June 1, 2012
By Neil Jasperse
In 2009, a journalist asked President Barack Obama if he subscribed to American exceptionalism, and Republican presidential candidates have criticized his answer ever since. You learn to take the endless sniping with a grain of salt. But this time my ears perked up. American exceptionalism. I had never heard that term before. What does it mean? Where did it come from? Should Christians believe in it?
American exceptionalism is the belief that our nation is extraordinary and has a special role in history. The origins of exceptionalism are in part in part religious, stemming from the formative influence of the Pilgrims. In the New World, they were free to flourish as an ideal Christian community. Recalling Jesus’ words, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden,” the very earliest Americans had a sense of a special mission as a pure people of God.
But American exceptionalism also has political and cultural roots. When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, they left behind the rigid class distinctions of Europe. The Declaration of Independence captures that spirit in the enduring phrase, “All men are created equal.” In 1831, the French aristocrat Alexis de Toqueville, especially impressed with this absence of class distinctions, wrote: “The position of the Americans is quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”
The vast continent brimming with possibilities further fueled the notion of American exceptionalism. Throw in good-old Yankee ingenuity, and by the 1800’s American exceptionalism had become a potent religious-patriotic mix. Many Americans embraced their “manifest destiny,” the belief that the United States had a mission to expand American territory across the continent.
But how is American exceptionalism seen in God’s eyes? Is America extraordinary?
Well, sort of. America certainly is extraordinary when it comes to military and economic power. We spend more on national defense than the next six nations on earth combined. America also has the largest economy in the world and is a leader in technology. Missionaries and medical pioneers have been a great blessing around the world. Taken together, you can say the United States is extraordinary. It does stand out.
But America isn’t the only country to be exceptional in one way or another. Other countries are remarkable for different reasons: China, for its population; Japan, for its cohesive society and microscopic crime rate; Italy, for being home to the Vatican. On and on you could go. Throughout history there have been many extraordinary nations. There was the golden culture of Greece, the power and order of Rome and the breakthrough for democracy in Great Britain with the Magna Carta. This is the sentiment behind President Obama’s statement when he responded to his critic, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Do extraordinary American resources and influence give us exceptional responsibility? Absolutely, yes. In Luke 12:48, Jesus says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Should we take a leading role in the United Nations to help nations work together and pursue diplomacy rather than war? Yes. Should we take a role promoting the dignity of human life and individual rights? Yes. Should we take a leading role in battling diseases around the globe? Yes. Given our exceptional resources, we also should take exceptional responsibility.
But do extraordinary American resources and responsibility make us morally superior? Herein lies the great danger. Americans who talk about exceptionalism sometimes imply that somehow we are better than other nations. In God’s eyes, that is false. As Jesus said, “No one is good—except God himself.” The Apostle Paul echoed this truth in Romans 3, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” There are no boundaries when it comes to the doctrine of total depravity.
Some talk as if American exceptionalism means we shouldn’t admit wrongs or apologize. This is just another form of false pride. God stands against the proud. As Mary’s song affirms, God “will scatter those who are proud in their innermost thoughts. But he will lift up the humble.”
Should God’s people believe in American exceptionalism? We certainly should be thankful for our extraordinary resources and blessings, and we should take our accompanying responsibility in the world seriously. But if American exceptionalism means that we are uniquely, morally superior, God forbid.
—Neil Jasperse is the pastor of West Leonard Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Mich.