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Thursday, 1 December 2011
Op-Ed: The Sin of American Exceptionalism

I’ve posted my rejection of American Exceptionalism here before. According to one definition, “American Exceptionalism refers to the theory that the United States was born under the influence of a higher-power and is qualitatively more worthy than other countries.” Although it does not necessarily imply global-superiority, many conservative writers and bloggers have promoted its use in that sense. To them, the United States is like the biblical ‘shining city on a hill,’ favored by God, and exempt from the historical forces that have affected other countries. In other words, it is the belief that the U.S. is inherently better than the rest of the world. I do not accept this premise. This is not to say that I do not appreciate the freedoms and liberties that the United States has to offer, nor do I deny the blessings that we have. It simply means that I do not subscribe to what I consider to be a dangerously conceited form of political propaganda.

First let me state that I have no problem with my fellow citizens expressing their national pride or patriotism. Everyone roots for the home team. This is a perfectly natural behavior in most countries. What I do take issue with is those who consider themselves to be good Christians and students of history continuing to propagate the idea that our country is naturally superior when compared to the rest of the world. Not only is this incredibly ignorant from an intellectual standpoint, it is also contrary to biblical teachings. As both a progressive historian and active Presbyterian, I find the whole concept quite offensive.

According to Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer, professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, “The United States has enjoyed remarkable success, and Americans tend to portray their rise to world power as a direct result of the political foresight of the Founding Fathers, the virtues of the U.S. Constitution, the priority placed on individual liberty, and the creativity and hard work of the American people. In this narrative, the United States enjoys an exceptional global position today because it is, well, exceptional. But America’s past success is historically due as much to good luck as to any uniquely American virtues. This account of America’s rise does not deny that the United States did many things right, but it also acknowledges that America’s present position owes as much to good fortune as to any special genius or manifest destiny.”

He adds, “Another problem with American Exceptionalism is the belief that God is uniquely on our side. Confidence is a valuable commodity for any country. But when a nation starts to think it enjoys the mandate of heaven and becomes convinced that it cannot fail or be led astray by scoundrels or incompetents, then reality is likely to deliver a swift rebuke.”

In order to present my own case as to the historically inaccurate and blasphemous practice of preaching American Exceptionalism, I offer the following counter arguments:

Perhaps the biggest keystone in the foundation of American Exceptionalism is the belief that we always are, and have always been, the good guys…spreading prosperity everywhere we go. Other countries only worry about themselves, while we Americans remain busy keeping the rest of the world from destroying itself. It is the blind-faith that the United States is a uniquely virtuous nation, one that loves peace, nurtures liberty, respects human rights, and embraces the rule of law that is so dangerous. We all like to think that our nation behaves much better than others do, and that we are certainly morally-superior to the other super-powers. The idea that the United States is uniquely honorable may be comforting to some Americans; but it is simply not true. Here are some sobering statistics quoted from Walt’s The Myth of American Exceptionalism:

“The United States has been one of the most expansionist powers in modern history. It began as 13 small colonies clinging to the Eastern Seaboard, but eventually expanded across North America. Along the way, it eliminated most of the native population and confined the survivors to impoverished reservations. By the mid-19th century, it had pushed Britain out of the Pacific Northwest and consolidated its hegemony over the Western Hemisphere. The United States has fought numerous wars since then -- starting several of them -- and its wartime conduct has hardly been a model of restraint.”

- The 1899-1902 conquest of the Philippines killed some 200,000 to 400,000 Filipinos.

- The U.S. and its allies did not hesitate to dispatch some 305,000 German and 330,000 Japanese civilians through aerial bombing during World War II.

- The U.S. dropped more than 6 million tons of bombs during the Indochina war and is directly responsible for the deaths of many of the roughly 1 million civilians.

- The U.S.-backed Contra war in Nicaragua killed some 30,000 Nicaraguans.

- U.S. military action has led directly or indirectly to the deaths of 250,000 Muslims over the past three decades including the more than 100,000 people who died following the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

- Politically the United States routinely uses the defense of human rights and international law to justify war, but it has refused to sign most human rights treaties and is not a party to the International Criminal Court.

These numbers represent non-combatant casualties. Our military has done an exceptional job of protecting our shores and defending our freedom, but the civilian attritions committed during America’s quest for diplomacy clearly explain why the rest of the world has thought of us as being anything but exceptional or restrained.

Another assertion of American Exceptionalism is the belief that God is somehow on OUR side. That principle is often coupled with the notion that God blessed America above and beyond the other countries of the world. We are, according to that belief, spiritually superior and therefore more precious in the eyes of the Lord. This takes the concept of conceitedness to a whole new level. Glenn Beck, a huge purveyor of American Exceptionalism once said that, “Not a single time have we gotten a right from Congress or from the President. We get them from God.” This is the exact kind of pseudo-religious-political conjecture that is dangerous as it gives a false sense of exclusive-endorsement from above.

I only had to look in the first chapter of my bible to challenge this one: “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” - Genesis 22:18 (note the use of the word ‘all’). In an article titled Messianic Nation: A Christian Theological Critique of American Exceptionalism William T. Cavanaugh, Associate Professor of Theology, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota writes, “The two types of American exceptionalism would appear to be at odds: the one appeals to a nation under the Christian God, the other to the freedom to have one God, none, or many. I am going to argue, however, that both of them-theologically speaking-end up in the same place, and it is not a good place from the point of view of Christian theology. My basic argument is that when a direct, unmediated relationship is posited between America and a transcendent reality-either God or freedom-there is a danger that the state will be divinized.”

In other words those who preach American Exceptionalism have essentially declared the nation like a false prophet. The result is the belief that God himself is responsible and continues to be responsible for us. Therefore we must be righteous in all that we do. There are even those who equate the Founding Fathers with the 12 Apostles and believe that God himself guided their hand when writing the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

That mindset leads to the total disregard for rational thought and ultimately results in the uber-Christian-utopian-belief system that is reminiscent of this:

*If the two images used to illustrate this post aren't blatant examples of historical inaccuracy and blasphemy (both literally and figuratively), I don’t know what is.

The bottom line is that there is nothing exceptional about American Exceptionalism. Every empire from every era has thought the same of themselves. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians (all exceptional peoples) believed that they alone were uniquely blessed and destined to dominate the world. They were incredibly prosperous realms who declared themselves to be without equals militarily, politically, and spiritually. They preached their own form of inward-exceptionalism, which later led to their demise. Obviously, we don’t want to end up like them.

Now in 2011, we are seeing that our educational, economic, political, and capitalist systems are prone to failure, our own government is working against us, and the traditional belief that OUR way is the ONLY way is no longer working. Those who adamantly preach American Exceptionalism would tell you that the only solution is to revert back to what the Founders intended as if the world hasn't changed since 1776.

Another option is to remember that it's 235 years later, admit our weaknesses, and fix them. This may require radical change. Afterall, the Founders themselves never expected us to stop progressing. American Exceptionalism stands in the way of progress and does nothing but provide us with a false sense of security and a complete misunderstanding of where we came from and where we need to go.

The answer to this dilemma is incredibly complicated, but we can start by exercising a little reason and humility. We must accept the fact that the United States is part of a much bigger world. It would also do us well to see ourselves in more of a global-perspective and keep our egos in check. Those that continue to preach this historically inaccurate concept of American Exceptionalism are committing a form of intellectual fraud. Worse off, they are abusing religion to promote their politics.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 11:01 PM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 7 December 2011 8:22 AM EST
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