American exceptionalism as idolatry?

American exceptionalism as idolatry? January 6, 2011

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about something called “American exceptionalism.”  Some right wing politicians have been touting the idea as dogma for all Americans and some have even suggested that people who don’t agree should leave these shores and go elsewhere to live.

IF American exeptionalism ONLY means that America is one of the greatest countries the world has ever known BECAUSE of its ideals, then, yes, I agree that it the idea.  Of course, one of those ideals is freedom to disagree, so it’s highly ironic to suggest that an American who doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism should leave.  That’s self-referentially absurd.

I think I detect an underlying current of something akin to Fascism in SOME talk of American exceptionalism–especially when it is used to demean people who don’t agree.  Some super patriotic nationalists (especially right wing talk show hosts) are pressuring President Obama to come out publicly and say what he believes about American exceptionalism.

Here’s what I would say if I were him: Yes, America is exceptional because of its wonderful ideals as expressed in its founding documents and by its great thinkers throughout the past two and a half centuries–namely the ideals of equality under the law and equal opportunity.  But America does not always live up to its ideals; sometimes we are exceptional in the sense of falling short of our highest ideals and then being in denial about that.  When 17% of our population–including millions of children–live in poverty while about 5% has or controls most of the wealth and lives lives of luxurious conspicuous consumption, we are falling short of our exceptional ideals.

What I most object to (I hope President Obama would say but it would probably sink his chances for re-election so I’m speaking for myself now) is the use of “American exceptionalism” to justify doing whatever we want to do even in violation of international conventions and laws–such as torture and preemptive wars (in violation of just war theory) and military incursions into Latin American countries (such as Chile in the 1970s).

From a theological point of view, belief in American exceptionalism sometimes borders on idolatry–especially when people believe America can do no wrong.  Unfortunately, many Christians are falling into just such jingoistic ideas and implicitly putting America on a level where only God belongs.

So, do I believe in American exceptionalism?  Yes.  And it includes the right to disagree with the government and to criticize American society and its failures.  That’s what’s exceptional about us–that we not only allow but even encourage dissent.  Unfortunately, some right wing promoters of their own idea of American exceptionalism are twisting it into a kind of litmus test of loyalty that contradicts the very ideals that make America great if not unique.

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