American Exceptionalism or a Modest Republic?

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.

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