This ad, sponsored by SOFA (Special Operations for America) has been circulating around the internet. Obviously, context is important. If SOFA was merely trying to point out that one head of state should never have to give fealty to another head of state, then I understand the criticism on some level. From the little I know about the etiquette between heads of state, I think it is standard procedure for such leaders to treat each other as equals. Thus, President Obama did not bow to the Queen of England when they met. However, its clear from the video that that is not the only criticism being leveled. The narrator says:
I believe in American exceptionalism. As a Navy Seal, I fought so that I would never have to see my president bow to anyone.
Historically, it has been an American policy not to bow to foreign royalty. Not surprisingly, conservative groups like SOFA and Fox News are saying that Obama did indeed bow to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in a gesture of fealty whereas Obama’s aides and other news outlets are saying the gesture in question was not a bow.
Whether it was a bow or not, I find videos such as the one above troubling. First, American exceptionalism is antithetical to the Christian’s heavenly citizenship. So as a Christian, I cannot believe in American exceptionalism because America and its leaders, just like every other country, is made up of people who make good and bad decisions. I love my country but I won’t pretend that its foreign policy has been a force of categorical good in the world. Such an assumption would be foolish.
In a recent interview, Peter Leithart, theologian and author of Between Babel and Beast, explained the problems with American exceptionalism (Americanism as he calls it):
America is exceptional in all sorts of ways:
- It had a unique founding;
- it is one of the most deeply Christian nations that has ever existed;
- it is of course fabulously wealthy and powerful;
- its political and economic system have enabled human creativity and ingenuity to be unleashed as never before in human history.
- I am grateful for America’s tradition of hospitality to aliens from all over the world, and our real assistance to the poor and oppressed.
What I criticize in the book is “Americanism,” which is, as David Gelernter has said, one of the world’s great biblical religions. Americanism rarely exists in a pure form; most American Christians are Christians and Americanists at the same time.
Americanism has a way of reading the Bible (with America sometimes playing a prominent role in the biblical story as the “new Israel”), an eschatology (America is the “new order of the ages” and the “last best hope of mankind”), a doctrine of political salvation (everyone becomes like us, and all will be well), and, since the civil war, a view of sacrifice (American soldiers give their lives, and take the lives of enemies, to make the world peaceful and free).
For many American Christians, American exceptionalism involves some degree of adherence to Americanism. Americanism is a heresy; in certain respects it is simply idolatrous. Jesus, not James Madison, brought in the “new order of the ages.”
The practical effect of Americanism is that it blinds Christians to the real evils that America has perpetrated and also obscures the central importance of the church as God’s empire on earth. Americanism encourages Christians to support the American cause no matter what, because the future of the world depends on America. Even when we’re bombing civilians or sending billions of dollars in military aid to Muslim dictators, Christians still wave the flag and sing America’s praises. And for some Christians, criticism of America is almost tantamount to apostasy.
The second problem I have with this video is that Christ calls me to bow to all kinds of people. I understand the American policy of not bowing to foreign kings but Scripture calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus. We are called to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to outdo one another in showing honor. We are to constantly put other people’s needs and desires ahead of our own. I am not saying that that is what President Obama was doing. I honestly do not know what he was doing but I just can’t get behind this whole “America bows to nobody” stuff, because the gospel is the story about how Jesus bowed (died) for everyone who would trust him as King. I am pretty sure he calls us to do the same. That isn’t to say that we, as a nation are to be the doormat of the world, but it does mean to say that a little bit of humility and wisdom might help us move toward a more productive kind of foreign policy.