What Kind of Exceptionalism Is Worth Desiring in America? | Sojourners

What Kind of Exceptionalism Is Worth Desiring in America?

Alex Pix / Shutterstock
Photo via Alex Pix / Shutterstock

What does it mean to be exceptional?

Most people have to worry about making enemies. You know, they’re constantly freaked out that they might offend somebody or hurt somebody’s precious feelings. But I don’t worry about that. I’m exceptional. Other people in my family worry about everyone getting their fair share at the dinner table. They might really like mashed potatoes or lasagna, but they only take a normal small portion so that their sister or grandmother or cousin can have some too. But I don’t worry about those sorts of things. After all, I’m exceptional. I take as much as I want.

When you’re an exceptional nation, you want other nations to worry about your opinion of them. You don’t really care what their opinion is of you. When you’re a run-of-the-mill country, you’ll be nervous about going against the United Nations or the Geneva Conventions or the International Criminal Court and such, but when you’re an exceptional country, that sort of concern is beneath your dignity. You set expectations; you don’t fulfill them. Of course, with exceptional status comes exceptional responsibility, so we have the sole responsibility to drop nuclear bombs on nations that cause problems for the world—unexceptional nations, that is, which means everybody else but us. It’s a tough job, being exceptional, but somebody has to do it.

Between now and the elections in November, my guess is we’re going to hear the term “American exceptionalism” echoing from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam; echoing ad nauseum. It’s become a powerful political meme in recent years, popular but poorly defined. The history of the term aids and abets in its vagueness.

Thomas Jefferson repeatedly spoke of the United States as a unique—or exceptional—historical phenomenon. As a democratic republic, it differed from Europe, and all the nations of the past. Since then, of course, scores of nations have followed our example in forming democratic republics, so what was exceptional in Jefferson’s time has now, we might say, become the norm. Does that make us “the nation formerly known as exceptional,” but now typical?

Alexis de Tocqueville, perhaps the best-loved (and certainly the most-quoted) Frenchman in U.S. history, also detailed certain features in which the U.S. was exceptional. But they’re not exactly the attributes candidates are referring to today. For example, he said that Americans were so focused on making money that they didn’t pay attention to “science, literature, and the arts” as Europeans did, yet somehow Americans had so far avoided “relapsing into barbarism.” (He spoke before the era of TV shows such as Married with Children and Jersey Shore.) Our preoccupation with money even made Americans disregard religion, he said, except “from time to time,” when we shoot “a transient and distracted glance to heaven.” This money-focused turn of character, de Tocqueville concluded, made America exceptional—but not in an exemplary way.

The first historical record of the precise term “American exceptionalism” actually comes (this is embarrassing) from Joseph Stalin, who complained that American Communists thought themselves an exception to the normal rules of Marxist economic evolution. They were guilty, he said, of “the heresy of American exceptionalism.”

Between de Tocqueville and Stalin, the idea of American exceptionalism became deeply associated with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the idea that God had chosen Americans, as God chose the ancient Israelites, for a special divine purpose on Earth. This belief was based on a passage in the Book of Genesis:

And the Lord said to Abraham, I will bless you and make your name great. I will make you a great nation and all nations will submit to your exceptional status. They will kow-tow to your interests, submit to your invasions, and defer to your economic policies. You will act unilaterally and lead, not cooperate with, unexceptional nations. You will use and abuse the alien and stranger among you as you please, for they are not my chosen people blessed by manifest destiny. And if other nations curse you by failing to acknowledge your exceptional status, you will smite them in my name. For I am the Lord who shows favoritism to whom he will, and you are my chosen people.

Oops! That is not Genesis 12—but it might as well have been, based on projects and attitudes promoted via the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

In our lifetime, President Obama paid muted homage to the doctrine, saying he believed in it the same way “the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Sarah Palin (not surprisingly) wasn’t satisfied: “... which is to say he doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism at all. He seems to think it is just a kind of irrational prejudice in favor of our way of life. To me that is appalling.”

What appalled Palin, apparently, was that President Obama failed to defend the “prejudice in favor of our way of life” as a rational one, which raises the question of what she means by “our way of life.” I doubt she means what de Tocqueville meant or what Stalin meant.

In a September 2011 speech at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed to  agree with Palin—to a degree. He defined the term as meaning, “ ... we are different and, yes, better.” But then he raised a warning: “Unfortunately, through our own domestic political conduct of late, we have failed to live up to our own tradition of exceptionalism. Today, our role and ability to effect change has been diminished because of our own problems and our inability to effectively deal with them ...”

He returned to the theme later in his speech: “Today, the biggest challenge we must meet is the one we present to ourselves. To not become a nation that places entitlement ahead of accomplishment. To not become a country that places comfortable lies ahead of difficult truths. To not become a people that thinks so little of ourselves that we demand no sacrifice from each other. We are a better people than that; and we must demand a better nation than that.”

The question raised by Christie’s words is, of course, “Of whom do we demand a better nation?” For many, the answer will be their party or their candidate. But the only realistic answer would be that we demand of ourselves the commitment to face the challenges Christie named—to put accomplishment ahead of entitlement (including the entitlements associated with being an exceptional nation), to face the difficult truths about ourselves, our past, and our future (including truths about the ways we have been negatively exceptional and not exceptional at all), and to demand sacrifice of each other ... and so to be better people and a better nation.

It is one thing to strive to become a better nation—better than we have been in the past, and better than we are at this moment. It’s a very different thing to assume we already are better than all other nations in all important ways. The former describes a vibrant and hopeful nation; the latter an arrogant and self-deceived one. And that difference should be in our minds each time we hear the term “American exceptionalism” echoing across the fruited plain.

In what ways do we want to be exceptional—not in the sense of being different for difference’s sake, and certainly not in the sense of being granted exceptions to normal standards of decency, but in the sense of being exemplary? In what ways do we want to lead?

Would we like to lead in resource consumption and environmental irresponsibility? Would we like to lead in wealth inequality, incarceration rates, and capital punishment? Would we like to lead in political polarization and partisan brinksmanship? Would we like to lead in unmitigated unsustainability—whether in the realm of national debt, personal debt, or environmental degradation? Would we like to lead in our refusal to demand sacrifices of the rich while demanding sacrifices of the poor and middle class? Would we like to lead military expenditures, drone strikes, weapons sales, toppled regimes, and occupations?

Next to nobody really wants to be exceptional in any of these ways.

At our best moments—whether we’re Brits or Greeks or Argentines or Papua New Guineans or Americans—the kind of exceptionalism we really want is not arrogant superiority. What we want is to be a good and distinct people, the best possible version of ourselves, not merely fulfilling (and exploiting) some national myth of manifest destiny, but instead creating a national legacy for our children and grandchildren, a great nation among other great nations, through wisdom, justice, freedom, compassion, and action.

And that, I think, is the only kind of exceptionalism that is theologically justified.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the idea of being chosen or exceptional is highly problematic. It was used to justify horrific acts (see Deuteronomy 7:1-5). But even in the same disturbing passages that command behavior we would call genocidal, God goes out of God’s way to remind the people that they were not chosen for their size or superiority, but for their smallness and weakness (Deuteronomy 7:6-7). God warns them not to “exalt themselves” in times of plenty. He commands them to remember that every blessing they will ever enjoy is a gift of God—not an attainment of their “power and the might of [their] own right hand” (8:12-18).

Even more striking, just as they are reminded that “the LORD set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples,” they are further reminded that because God “loves the strangers ... You shall also love the strangers” (10:15-19).

And if the chosen people are tempted to presume upon their status, throughout Deuteronomy God solemnly promises them that their exceptionalism is conditional. If they don’t fulfill the responsibilities (including caring for the poor—Deuteronomy 15) that go along with blessings they have received, their blessings will turn into curses (28:15 ff). The choice is theirs (30:11 ff).

So it turns out that President Obama had it right: People can feel exceptional without being exclusive about it, as the prophet Amos similarly affirms: “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (9:7).

In the New Testament, Paul challenges the whole idea of seeking the first place. Don’t think more highly of yourselves than you should, he says, “but have sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:2-3). It’s hard to imagine that on a bumper sticker: “We’re Not Number One!” Our example isn’t the emperor (or a contemporary politician) who claws his way to the top: It’s the Lord who serves his way to the bottom (2:5 ff). There is the paradoxical exceptionalism of the Kingdom of God, as Christ commanded:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Chosen One came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

In an election year like this one, subtle choices are being made in addition to the obvious ones. We’re not only choosing who will next lead our nation; we’re also choosing what kind of nation our next president will lead: a nation more in the tradition of “the rulers of the Gentiles,” or one more in line with the way of Jesus. Mediocre or excellent, arrogantly superior or humbly exemplary, exceptional in domination or exceptional in service, exceptionally regressive or exceptionally eager to “excel in doing good”—we are choosing not just whether or not to continue a historical tradition of “American exceptionalism,” but more important, what kind of exceptionalism is worth desiring in the America of the future.

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, and activist based in southwest Florida. His next book, Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Walk into a Bar: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, will be published in September 2012.

This appears in the January 2012 issue of Sojourners
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