One of the great Republican complaints about Obama is that he does not believe in American exceptionalism. John Boehner most recently made this criticism. Actually, Obama has bought into the doctrine of American exceptionalism. This is unfortunate. For America is not exceptional. And indeed, the belief in such exceptionalism is extremely dangerous.
I’ve often tried to figure out what lies behind these claims of exceptionalism, made with such certainty and earnestness by American public figures. The most standard answer is that America’s exceptional nature lies in its founding, in the Enlightenment-era liberal principles that inspired its system of government. This is peculiar. America might have been ahead of the curve in the late 18th century, but it most certainly is not today. Most countries have followed the liberal democratic model of government, and are no less (or more) “free” than the United States (and no, I regard the liberal attitude to gun ownership as a sign of barbarity rather than liberty). And indeed, because of its romantic attachment to the founding myth, many aspects of US governance today are anachronistic, such as the electoral college system and the first-past-the-post electoral process. But this is a minor issue.
The major issue, the elephant in the room, is that the doctrine of American exceptionalism is theological, not political. It derives from the development of Protestantism in the early American colonies, from Winthrop’s Puritans and the so-called ‘great awakening’. It is fundamentally a Calvinist inheritance. The Protestants of this period took their Calvinism seriously, from Winthrop to George Whitefield (who notoriously attacked the Arminianism of John Wesley) to Jonathan Edwards. And while the first settlers like Winthrop might have taken seriously the traditional Calvinist pessimism regarding the certainly of salvation, it did not take long for this to be overshadowed by emotive evangelicalism and the emphasis on the ability to discern one’s personal salvation from within, leading to the classic evangelical doctrine of accepting Christ as a “personal” savior (note the inherent individualism).
This all overlapped dangerously with the role of the United States as the new Israel, the “city on a hill”, divinely ordained by God in a new covenant – a kind of “national Calvinism”. This goes all the way back to the beginning to Winthrop, and it latched onto the developments in millenarian theology (Jonathan Edwards, for example, believed that the United States would be the place of the thousand-year reign of the saints). From its earliest days, America has seen itself as God’s chosen nation – the idea of the Calvinist elect projected onto a country. This resonates deeply among American evangelical culture today. There was much outcry over Jerry Falwell’s comments after 9/11, when he was accused of blaming abortion, gays etc. for the catastrophe. But what Falwell really said was that God had withdrawn his shroud of protection from America. That presupposes that God was protecting America in a way that other countries could not access.
American exceptionalism is therefore not only wrong, but it is dangerous. If you are chosen by God, you do not have to play by the rules of other nations. Your wars are always just, and your torture is never torture. You are less inclined toward introspection, or to seek the counsel of others. You have a God-given right to use the resources of the earth without heed to the effect on anybody else.
These are all the fruits of a very misguided Protestant theology. There’s something very wrong when a Catholic like John Boehner defends this kind of exceptionalism. After all, Catholicism is all about unity – as Henri de Lubac put it, redemption is a work of restoration geared toward “the recovery of lost unity– the recovery of supernatural unity of man with God, but equally of the unity of men among themselves.” I don’t think there is much room in Catholicism for this kind of exceptionalism.