America the Exceptional

puritans25As I teach a course entitled “American Religious History” this semester, I am deeply enjoying the process of engaging once again with my doctoral field of study.  Since we are early in the term, we’ve only gotten to colonial America at this time.  Requisite, therefore, was a reading from the Puritan John Winthrop, who compared the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as something like a “City on a Hill.”

This image–a reference to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount–reverberates powerfully, and has come to be identified in a very real sense with the idea of “American exceptionalism.”  Taken to mean that America is distinct from the rest of the world and–not uncommonly–that it is better in some very real ways, the theory is (as you might imagine) somewhat controversial.

It is a potent idea to analyze historically and dispassionately by asking what this idea meant in the lives of citizens over the course of our nation’s development.  It is also, of course, a relevant question to consider in terms of contemporary politics and personal outlook. What we think today about America’s exceptionalism or lack thereof has some definite implications for not only our self-image, but the way(s) we act in the larger world.Shining_City_Upon_Hill-American-Exceptionalism

A lot of ink has been spilled on this topic.  Probably enough to address it from every possible angle.  If you are interested, I commend much of this material to you.  For my part, I’ll simply say this: historically speaking, it is difficult to deny that parts of America’s history have been the exception to the rule.  Unique settlement.  The ability for Old Worlders to start over.  Diverse religious groups that led to disestablishment and de facto and eventually de jure religious toleration.  An early experiment in democracy that continues to have staying power.  A multinational and multiethnic composition that defies easy categorization.

If by “exceptional” we mean different, then in all of these things and more, America was certainly the exception to the rule of the Old World.  If we take the phrase to mean “better,” then, of course, we get into some sticky territory.  The dangers of national chauvinism and being blind to our own faults can ever be wrapped up in this idea.  It makes me nervous to say much in this direction but I will offer this:  I do think that the United States has been better in certain areas.  Think of the persistence of the rule of law.  The functioning of our democracy.  Our value of the freedoms we often take for granted.  Throughout the history of humanity and even today, these things are what sets America apart from so many.  Not from everyone and not at all times…but they have nevertheless been there.

exceptional1200As an historian, though, I realize all of these distinctives and positive “exceptions” are borne on the back of a lot of darkness as well.  The subjugation of native peoples.  Deep-seated racial strife and intolerance of many kinds.  A history of slavery.  A sometimes national chauvinism with international implications.  Economic inequities and the persistence of poverty.  The list could go on.  It is possible to be exceptional for good and bad, it would seem.

Morever, even many of America’s benefits are more from historical happenstance or the hand of Providence than any effort on our part.  What if the continent had been much smaller?  Denuded of natural resources?  Had been populated by a much more technologically advanced set of natives?  What if it was discovered at a different period in human history?  If a few developments in our history had simply gone another way?  So much contributed to the development of America over time, and not all of that can be assigned to the efforts of America itself.  The connotations of “exceptional” changes a bit when one remembers that other lands not so similarly blessed could have tried all of the things we did and ended up with some very different results.

So while I would agree that America is and has been exceptional in a number of ways, I would be very hesitant to say thisCaptain-America without deep qualifications or the understanding that it is an unmitigated grace rather than a necessary consequence.  Exceptional means primarily difference and only secondarily better.  In no case does it mean that it will necessarily continue into the future or that we always deserve this.  It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t other exceptional nations out there.  Good, bad, and ugly, the world is full of them.  It also doesn’t mean that others have not prefigured our exceptions and met or surpassed them today.

Further, if we are really to embrace John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” as a model for this outlook, we would be wise to hear all of us his words, reminding us that great power is often met with a call to great responsibility and not unquestioning pride:

Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God’s sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing.

Admittedly, these have been some very quick thoughts as I dash off to class.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this important topic.

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Do We Need A New American Century?

I tuned in to last night’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention to catch the last third of Joe Biden’s speech.  There’s definitely something Truman-y about that way that man talks (and looks).  Oratorically and politically speaking, he had an effective line about “downsizing the American dream” that both attacked potential Republican cuts and the business practices of Mitt Romney all at once.

All of this, of course, to set up the main address by President Obama.  Like the Republicans before him, Obama painted a stark picture of the choice facing Americans in this election.  I won’t go into it much here.  Suffice it to say that partisans on both sides agree that the course of the nation may be altered depending on who wins this election.  The rhetoric may be a bit overblown, but no one can deny that the two candidates have some widely disparate visions.  Hopefully both of them (and, despite the President’s high-minded words last night, I do mean both candidates) can focus on theses issues and stark differences and put the silly matters of politics behind.

What they don’t publicly disagree on, I think, is the desire to see America prosper and take leadership in our world as we have for some time now.  To make, in the words of DNC keynote speaker Julian Castro, “the 21st century another American century.” Both Romney and Obama have spoken directly to this idea as well.

A desire to see American grow and take leadership makes sense, considering our potential and the great number of responsibilities we currently have.  Yet at the same time, I wonder if all of this talk about American exceptionalism (i.e. that America is different and somehow better than the rest of the world) is rather a relic of the past.  I’d ask whether or not the 21st century needs to be an American century.  Whether that kind of question is outdated and anachronistic in our increasingly interdependent, cosmopolitan, and international world.

I don’t mean to sound anti-American or Pollyanna-ish, but I wonder if it is possible to imagine a world where we are not in charge of everything…and that’s OK.  After all, we’ve only been at the top of the heap for about 70 years or so, meaning that a majority of our American story is about being one power (and sometimes a very slight one) amongst many.  The world survived before we ran things.  Might it survive if we stopped running everything?  Might it survive if the 21st century was not ours?

That, of course, is a far cry from saying that we just stop trying or abrogate our duties.  With Governor Romney and President Obama I too want to see American prosper.  I’m just not sure this next century needs to be “American” for us to feel that we have once again arrived.
Next week: No more politics!  A return to topics of history and ministry.