American 'Exceptionalism' Can Degenerate Into Superiority

By Brian McLaren 12-03-2010

There has been a fascinating and important dialogue going on this week over at the Washington Post's On Faith site. They asked faith leaders to respond to this query:

Washington Post political reporter Karen Tumulty wrote Monday about the growing use of the idea of "American exceptionalism" by political conservatives as a "battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars." Sarah Palin and many other prominent conservatives assert that "God has granted America a special role in human history." It is this belief about America's destiny that they say is "under attack" by liberals who downplay America's distinctiveness. Are these leaders saying that America has a special relationship with God? How do you interpret this?

My response was titled, "Exceptionalism Can Degenerate Into Superiority." Here's what I wrote:

Jordan Sekulow speaks for many when he says:

Any leader who is too scared to proclaim American exceptionalism or who rejects it outright poses a danger to the United States and the free world.

Well, then, call me dangerous, because I reject that thinking outright. In fact, I think that that kind of belief in that kind of American exceptionalism is the real danger. As others on this panel have already said, such thinking betrays a shallow and naive theology.

We'd better get clear on which kind of exceptionalism we're talking about, which is why this question is so important.

The Christian missiologist and theologian Leslie Newbigin said that the greatest heresy in the history of monotheism is a misunderstanding of chosenness (or "election" in theological parlance). To be "the chosen people" to many monotheists (Christian, Muslim, and Jewish) means to be chosen as elite, to be loved more than others, to be granted special privileges, to have God on "our" side against "them." No, Newbigin said, recalling the original Abrahamic promise in Genesis 12: to be chosen for special blessing in the profound biblical sense means to be chosen for special service, responsibility, and sacrifice on behalf of others. It doesn't mean being chosen exclusively, but rather instrumentally. People are chosen to be blessed so they can be a blessing -- not to the exception of others, but for their benefit.

The kind of exceptionalism being proclaimed by too many Americans today is, I think, a recipe for self-delusion and disaster. "American exceptionalism" too easily leads to "making exceptions" for America, and that's dangerous for everybody. Hidden within those kinds of statements, I fear, are insidious beliefs like these:

It's wrong for other nations to torture people, but America is an exception. It's wrong for other nations to develop and discharge nuclear weapons, but America is an exception. It's wrong for other nations to violate standards of just war theory, but America is an exception. It's right for other nations to bear responsibility for environmental stewardship, but America is an exception. It's right for other nations to uphold the highest standards of human rights, but America is an exception.

Not only that, but when exceptionalism degenerates into a sense of national superiority, entitlement, smugness, and inflated self-importance, it simply becomes a camouflage for pride, an attractive quality in neither politics nor ethics. Such dangerous pride, the Bible says, goes before a dangerous slide.

In whatever ways America has been uniquely blessed, with that blessing comes not exceptional geo-political privilege but exceptional moral responsibility. It doesn't give us additional moral "exceptions," but rather intensifies our moral obligations to our neighbors. As Jesus said, from those who have been given much, much will be expected. Exceptional blessing means exceptional responsibility.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren is an author and speaker whose new book is A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.

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