President Obama, Christianity, and the Truth about American Exceptionalism

President Obama, Christianity, and the Truth about American Exceptionalism July 28, 2015
President Obama speaking in Kenya (Photo: Screenshot from Youtube, KTN News Kenya)
President Obama speaking in Kenya (Photo: Screenshot from Youtube, KTN News Kenya)

President Obama just laid to rest all the speculation that he isn’t a Christian.

During his speech in Kenya, he said one of the most Christian things any U.S. president has ever said. No, he didn’t shove Jesus down anyone’s throat. He did something much more important. He definitively pointed to what makes the United States a “Judeo-Christian Nation.”

“What makes America exceptional is not the fact that we are perfect. It’s the fact that we struggle to improve. We’re self-critical. We work to live up to our highest values and ideals, knowing that we’re not always going to achieve them perfectly, but we keep on trying to perfect our union. And what’s true for America is also true for Kenya. You can’t be complacent and accept the world just for what it is. You have to imagine what the world might be. And then push and work toward that future. Progress requires that you honestly confront the dark corners of our own past. Extend rights and opportunities to more of your citizens. See the differences and diversity of this country as a strength, just as we in America try to see the diversity of our country as a strength, not a weakness.”

What’s so Christian about that statement? Many will disagree with the President. They will say that his emphasis on self-criticism is actually anti-American. But the freedom to be self-critical is an important freedom that the United States models to other nations. Just as important, that self-criticism is based on America’s Judeo-Christian roots.

I tend to bristle whenever politicians talks about American “exceptionalism,” but self-criticism is actually exceptional in human history. Throughout history, very few nations ever attempted to be self-critical, certainly not in a way that confronts “the dark corners of our past” or is concerned about extending “rights and opportunities” to those who are marginalized by society.

René Girard calls this the “modern concern for victims” in his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. He writes,

“Examine ancient sources, inquire everywhere, dig up the corners of the planet, and you will not find anything anywhere that even remotely resembles our modern concern for victims. The China of the Mandarins, the Japan of the Samaria, the Hindus, the pre-Columbian societies, Athens, republican or imperial Rome—none of these were worried in the least little bit about victims, whom they sacrificed without number to their gods, to the honor of the homeland, to the ambition of conquerors, small or great.”

For example, take ancient Rome, one of the greatest empires in human history. Rome promised peace to its citizens, but the Pax Romana was waged with a sword. Because Rome benefited from that violence, there was no Roman self-criticism of its political system. When Rome conquered another nation, there was no self-critical discussion about “human rights.” Nor did Rome have anything like the modern impetus for “social justice” that sought to change unjust political and economic structures. As theologian James Alison writes, in ancient Rome, “the defeated would be killed or enslaved without further ado. They had no rights: that’s what being defeated meant.”

The exception in the ancient world were the Jews. Unlike other nations, the Jews were self-critical and that self-criticism stemmed from their experience of oppression in Egypt. The Egyptian Empire enslaved the ancient Israelites. Like in ancient Rome, there was no self-critical voice in ancient Egypt. No Egyptian prophet would ever say to Pharaoh, “You know, maybe we should treat those Israelites with a little more compassion and respect.”

But Moses set the course for the transformation of the human understanding of God. The Judeo-Christian tradition primarily begins with the Exodus. The God of the Exodus is the God who identifies not with the powerful, but with the victims of human culture.

Exodus reveals that God breaks into our world as One who is with the scapegoats of human society. The prophetic word from this God doesn’t justify political action that leads to oppression, injustice, and poverty like the ancient gods of Rome or Egypt. Rather, this God, the God of the Hebrews, sides with the oppressed.

For ancient Israel, the political message was clear: God sides with the oppressed, so don’t become an oppressor. Whenever Israel’s political establishment neglected to care for the poor, the widows, the marginalized, there was a self-critical message that demanded the nation care for the poor and marginalized:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:9)

Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. (I Samuel 2:8)

Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise, says the Lord, I will protect them from those who malign them. (Psalm 12:5)

A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops. (Proverbs 28:3)

The reason the Bible was so insistent that the good people of Israel care for the weak, poor, and scapegoated victims of Israel is because good people often fail to question their own goodness. Because good people can be so pleased with their goodness, they simply cannot believe that they have become oppressors and so they cannot be self-critical about their oppressive ways. The prophet Ezekiel spoke directly to and about people who refused to doubt their own goodness when he said, “The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.”

Jesus continued to highlight the particularly Jewish concern for victims of culture. For Jesus, to participate in the Kingdom of God was to structure our lives in a way that cares for those in need. He stated his mission in his first sermon, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed.”

Jesus took this a step further near the end of his life. He explicitly identified himself with the poor and needy, the very ones that good people ignored without remorse:

“‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’” Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you to drink, a stranger and welcome you, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the last of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

President Obama has never been more Christian than when he emphasized America’s exceptional ability to be self-critical. Amidst human history, that ability to doubt our own goodness for the sake of victims we have created is exceptional. If the U.S. has any claim to Judeo-Christian roots, it’s because of that ethical concern.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Musah Sidibe

    Self criticism is human and not just christian.

  • Scott

    Very fuzzy thinking. Very faulty knowledge of history. I would be ashamed to have written this. Self-examination and self-criticism are most definitely not traits of most christians I ever met or heard of.

    • Ashamed? Nah. That those who profess to be Christians may not be self-critical is no fault of Jesus or Christianity. After all, Jesus tells us to take the plank out of our own eye before taking the splinter out of another’s. That’s as self-critical as one can get!

      • Scott

        Actually, that is a reproach to those who are hypocritical and holier than thou, descriptions which apply accurately to almost every religious person I ever met. After all, he was rebuking those who were completely not self-critical, who couldn’t see their own glaring flaws, so much so that they put on airs and criticized others. Seems to me that Jesus was making my point for me. Hubris and a lack of critical self-examination have apparently always been a part of the religious mentality.

  • Tom Blair

    thanks for this… I think you are right on target; and my seminary professors would agree!

  • Dan

    Self-criticism, as used in the US, comes from Greco-Roman philosophy, which the Enlightment re-embraced, and which most of the founders subscribed to (most were deists and had little use for what we would call Christianity). Christianity simply appropriated it. To say that self-examination and self-criticism is solely a Judeo-Christian principal is most outrageous, illogical, arrogant thing ever.

    Please expand you knowledge of philosophical and religious thinking. You will find that non-violent atonement predates Christianity by centuries. It is a humanist trait developed through evolutionary morality.

    • Christopher Ross

      I agree with this comment, mostly. Although there were many Deists among the founders, this groups also included devout Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. Please understand that I’m no “America is a Christian nation” apologist, but the religious affiliations of the founders were far from monolithic.

    • Like the Roman Bread and Circuses?

      I’d love for you to show me where in the ancient world you get the political ethic to care for the poor, weak, and marginalized. You might find it in wealthy patrons caring for friends/family/slaves, but you’d be hard pressed to find a political ethic. Where in the ancient world do we find Deuteronomy’s emphasis that there should be no poor people in the land because of the land’s abundance? Where do we find the constant political message of the prophets to care for the poor, weak, and marginalized or the nation will perish? That message runs throughout the Bible.

      Christianity did appropriate that concern, but it appropriated it from Judaism.

      • Dan

        Like the Crusades, the rules of appropriating slaves, the owning of concubines and wives to be the servants of man? See, I can out-strawman you.

        You miss the point, sure the Jews and the Christians had used some self-critical elements to evolve to the ideas that you talk about (which all happen to be contradicted in other passages of the Bible) But this all is the result of earlier, pre – judeo-christian philosophy.

        Plato’s self-criticism in Parmenides with regard to his theory of forms shows how we adapt and evolve as we learn to relate in the world. Countless communist societies from Mao to Marx utilized self-critical thought in working toward an ethical society (yes they fell short, as does the Christian society we live in does).

        You want to claim that this fundamental idea of humanity, and evolutionary ethics/morality is purely a Judeo-Christian concern, you couldn’t be more wrong.

        To claim that self-criticism is purely a Judeo-Christian development is plain and simple Christian Arrogance.

      • Scott

        More fuzzy thinking. Dan’s point was about the origins of self-examination and self-criticism in philosophy. As was the claim in the original essay. Concern for the poor is a different topic.

      • ugluk2

        The self criticism in the original post was clearly about concern for the weak and the poor–you would refute his claims by pointing to some examples where pagan philosophers urged concern for the well being of the poor and of slaves.

        I don’t like it when Christians claim too much on behalf of Christianity, but there is also this phenomenon where people react in vehement opposition to any suggestion that the Bible might have changed our thinking for the better.

        (For some reason I keep putting my replies in the wrong place. Probably doesn’t matter, since I am five days late to the thread.)

  • Small point; there is no such thing as “the Japan of Samaria” as quoted here (Rene’ Girard), so must be a typo, where he meant ‘Japan of the Samurai,’ in which case he was wrong in his generalizations regarding much: sacrificing, no concern for victims, etc. Sweeping generalizations are always a problem when trying to make a point, and tend to hurt your cause instead of reinforcing.

  • Point 2: (much bigger) The weakness in this essay is obviously the point where the author (not Pres. Obama) says the idea of being self-critical originates in our Judeo-Christian roots. But we know Socrates and others were on the job at least 400 years before Christ’s time. Also one could argue that our founders went to great lengths to prohibit a state religion, such as Christianity, as our diversity goes far beyond anything Christian. So what we have here is not our President’s declaration that we are exceptional due to our Judeo-Christian roots, something I don’t think he would say, given his respect for other American faiths, but the author, one Adam Ericksen is herein deciding that this is what the President actually meant but failed to say; an interesting way to look at reality.

    • Kevin Osborne

      Confucius might be looked into.

  • ugluk2

    I remember reading Plato where Socrates is very critical of a man who turned in his own father for killing a slave, so I’m not sure Socrates really makes the case you want to make.

    (This was in reply to Taylor Gregg below–not sure why it turned up here.)