America! Exceptional! For Goodness’ Sake!

As I went through public school, I heard all about America the melting pot, the New World refuge for victims of persecution or economic hardship, the “city on a hill” of democracy. In church I heard all about how our Christian founding fathers wanted a nation where they could freely worship God and do what was right. In both I heard about America’s founding principles regarding life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The common theme that I heard in school and in church was the exceptionality of America: in the history of the world, there has never been a nation state quite like America.

America is exceptional in that people could be proudly Arab, Basque, Chinese, Danish, Estonian, Finnish, German, Haitian, or any ethnicity and yet be American. For instance, if you want to go to China and be Chinese, you have to be Chinese to be accepted as Chinese; if you want to go to Kenya and be Kenyan, you have to be able to name your tribe. In America we have ethnic enclaves flying foreign flags and all are proudly American. Broadly stated, one of the distinguishing features in America’s national narrative is that everyone is originally from somewhere else and somehow they all live together peacefully.

While I am not acquainted with the current state of political discourse in this election season, I believe that there is thunderous debate regarding the exceptionality of America as a nation. On the Republican side of things, it seems that the debate fights a lot over just how Christian America is or is supposed to be. I recently saw this video posted by Joe Carter over at First Things, and I got to thinking about the exceptionalities of the United States of America, and I want to posit a historical counterexample to America’s exceptionality.

In the video referenced above, a speaker highlights America’s founding principles and holds adherence to those as the thing that makes Americans truly American. Another nation founded upon certain governing principles was the Soviet Union—equal distribution of wealth, jobs, food, and worldwide socialist revolution for all. In the founding of the Soviet Union, there was a revolutionary vanguard of people who had a vision of a socialist future. They pushed the whole nation to be where they wanted it to be, and the Soviet Union was born. The Bolsheviks pushed class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat into the national narratives of the Soviet Union’s constituent states. Perhaps their failure came in their attempts to extend the national narrative to other nation states; whatever the case, many nations have been unique in the history of the world, but they fail when they conflate national narrative with foreign policy objectives.

America has a unique national story, but it is not the world’s story. It is America’s story. For all of America’s exceptional qualities, those are true of America, for America. For American Christians, we have to understand when we are being good Americans and when we are being good Christians; we need to not be bad Americans while trying to be good Christians, and vice versa. We as American Christians have to be able to shift gears when we transition between politics and religion. While the American government has many tools to influence the world, the American government is not our tool to influence the world. America is indeed exceptional; America is indeed an example to the world; America is indeed a force for good. That said, America needs to be good for its own sake, for the sake of goodness and for the sake of the country.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    This article doesn’t deal at all with the dastardly things America has done in her own name. How can we say that America is unequivocally a force for good, exceptionally so, when we have a history as riddled with injustice as any other western power, both at home and abroad?

    And on what grounds can we claim that being a good American should trump being a good Christian?

  • Nathan Bennett

    Overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran in the 1950s or 60s.
    Operation Condor.
    Banana republics.
    Philippine-American War.
    Overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile.
    CIA experimentation with drugs.
    Abuses in the War on Terror.
    Operation Keelhaul.

    These are just a few of the evil things that our country/government has done. Lindsay, you are right. I could do an entire post (or series of books) on the evils committed by Americans. This post is against American exceptionalism as a justification for whatever America wants to do rather than an apologetic for American policy.

    Indeed, America is not unequivocally a force for good in the world, and my arguments for America’s goodness would quickly turn into advocacy for a lesser evil. I could sum up my final paragraph this way: “I suppose America IS pretty good, but being a Christian and being an American are two totally different things and we have to get better at being both. If America wants to be morally good, it has to follow the same morality that governs everyone else in the world and not invent its own.”

    On no grounds would I claim that being a good American should trump being a good Christian. I do say that people can forget to be good humans while they are trying really hard to be good Christians. While my post does not address the bad things that America is done and it only foggily addresses the mixed up notions that we as American Christians can have about our proper roles in our country, the intended effect is to properly understand America’s good parts so that we do not become so infatuated with ourselves that we cannot see the bad parts.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    These are great thoughts! And they should’ve been in the article. :)

  • Nathan Bennett

    They will definitely turn into themes included in future articles.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    Hm. Then I’m confused – is America infallibly exceptional, or isn’t it? Those themes would contradict this argument.

  • Nathan Bennett

    Exceptional in what way? I mean the loose, “We’re special in our own way!” kind of exceptional. I am playing word games dismissive of American exceptional-ism. I would also argue that American HAS been a positive example to the world and a force for good, though I will concede that I would have to give some examples. For instance, what country victorious in war sets up the UN rather than try to impose its rule or its vision of the future on the rest of the world? I left out a lot of stuff so that I could make one precise point rather than address all possible nuances in a single blog post. I apologize when I apologize and I be happy about being an American when I am happy about being an American. To finish, America needs to look to its own pursuit of virtue before it guts its own morality.