Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What about American Exceptionalism?

The United States of America celebrated its 235th birthday yesterday. Across the country, as always, Independence Day was replete with parades, patriotic speeches, and fireworks. I don’t have any trouble with all that (although I would be happy with fewer late night fireworks).
But I do have trouble with the emphasis, not just on July 4 but often, on what is referred to as American exceptionalism.
Make no mistake about it: the U.S. is an exceptional nation in many ways, and there are numerous things to be proud of as a USAmerican. But people from many other countries, rightfully, think that their nation is exceptional with numerous things to be proud of, too.
During a European trip in the spring of 2009, President Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” He has been severely criticized (mostly by right-wing conservatives) for making that statement.
“A Nation Like No Other”: Newt Gingrich’s Manifesto of American Exceptionalism is the title of a book published just last month. A reviewer of the new book says that the President’s 2009 statement is a quote Gingrich “does not so much cite as target.”
Of course, the critics rarely (and Gingrich doesn’t) note that the President went on to say, I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.” And I am, too.
But there are problems with narcissistic patriotism, as most seems to be. You’ve no doubt heard this definition of patriotism: “the belief that your country is better than everyone else’s because you were born there.”
In the past, certainly the English (British) thought that their country was exceptional, and they set out to spread their superior culture, and territorial possessions, around the world. For example, what once belonged to Native Americans became New England. And it was not without reason that it was once said, “The sun never sets on the British flag.”
The Chinese long thought their country was exceptional. To this day the two written characters used for the name of the nation literally means central kingdom. The Chinese thought they were the center of the world. Consequently, Chinese cultural influence is strong throughout East Asia.
A century ago, the Japanese came more and more to think of their country as exceptional. Based on a new emphasis on the ancient Shinto myths, the military leaders came to believe that Japan was rightfully the country to rule Asia (remember their emphasis on the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere?) and then the world. Ideas of Japanese exceptionalism was disastrous for their neighboring countries, and, ultimately, for Japan.
But what about exceptionalism in the new country that became the United States of America after July 4, 1776? Among other things, that widespread belief led to the concept of “manifest destiny,” an idea that turned out to mean death for many Native Americans and destruction of much of their culture.
So while celebrating the many exceptional aspects of our beloved nation, let us note, and beware of, the manifold problems that can spring from too much emphasis on exceptionalism.


  1. Leroy,
    You've offered up a most important critique of American exceptionalism, which is rooted, I think, in the broader problem of tribalism. Thank you. I hope many people read it.
    I'm beginning to think that this kind of critique needs to be made even stronger and unequivocally nowadays; because I'm convinced that nationalistic zealotry and knee-jerk tribal loyalty will keep us incessantly embroiled in conflict and war. The realization of the ancient biblical vision of peace, whatever else it can mean, will have to mean relinquishing the spirit of excessive partisanship and partisan pride.
    This is not to say that there aren't important advances in the cultural affairs of humanity, some of which are embodied in American institutional practices. But carrying a witness to such things as civil rights, gender and racial equality, democratic government, etc. does not need to be linked to any kind of patriotism, narcissistic or otherwise.

  2. This American exceptionalism is why I have great difficulty singing/listening to songs like "God Bless America," and "God Bless the USA." And I really with the President could end a speech without saying "...and may God bless the United States of America."

    I'm not opposed to God's blessings, we are blessed. But too many people use these phrases to make us (or everyone else) feel that America is better than the others...that we are somehow God's chosen nation.

    Leroy, I appreciate that you have addressed this issue. And while yesterday was our day to celebrate, I think we can all remember that other nations have their days and things that also make them exceptional.

  3. Counties wax and wane. Your list of past exceptional states is good, and there were several others throughout history. The decline of others during that period seems inevitable. Things start tough, then they excel, then they get flabby and relish in old glories and decline. Frequently, they followed a similar time line. Sometimes there is a short lived revival under good leadership in hard times. To regain its zenith, one almost needs to start again. Benjamin Franklin noted that this would happen to us.

    Your definition of patriotism sounds more like nationalism. As a third culture American, I still feel patriotic, but view nationalism with disdain.

    I see much of the same in the American Church (and throughout the world). Sad. The Church is to be part of another Kingdom not of this world, but actively present here, doing good and showing its exceptionalism. Unfortunately it has been hijacked by the political polarity as well. As St. Ignatious of Antioch stated in his letter to Philadelphia, "Do not err my brothers: if anyone follow a schismatic, he will not inherit the Kingdom of God... I did my best as a man devoted to unity. But where there is division and anger, God does not dwell. The Lord, however, forgives all who repent, if their repentance leads to the unity of God... I beseech you therefore, do nothing in a spirit of division..." We, the Church, must all humbly repent from all quarters.

  4. Very well said Dr. Seat. I feel that too many Americans think this way. Saying like, We are the greatest Nation on Earth, Even God Bless America, well my thinking is that God Blesses those around the world. Far too many Americans seem to misunderstand the meaning of what they are saying, and try to interpret the sayings that we are somehow superior to others. This, I feel, makes many not like us.

  5. Earlier today I received an e-mail from a dear Canadian friend. He said, in part,

    "What a refreshing comment from a good American friend. It is such a good counterbalance to the jingoism that we here in Canada often hear from our southern neighbours.

    "Now, if you want to visit a truly exceptional country, come see us!! :)"

  6. The real exceptionalism of the United States happens so quietly we rarely notice. We invented the worlds' first national park in Yellowstone. Now there are national parks all over the world. As there are young people who want to wear blue jeans, listen to rock and roll, and speak like an American. When Ho Chi Minh wanted to write an declaration of independence for Vietnam (from France), he modeled it after the American. For good and ill our movies, movements and ideas flood the world. Outside of few fanatics, almost everyone wants to be more American-like, if not literally, American.

    The problem comes with the use of exceptionalism as an idea that indicates that somehow America is an exception to the usual rules. Others do torture, but we do enhanced interrogations. Others are accountable for their actions, we are free to conduct pre-emptive wars. Democracy is a great idea, until it gets in our way.

    The ancient Romans thought they were exceptional. They brought law to the barbarians. Yet their empire fell. American exceptionalism argues that we are democracy, so we are immune to imperialism. Well, Rome was a republican until the military-industrial complex of the day seized control of the government. For that matter, Athens, the inventor of democracy, built an empire of its own, while still a democracy. This is the great danger of American exceptionalism, it ideologically turns a blind eye to the very real dangers confronting us, and our neighbors. We are like the man in New York who recently lost his life in a motorcycle accident, while parading against helmet laws. He thought he was exceptional, and, in the end, in a way he was.

  7. Earlier today I received this e-mail from an esteemed friend:

    "Bravo! As one who has lived many years in another nation, you have the right credentials to say what you have said here, Leroy."