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?
The notion of American exceptionalism is a concept that is at best useless and at worst dangerous. It is useless because it is unnecessary to help us know what is right to do as a society. It is dangerous because it leads to hubris and can too easily march a nation into war and give people a false sense of self righteousness instead of good government.
The idea of America as God’s chosen nation harks back to a primitive tribalism where every tribe worshipped its own god and believed that its god favored them above all nations. The tribe considered its god supreme as long as the tribe remained undefeated in war.
Like individuals, nations have their own characters born from various realities of their development–geography, political economy, history, culture, morals etc. However, to think that one nation is “exceptional” in the sense of being superior to other nations in every way is demonstrably false. In her article on the subject of the Republican critique of President Obama and this idea, Karen Tumulty quotes former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich saying: “American exceptionalism refers directly to the grant of rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence. . . which relate directly to our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God.”
This is historically inaccurate. There is nothing original or unique about the assertion of God-given rights found in the Declaration of Independence. Political philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704) writing in the Second Treatise of Government references obligations of human beings toward one another because of humanity’s relationship with God. Locke writes:
“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought harm another in life, health, liberty, or possession: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker, sent into the world by his order, and about his business, they are whose property whose workmanship they are made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure.”
In 1793, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen says the French people “proclaim in the presence of the supreme being the following declaration of the rights of man and citizen.” The rights enumerated in this document are: equality, liberty, security and property. This document prohibits slavery. “Every man can contract his services and his time, but he cannot sell himself nor be sold: his person is not an alienable property. ” It says further: “Public relief is a sacred debt. Society owes maintenance to unfortunate citizens, either procuring work for them or in providing the means of existence for those who are unable to labor.”
After World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) recognizes the inherent dignity of “all members of the human family.” The UDHR is a set of universal values and goals agreed upon by the international community. Article 25 makes health care a human right. It says: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
All too often the United States is exceptional in a negative sense. For example, the U.S. is among the last of the Western democracies to establish universal health care for its citizens. And this is not the only area where the U.S. is exceptional in a negative sense. In his book, “The Myth of American Exceptionalism”, Godfrey Hodgson writes about the various measures where the United States is exceptional “by falling below international standards.”
The United States has more people in prison than other western democracies. We live in the company of China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran regarding capital punishment. Cuba’s health care system is comparable to ours. Hodgson writes: “In many respects, Cuba, a poor country made poorer by American boycotts has health care as good as, or better than, the average in America.” The world looks on in disbelief as we continue to argue about the scientific facts of climate change, and the United States lags behind in its recognition of several international covenants. Moreover, income inequality is larger in the U.S. than in other industrialized nations. The notion of American exceptionalism in the face of these facts is a useless exercise in cheerleading.
However, this concept becomes murderous when the notion of God’s chosen nation takes us into war. Throughout the history of the nation, an American civil religion has drawn a comparison between the United States and Biblical Israel. North America was the Promised Land, and Americans often thought they had a God-given right to the land. This gave license to subjugate or to exterminate the native peoples. This idea is intimately linked to the notion of manifest destiny, that the United States was ordained to control the continent. American expansionism was thought to be natural and good. The United States has marched into other sovereign nations with the rationale that our armies were bringing liberty when in fact our wars, as do all wars, brought misery, death and dislocation.
The danger of this notion is also the danger of theocracy, that we will sacralize the status quo and banish critics of our national presumptions as heretics. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes in the chapter on civil religion in his work “The Social Contract”: “At first men had no kings save gods, and no government save theocracy.” This idea of America as God’s chosen nation may too easily propel a society into theocracy. The nation becomes God and everything that it does is therefore holy, no matter how immoral, unholy and ill-considered the actions are. This is a deception. Worse, it is idolatry. It is an idolatry that can only disappoint.
It is an opiate. It substitutes hubris and mindless boosterism for intelligent public policy that brings the blessing of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity. America is not exceptional. It, as all individuals, tribes and nations, ought to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.