My Musings

An Exceptional Heritage

An Exceptional Heritage

On September 10, 2013, President Obama made his case for using military force against Syria in response to internal war crimes. He closed it thusly: “I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”

Five years earlier, while overseas, 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.” In other words, there is nothing exceptional about our belief that America is exceptional. It’s just provincial presumption. That same year, In France, he said, “America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive,” (April 3, 2009). That sounded like he thought we were exceptionally bad.

Nevertheless, in 2013, the world heard Obama affirm that America is exceptional. President Putin of Russia took exception to this. Two days after Obama’s speech, Putin wrote in the New York Times:

It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy… We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

Invoking God was odd for a former KGB officer and previous atheist with a brutal legacy. That aside, apparently Putin sees America the same way Obama did in 2009.

Here is what neither President Obama or Putin seem to understand: American exceptionalism has nothing to do with thinking we are better than anyone. It’s about our Founder’s vision for limiting government rather than expanding it. That was exceptional in an era of tyrants like King George III, Robespierre, Napoleon and others.

Much of human history is a story of monarchy, autocracy, anarchy, tyranny and such. America emerged as an amazing, though flawed, exception to this. “Exhibit A” for American exceptionalism is President Washington stepping down from power. He had enough popularity and prestige to become the first American king and rule for life. Having none of that, he gave up his power and returned to his farm. For over 2,000 years since Cincinnatus returned to his plow, no leader in similar circumstances had done what Washington did. He showed a top-heavy world how to conduct peaceful transitions of power. His exceptional greatness can be seen in contrast to the power-hungry Napoleon who, in exile, whined, “They wanted me to be another Washington.” But Napoleon was far too typical for that.

The Enlightenment ideals of representative government and the consent of the governed were not unique to us. They came from Europe. But the application of those ideals of liberty to the faith-based society cultivated in colonial America was unique. Our Founders worked hard to craft a largely secular Constitution and pass laws but they often warned that such things were wholly inadequate for a society without religion and morality (a reference to our Christian underpinnings). Faith provided the soil from which our nation and its enlightened Constitution grew. That was exceptional.

Revolutions are not unique but the French and Russian Revolutions were disasters because they spouted lofty principles while severing themselves from a faith-based heritage. They were anti-Christian revolutions. They professed to honor the common man but that was a ruse with no foundation in a moral or religious anchor. The American Revolution retained and respected that foundation and empowered the common man by limiting government and separating the representative powers. Slavery, it must be confessed, was a tragic exception to our exceptional beginnings. There was nothing exceptional about slavery in those days.

America is not a geographical location. The land was here long before there was an “America.” Nor is America merely her government. Race, gender and class have no bearing on our identity as Americans. If your ancestors came here on the Mayflower or on a slave ship, you now (though this took time and cost many lives) have an equal claim on America. Here, talent, skill and hard work should determine your fate more than birth, race or class. America was an exceptional idea. Over time, we forged a unique oneness based on principles and ideals (e pluribus unum), not on old school hierarchies and castes.

American exceptionalism is not rooted in our willingness, or not, to hold a dictator in Syria accountable for war crimes. That’s a complex international question. President Obama was wrong when he dismissed American exceptionalism in 2009 and again when he claimed it inaccurately in 2013. It is our heritage that is exceptional and I am grateful. I also grieve that so few Americans today understand or treasure our heritage.

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About the Author:

Joel graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A., completing two majors: Art and Religion. He went on to earn the Master of Divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. The views expressed on this blog are personal and belong to Joel Solliday unless otherwise stated. They are not, intended to characterize the views of the Lewiston Church of Christ or other organizations to which I may refer.