Are We Exceptional?

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Last week, President Obama described US policy as “exceptional” in arguing his case for military action against Syria. The next day, Russian President Putin had an editorial in the New York Times that took issue not only with Obama’s argument, but more broadly with American exceptionalism. Although arguments about American exceptionalism are not new, the Obama-Putin dispute has once again raised the issue of America’s understanding of its role in the world.

But what exactly does American exceptionalism mean and what should it mean for Christians?  First, the United States does not have a monopoly on the concept. At various times through history, many other countries at the height of their power—Britain, Russia, France and Spain--considered themselves exceptional. The first recorded allusion to American exceptionalism was in a 1630 sermon delivered by the Puritan minister Jonathan Winthrop, who referred to the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a “shining city upon a hill.” For Winthrop, the phrase had both theological and political meaning—God had led the Puritans to Massachusetts to establish a more saintly and just political community away from oppression in Britain. The reference to America as a “shining city upon a hill” has surfaced in rousing speeches and articles ever since, often connected specifically to the term “exceptionalism.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and President Barack Obama. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and President Barack Obama. 

Early references to American exceptionalism (such as Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Common Sense (1776) and Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835)) were primarily describing the uniqueness of the American political system in the world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Breaking with Europe’s stifling, archaic systems, the new America was different; it was fresh, exciting, and as historian Gordon Wood has pointed out, “based on liberty, equality, constitutionalism and the well-being of ordinary people.” In addition, the United States was huge, resource rich, filled with glistening opportunity and promise, and far from Europe. The combination of a new political idea and vast physical attributes made the United States exceptional.

But this political understanding of exceptionalism quickly fused with the religious meaning of the term that had undergirded Winthrop’s original declaration. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson argued that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and that it is the responsibility of government to secure these rights. This revolutionary concept powerfully underscored the already established duality of American exceptionalism as both political and theological.  Jefferson spoke of America as an “empire of liberty” that had the responsibility to spread the “natural and universal rights of man” across the globe. But was America to be an example to others or was it to go out physically to change the world? 

Very quickly, those who believed that God was “raising up America for some special reason” gained the upper hand and have held it ever since. God’s selection of America as a special nation lies at the heart of the idea of Manifest Destiny, introduced in the 1840s by Jacksonian Democrats to justify the “right and duty” of the United States to become a continental power.  Once the continent was conquered, the idea of Manifest Destiny became a powerful mantra for political leaders of both parties who believed, again to quote Gordon Wood, that “we Americans are a special people with special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy.” After the Civil War, American exceptionalism rapidly became a justification for empire and the “white man’s burden” and a part of Protestant Fundamentalism. This fusing of religion and politics has become what James Skillen and others have described as “civil-religious nationalism.”

After the Cold War, American exceptionalism became a rallying cry for the United States to promote democracy, freedom, and human rights around the globe. One way or another, this philosophy has driven every administration, from George H. W. Bush to Obama. It played a major role in our invasion of Iraq in 2003, in our ongoing war in Afghanistan, in our efforts at “nation building,” and, finally, in the Obama administration’s desire to strike Syria. But as much of the rest of the world pushes back, the practical aspects of American exceptionalism have cost us much and have been extremely difficult to put into place.

The Center for Public Justice’s Guidelines for Security and Defense endorse American support for democracy, human rights, international law, and Christian just war doctrine. As Christians in America, how then do we sort through the history, implications, and role of exceptionalism in America’s role in the world? This is not some esoteric question reserved for policy makers and academics. It plays into how our money is spent, what the government requires of us (literally life and death), and most importantly, how we understand the role that faith plays in the unfolding of basic policy. We must do the hard work of asking ourselves if God really has made us special and, if so, in what sense. We must consider if we truly have a mandate to secure the rights Jefferson cited in the Declaration of Independence for the rest of humanity despite the cost.  

- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.