Putting America’s “Greatness” Into Perspective

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When I was a child, my family belonged to a beach club on the south shore of Long Island. Every 4th of July, the club featured all kinds of swimming races, special meals, and a marching band led by Uncle Sam, that tall bearded icon dressed in American regalia. When the music stopped, a prominent club member delivered a patriotic speech. I was too young to remember the details of the speech, but I do remember well the appeal to the greatness of our country. There were phrases such as “This is still the land of opportunity, blessed by God,” and “Anyone who works hard can achieve the good life.” Occasionally, there would be jibes at our then-foe, the Soviet Union. One speaker averred that the godless communists were envious of our way of life, which is why they hated us. Even at a young age, I struggled to understand the logic of that proposition, but it was definitely an applause line.

Only years later, as I reflected back on those days of celebration, did it dawn on me that there were no people of color present, no Jews, and only a few non-WASPS, among them Irish nannies hired to care for the small children. And only considerably later did it dawn on me that the America touted in those ceremonies was quite different from the reality of our demographics. Gradually I became aware of the enormous divisions and inequities in our country. I remember conversations with my uncle who had fought in Operation Dragoon, the successful invasion of Southern France during World War II. He pointed out in passing that “our black citizens” (note the condescension) had fought honorably in that theater, though of course in separate units. I began to realize that African Americans could fight for the United States and yet be treated unequally during and after the war.

Exceptionalism Through the Years

The term “American exceptionalism” is not often used as such, but the idea was, and to some extent still is, widespread. It implies several things. For one, there is the suggestion that America has a unique calling in the world. Alexis de Tocqueville may have been the first to use the phrase, though there was criticism mixed in with his praise: “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” The context suggested that although Americans have little taste for science, literature, and the arts, they have successfully become democratic. Americans, he argued, are unusually pragmatic people, though they do occasionally look upward to divine matters. Still, they have so far been uniquely able to navigate the waters of modernity, and as such are truly exceptional.

A far more complimentary view was espoused by Abraham Lincoln. In his memorable Second Inaugural Address, he stated that the duty of Americans was to see to it that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Much earlier, in 1630, John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, preached a historic sermon from his ship the Arabella, titled “A Model of Christian Charity.” In it, he appealed to the people to become “a city upon a hill,” a clear reference to Matthew 5:14 and Jesus’s appeal to his disciples to be salt and light in a dark world.

True patriotism means being duly proud of our legitimate achievements while being appropriately critical of our limitations.

Political campaigns throughout the years, down to recent times, have quoted from Winthrop’s sermon, though with certain modifications meant to accommodate the times. John F. Kennedy as the president-elect (1961) told Americans that their present voyage was no less perilous than that of the Arabella, and that today, beset by terror, history would judge us on whether we would rise to our responsibilities before a watching world. Ronald Reagan was also fond of the allusion, which he used throughout his career. On the eve of his election in 1980, he stated, “These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still…a shining city on a hill.”

The Problems with Exceptionalism

The American way of life has an undeniable appeal. Having spent a good part of my own life abroad, I can attest to the admiration, and the frustration, of many people before the American experiment. And I believe that I am as patriotic as the next person. Yet two (related) problems should not be overlooked. The first is that the America portrayed in the language of exceptionalism stands in stark contrast to the reality. Some white people and perhaps a few immigrants, but hardly all, can still begin here with a few pennies in the pocket and rise to considerable wealth. But for many others-- people of color, working class folks, Muslims-- it is a different picture. The curious figure, Donald Trump, constantly appeals for making America great again. One must wonder to which period of history the “again” might refer. To the nativism of the nineteenth century? To the time of slavery? To the Vietnam debacle? No doubt he means the glory days of our participation in the two World Wars, and perhaps to the success of some of our businesses… or does he? He never quite says.

But we don’t want to go to the opposite extreme. Is there no sense at all in which America is different, even exceptional? There certainly is. Here there is still an entrepreneurial spirit, a sense that dreams are possible, and that many can build toward a new life without the impediments of government overreach. There is freedom for worship according to the convictions of the worshiper. But, as the recent incidents of racially charged upheavals demonstrate, we are far from the Promised Land. There is also a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Fifty years ago, General Motors was America’s largest employer, and the entry-level pay was $35.00 per hour. Today, the largest employer is Walmart, and the basic wage is $9.00 per hour. According to Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary, the average worker has been losing ground, while the elite are oblivious to their plight. To make America great, not again, but for today, will require a great deal of hard work and sacrifice, as well as a heavy dose of humility.

The second, more fundamental problem is that neither America, nor any other nation, can claim the special status of a people called by God for his particular purposes. What was true of the theocracy under Mosaic legislation can no longer be legitimate after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet American civil religion derives at least in part from a misappropriation of the Old Testament, toned down in order to suit the modern needs of pluralism. We have a national civil religion that is reminiscent of certain aspects of biblical religion, without being truly biblical. Putting “In God We Trust” on our dollar bills, hiring chaplains for Congress, and quoting John Winthrop, articulate a vague sense of being called as a new Israel, but without the civil law from the Pentateuch. As Charles Taylor argues in his monumental A Secular Age, America recognizes freedom for its many denominations, within a larger national bond, a covenantal commitment to the god who calls its people to be a light to the nations.

An Appropriate National Vision

America is far from being the only nation to believe in such a special calling. Charles De Gaulle’s vision for the Fourth Republic was to make the grandeur et gloire of France felt by all other nations. Stalin’s ideal for communism was to be a kind of secular equivalent of the liberating forces of the biblical Exodus. The hideous strength of the Third Reich centered on a messianic vision of a return to the dark realities of earth and blood.

I am not suggesting that American civil religion is equivalent to these other visions. The wars again communism and Nazism were just, and America was right to side with our European allies in those conflicts. Nor am I suggesting that particular countries should be without appropriate visions. But the attempt to define our exceptionalism as a civil religion with vague biblical warrant is not appropriate.

So what is? Grounding our institutions in legitimate spheres, each with norms to guide their functioning. Striving for a just and flourishing society. Using our wealth to assist the less fortunate. True patriotism means being duly proud of our legitimate achievements while being appropriately critical of our limitations. 

-- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.