrepid religious community embarking on a new life in a new land. Rather, America, the nation, was the city on a hill and this nation, born in unique conditions, becomes the new church for the secular salvation of the world. Clearly, though, to conflate a nation with the church is heresy.
This messianic thrust is perhaps no more evident than in the speeches of Ronald Reagan, who made the shining city on a hill his trademark. And while it is undeniable that Reagan’s theology of America was inspiring, it also tended to perpetrate the myth that America is specially chosen by God (or Providence or History) to bring democracy, liberty, and prosperity to the world. A chosen people, after all, has a mission, a divine calling, and to shrink from such a calling would be an act of cowardice as well as grave negligence.
One problem with claiming that God has a special plan for any nation is the notorious difficulty of determining God’s will. Of course, we can with the prophet Micah affirm that what the Lord desires is that nations—as well as individuals—do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. But that is a far cry from the messianic nationalism implied by American Exceptionalism.
On a practical level, American Exceptionalism is rooted in hubris that results in blindness. If America is truly exceptional, then the rules that apply to other nations don’t apply to America. If America has an historic mission to be a light to the world, then our goodness overshadows any missteps as we live out our divine calling. But if American Exceptionalism is the product of an errant theology that has subtly confused America with the church and which has now become a secular dogma, then we shouldn’t be surprised if adherents of American Exceptionalism a) proudly insist that America is the light of the world, and b) become positively incensed if anyone questions the special status of America. The pride and the umbrage go hand-in-hand and make it necessary for politicians to fall over each other in asserting their fidelity to the creed of American Exceptionalism even as it makes criticism of the nation the equivalent of political heresy.
American Exceptionalism does not lend itself either to humility or gratitude. If, rather than an exceptional nation, America is a nation greatly and mysteriously blessed by God—and this despite her many imperfections, which for the Christian is a necessary admission—then Americans should be moved to a profound sense of gratitude. There is a world of difference between the person who with a brash swagger asserts that America is the greatest nation on earth and the patriot who lovingly cares for his particular place while uttering a prayer of thanksgiving for the manifold blessings he and his children enjoy. One fails to admit responsibility or to tread lightly and therefore invariably behaves poorly while remaining blind to the fact. The other recognizes that gratitude is inseparable from responsibility, for a gift rightly received must be tended with intelligence and care.
Perhaps it’s time to seek out (or carve out) another strand in our American tradition, a strand that acknowledges the many good things we have inherited and soberly embrace the responsibility to steward these things well. A more modest republic would, in light of our history, be an exceptional accomplishment.