When I taught an American Studies course here in Elektrostal three years ago, I had to include a unit on "American exceptionalism." In researching the course, I was reminded that the original biblical vision of the Puritan settlers, whose "City on a Hill" is often cited as an early symptom of this exceptionalism, had little or no hint of a crusading spirit. The colonists aimed at building a covenant community, a "model of Christian Charity," composed of modest, loving, and committed disciples; their influence was to be the power of their example. If they were faithful to this covenant, they would then be that City; if unfaithful, "... we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world."
From this biblical perspective, the current interest in boosting so-called American exceptionalism, the focus of a recent Washington Post article by Karen Tumulty, is problematic.
I'm not specifically concerned with how U.S. President Obama's severest critics accuse him of denying American exceptionalism. Their agenda is to destroy him politically, and in the service of this goal they will take his words out of context whenever needed, as in the case Tumulty cites--his answer to a Strasbourg news conference question. (So much for "Christian Charity"! I'm looking at you, Mike Huckabee.)
What does concern me is the super-patriots' lack of those Puritans' biblical modesty. To be an attractive, evangelistic City on a Hill, it is not enough simply to claim exceptional status. The Puritans' charter is quite specific on the mutual obligations of community members if Christian love is to be proven "a real thing, not imaginary," in John Winthrop's words.
How much continuity with the letter and spirit of this founding "exceptionalism" can we really claim? Perhaps the month in which two million unemployed people lose their benefits is a good time to ask that question.
What are some actual ways in which the USA can be counted as exceptional?
- the boldness and beauty of our democratic values (rule of law, equal protection of the laws, due process, free speech, separation of church and state, balance of powers, and the like)
(Voice of biblical modesty*: when and why have we found it necessary to weaken these extraordinary values, or to guantanamize certain people so they don't benefit from them?)
- the attractiveness of our creative and entrepreneurial spirit, drawing artists and scientists from all over the world and exporting the products of this fertile soil
(Voice of biblical modesty: is our attractiveness diminished by anti-immigrant attitudes and anti-intellectualism? ... and what will happen to our national capacities as our educational system continues its worrisome decline? As for our cultural exports, let's just say that the quality varies!)
- the size of our military budget, almost half of the planet's military spending; and the size of the U.S. military's global footprint
(Voice of biblical modesty: can a City on a Hill be the "light of the world" by turning our enemies into martyrs? ... are not other forms of engagement far more effective for long-term influence on behalf of our values, or can we no longer afford investments in such engagement because only our military and our proliferating intelligence services get an unaudited blank check?)
- our quality of life is exceptional
(--at least this is what some of my Russian friends think; few know about the USA's mediocre performance on many public health and educational scales)My question is not just rhetorical. I'd love to hear examples, both positive and cautionary, of how the USA is exceptional. Also, what other nations have an exceptionalist self-understanding, and what benefits and problems do they derive from this?
* Friday footnote: "biblical modesty" is actually my attempt to apply biblical modesty, remembering Winthrop's words, "...this love among Christians is a real thing, not imaginary" and their evangelistic application (without which we lose the right to refer to the light of the world, city on a hill). Of course, the USA is not actually that same tiny Christian covenant community that heard John Winthrop's sermon, but without that spiritual grounding for our exceptionalism, how exactly do we protect our exceptionalism from drifting into the dangerous unconscious assumption that might makes right? And isn't it true that many who argue for the USA's special status do believe that we have been especially blessed by God? (See next item below.)
Relevant to the "exceptionalism" conversation: Findings from the 2010 Post-Election Values Survey.
Martin E. Marty: "Celebrating 400 Years of the King James Bible."
Reedwood Friends Church remembers R'Dean Smith, who died November 23. We were very blessed to be among the many who experienced his thoughtful care. He combined wisdom and vision with constant dedication. Portland, Oregon, is a wonderfully humane and livable city in part because people like R'Dean helped shape it.
"Remaining Christian in a Time of Conflict." (Thanks to incommunion.org.)
Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens debate religion.
"The Power of Failure."
Praying for North and South Korea.
"St. Peter, won't you open that gate...I heard about forgiveness and I hope it's not too late."