American Unexceptionalism

American Unexceptionalism January 31, 2011

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.

We know the history. Eliminating the native inhabitants to creating living space. Manifest destiny.  A Calvinist minister’s son named Woodrow Wilson believing that the United States had been chosen by God to teach the nations of the world to walk in the paths of liberty. Committed Calvinist John Foster Dulles viewing the United States as a providential nation. Ronald Reagan re-evoking Winthrop’s city-on-a-hill speech, viewing America as pure and the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”. And hardcore evangelical George W. Bush, embracing American exceptionalism on steroids, desiring to re-make the world under the tutelage of the United States.

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.

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  • Ronald King

    One of the human crises we all share is the identity crisis which comes from the basic fear of being nothing(death). The two general neurotic reactions to this crisis is to seek a savior and to be special.

  • Usually I only comment on your posts to disagree. But this was one was genuinely interesting. Not that I agree with everything you say, but you do shed some more light on ideas that I was already leaning towards.

    I agree with you that it’s absurd for Catholics to believe in the exceptionalism of the United States in the way you define it, i.e., deserving of and receiving God’s special favor in a way that no other nation is entitled to.

    My problem (from the perspective of a liberal such as yourself) is that despite agreeing that the U.S. is not exceptional in the above-described ways, and that U.S.-style democracy is probably a bad system of government in some fundamental ways, I’m still forced to choose between Republicanism and Democrat-ism. That is, when I vote. And between the two, I still find more to detest in Democrat-ism.

    I would humbly (and presumptuously) suggest that you spend more time hounding your fellow Democrats to stop favoring such immoralities as abortion and homosexual marriage — but especially abortion, than you do hounding Republicans to turn Democrat despite those things.

    With those obstacles gone, you might have a much easier time persuading conservative Catholics to cross the aisle. It seems like an impossible hill to climb, but hey, they eventually dropped gun control, right?

    • First I must say to the author of this post that this was an excellent piece of work.

      To you kind sir (Agellius), I must ask are you aware that there are people of faiths other than ours as well as those who choose none, who also live in this country?

      Personally, I am very happy that I can follow my path without say some protestant hanging me from a tree limb.

  • Marv

    Maybe he doesn’t believe in it but is his disbelief reflected in his foreign policy? No, it is merely a continuation of the Bush administration.

    Democrats exercise their own form of American exceptionalism. I think we still have troops in the former Yugoslavia where Clinton sent them. There are still troops in Korea where Truman sent them.

    Just bring all the troops home. Save the economy. Save lives. Save America’s reputation abroad.

  • Gisher writes, “To you kind sir (Agellius), I must ask are you aware that there are people of faiths other than ours as well as those who choose none, who also live in this country?”

    Frankly I don’t understand the point of your question. Did I say something to indicate that I was not aware?

    • Your total lack of awareness of what you said above, as well as your seeming inability to answer my simple question was more than made up for by the excellent comment made just below by the very highly aware Rodak.

  • Is Agellius not aware that Catholics were once mostly Democrats? Is he not aware that it was Democrats who elected our first (and only) Catholic POTUS? Is he not aware that, much like the Dixie-crats who went over en masse to the GOP camp on the basis of a singel issue (Jim Crow), Catholics have flipped over the single issue of abortion? Those are the data: do the math. Where are the bigots to be found?

    • Rodak:

      As usual I don’t quite follow you. Are you saying I’m a bigot by any chance?

  • American Exceptionalism is idolatry. It’s that simple.

    In the 80’s, Jerry Falwell is said to have presided over the marriage between the political right and the Christians in the US. That, of course, is adultery, since the Church is the Bride of Christ. The “marriage” imagery should have been a red flag.

    Now, it’s getting blurred together in such a way that people now mistake capitalism for Christian doctrine, and let people get away with calling themselves Christian while deriding social justice.

  • Paul DuBois

    Not to drag this thread off topic, but please be kind to Agellius, he made a good point. There is much in the leanings of the Democratic Party (especially the Democratic party of the 40’s through the 60’s) that lends itself to Catholic teaching. But on the issues of abortion and gay marriage, they are clearly opposed to the Church. This troubles me every time I vote for them. I justify it because when in power the Republicans forget about abortion until right before the next election and because the world view of the Republicans (we all are in this as individuals) is in contradiction to mine (we are all in this together, and by all I mean globally). This has been carried to the extreme now as many of the current crop of Republicans (even going back to many Reaganites) are followers of the ideas of Ayn Rand. On gay marriage, the Republicans also seem to lean more towards gay discrimination, which is also against the teaching of the Church.
    I often fear these are both excuses for me to vote my own progressive viewpoints without worrying about the consequences on these two important issues. So in a way he is right, if we vote Democratic, we need to be mindful of the harm done through abortion and find a way to mitigate that harm. We also need to find a way to push the Democratic Party to a better position on this issue.

    • Paul: A well reasoned and charitable response even though we disagree on somethings. It’s not so hard to be kind, is it? : )

      Paul writes, “We also need to find a way to push the Democratic Party to a better position on this issue.”

      That was my main point. We all need to clean up our own yards before condemning our neighbors for their uncleanness.

  • Thales

    Morning’s Minion,

    I’m not trying to be snarky here – this is an honest question: what are your thoughts on the Christian virtue of patriotism? Is there such a thing? If so, what is it and how is it different from the exceptionalism you criticize?

    • I believe patriotism, if rightly understood, can be virtuous. But patriotism cannot only be understood through the lens of subsidiarity. It’s love of your community. I find that the kind of patriotism promoted in the United States: (i) violates subsidiarity; (ii) is twisted into a poisonous nationalism.

      • MM writes, “I find that the kind of patriotism promoted in the United States: (i) violates subsidiarity; (ii) is twisted into a poisonous nationalism.”

        I note you only mention one “kind” of patriotism being promoted in the U.S. If you think the one brand on the market is bad, why don’t you promote a better brand?

      • Thales

        Interesting. Thanks for the response, Morning’s Minion.

    • Jimmy Mac

      Patriotism for the Christian –

      This is my song, oh God of all the nations,
      a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
      This is my home, the country where my heart is;
      here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
      but other hearts in other lands are beating
      with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine

      My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
      and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.
      But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
      and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
      This is my song, thou God of all the nations;
      a song of peace for their land and for mine.

      This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms:
      Thy kingdom come on earth thy will be done.
      Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him,
      And hearts united learn to live as one.
      Oh hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations;
      Myself I give thee; let thy will be done.

      From the United Methodists (Stanzas 1 & 2 by Lloyd Stone, Stanza 3 by Georgia Harkness)

      • So “patriotism” means saying that all countries are equally good? Pffft! ; )

  • My guess is that it isn’t difficult for most VN readers to reject American Exceptionalism. The ability to see through Exceptionalism pretty much goes with a college education.

    VN readers who “In their patriotism and in their fidelity to their civic duties […] feel themselves bound to promote the true common good,” find it much harder to reject Catholic Exceptionalism. The “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” is, indeed one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Yet how many spiritual, political and practical disasters have befallen the church and the world because this fact has been so often mis-extended to the Catholic hierarchy and infrastructure, rather than to the church itself?

    It is at least a touch ironic to trace the genesis of American Exceptionalism to Protestant philosophy and theology, when Protestant behavior is little more than the “logical” consequence of Enlightenment thought spontaneously combusting in the atmosphere of Catholic (hierarchichal) exceptionalism. The exceptionalist concept is a continuation of Christian behavior and self-image into the worldview of Enlightenment statism and individualism, not some completely new development.

    By this I do not mean to portray Christians or Europeans as the world’s only self-exceptionalizing, self-aggrandizing fatheads. Exceptionalist attitude is characteristic of being human and divine Grace is our only hope for deliverance from the resulting behavior. Dictators, bullies and miscreants of all time and all sizes have been and will continue to be exceptionalists.

    • Ronald King

      Frank, What an excellent insight!

    • Frank writes, “Yet how many spiritual, political and practical disasters have befallen the church and the world because this fact has been so often mis-extended to the Catholic hierarchy and infrastructure, rather than to the church itself?”

      Since the hierarchy is the Church’s Magisterium, and since we believe the Magisterium teaches by the authority of Christ and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, Catholics are correct in believing that the Catholic hierarchy is exceptional.

      Your point about exceptionalism being virtually universal among all peoples and cultures in all times, is well taken.

  • A religious thinker who was pretty good on the right kind of patriotism for Christians was Simone Weil. Her book “The Need for Roots,” for which T.S. Eliot wrote an introduction, is worth investigating (as are all of her writings.)

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  • Steve

    I don’t have a problem with the details in your post, but I disagree with the basic premise, and with what you state American exceptionalism is. America’s exceptionalism does not lie “in its founding, in the Enlightenment-era liberal principles that inspired its system of government.” (Imo, it doesn’t primarily lie in the system of government at all.) It doesn’t rest on the supposition that America is the New Israel, or even that she’s an economic and/or militaristic superpower. The basic premise and original hope – the idea – of America is that every man possesses the inalienable right to be self governed; to be free. It was this idea, however close it came to being real, that made America exceptional. While I agree that messianic paradigms which exist in the minds of many are misguided, I would take issue with the idea that American exceptionalism must always be dangerous.