Exceptionalism can degenerate into superiority

Washington Post political reporter Karen Tumulty wrote Monday about the growing use of the idea of “American exceptionalism” by political … Continued

Washington Post political reporter Karen Tumulty wrote Monday about the growing use of the idea of “American exceptionalism” by political conservatives as a “battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars.”

Sarah Palin and many other prominent conservatives assert that “God has granted America a special role in human history.” It is this belief about America’s destiny that they say is “under attack” by liberals who downplay America’s distinctiveness.

Are these leaders saying that America has a special relationship with God?

How do you interpret this?

Jordan Sekulow speaks for many when he says:

Any leader who is too scared to proclaim American exceptionalism or who rejects it outright poses a danger to the United States and the free world.

Well, then, call me dangerous, because I reject that thinking outright. In fact, I think that that kind of belief in that kind of American exceptionalism is the real danger. As others on this panel have already said, such thinking betrays a shallow and naive theology.

We’d better get clear on which kind of exceptionalism we’re talking about, which is why this question is so important.

The Christian missiologist and theologian Leslie Newbigin said that the greatest heresy in the history of monotheism is a misunderstanding of chosenness (or “election” in theological parlance). To be “the chosen people” to many monotheists (Christian, Muslim, and Jewish) means to be chosen as elite, to be loved more than others, to be granted special privileges, to have God on “our” side against “them.” No, Newbigin said, recalling the original Abrahamic promise in Genesis 12: to be chosen for special blessing in the profound biblical sense means to be chosen for special service, responsibility, and sacrifice on behalf of others. It doesn’t mean being chosen exclusively, but rather instrumentally. People are chosen to be blessed so they can be a blessing – not to the exception of others, but for their benefit.

The kind of exceptionalism being proclaimed by too many Americans today is, I think, a recipe for self-delusion and disaster. “American exceptionalism” too easily leads to “making exceptions” for America, and that’s dangerous for everybody. Hidden within those kinds of statements, I fear, are insidious beliefs like these:

It’s wrong for other nations to torture people, but America is an exception.
It’s wrong for other nations to develop and discharge nuclear weapons, but America is an exception. 
It’s wrong for other nations to violate standards of just war theory, but America is an exception.
It’s right for other nations to bear responsibility for environmental stewardship, but America is an exception.
It’s right for other nations to uphold the highest standards of human rights, but American is an exception. 

Not only that, but when exceptionalism degenerates into a sense of national superiority, entitlement, smugness, and inflated self-importance, it simply becomes a camouflage for pride, an attractive quality in neither politics nor ethics. Such dangerous pride, the Bible says, goes before a dangerous slide.

In whatever ways America has been uniquely blessed, with that blessing comes not exceptional geo-political privilege but exceptional moral responsibility. It doesn’t give us additional moral “exceptions,” but rather intensifies our moral obligations to our neighbors. As Jesus said, from those who have been given much, much will be expected. Exceptional blessing means exceptional responsibility.

Brian D. McLaren
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  • lohengrin

    from those who have been given much, much will be expected. Exceptional blessing means exceptional responsibility.

  • DavidSeibert

    kentonself: McLaren didn’t twist anything. Sekulow said that America had a special relationship with God, and clearly implied that America is above all other nations. That leads directly to the sort of “above the law” behavior that McLaren cited – “it’s OK for us to do it, because God told us to”. Those heresies are common to pretty much every person or society who believes that they have some special relationship with God that isn’t available to other people.

  • timothyseitzbrown

    Luke 14:11 + All who are chosen, regardless of nationality, are selected for the purpose of exceptional, sacrificial, life pouring out, service.

  • demode58857

    Isn’t this the same Brian McLaren who said in one of his books that he is “theological hack?” He seemed to be proud of that title at the time. Since then he wants to be perceived as a theologian. He should write speeches for our President. He’d be good at it.

  • haveaheart

    Wonderful commentary.McLaren reveals the monumental hypocrisies that underlie the prideful proclamation of American exceptionalism.

  • kentonself

    “We’d better get clear on which kind of exceptionalism we’re talking about…”OK, but Brian McLaren took a clear definition in Jordan Sekulow’s post and twisted it in order to demonize him.McLaren wants to attack an anarchist understanding of exceptionalism that says America is not subject to the law. But that’s completely opposite of Sekulow’s “Rex Lex” understanding of Exceptionalism that says it is. Did McLaren even read Sekulow’s article? Or did he just make the attack on a partisan basis?

  • dcsloan

    From its beginning, the Good News has been apolitical and non-national. When pushed to choose between faith and empire, the way of the Good News has been to respond with non-violent defiance and refusal. Our faith life is not measured by how materially abundant or wealthy is our life and not by how much political or cultural influence we have. Our faith life in no way embodies, is connected to, or dependent upon or subservient to patriotic fervor or national loyalty or good citizenship. Our faith life is measured by how we attend to and improve the lives of others – by feeding them, quenching their thirst, clothing them, visiting them in prison, healing them, and welcoming them. Keep in mind that this is a deliberately incomplete list. It works in much the same way as when Jesus tells Peter to forgive, not 7 times, but 77 times – the point being that by the time you forgive someone 77 times, it has become, not an act that has been repeated 77 times, it has become a habit, a path, a journey, a way of life. The point is that by the time you develop the habit of feeding, quenching, clothing, healing, welcoming, and visiting prisons, you have created a new life complete with new values and new goals and new vision. Once you get to this point, you have discovered and claimed (not earned) and embodied your grace-given membership in the family of God, a membership exemplified by justice, love, and service.

  • limpscomb

    After all my years, I’ve come to the conclusion that America IS exceptional.We are exceptional in our hubris, in our belief that we above all on earth are somehow special, that our presidents often run and are elected because God wanted it so, and we are exceptional in our pleasure to be ignorant and remain so of all the others in the world as to their languages, their culture, their religion. After all, our language, our culture and our Christian religion is exceptional.