Are We “Exceptional”?

There’s a lot of talk going on about American Exceptionalism these days.  But, it’s not the version that caused de Tocqueville to coin that phrase.  He referred to us as exceptional because the United States was a society and a nation founded on principles of equality and individualism, one that was of, for and by the people (de Tocqueville didn’t say it that way but it sounds good).  No, what I’m hearing today is that America has been granted a special role in history by no less than God himself.  It’s become quite the battle cry among the conservative set.  Strangely, I don’t hear them say what that role is.   What you will hear folks say that America is a “Christian Nation”, that we were founded on Christian principles and that the First Amendment has nothing to do with the separation of church and state.  Like more than a few others of a more liberal bent, I’m more than a little uncomfortable with this.  Why?  Well, for starters, let’s take a look at some of the things our conservative brethren are saying about the founding of this great nation. 

  1. “America is a Christian Nation”_ No, it’s not.  I say that with all certainty because the United States government said it wasn’t way back in 1797.  In the Treaty of Tripoli, it specifically states “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion;”.  It doesn’t get much plainer than that.
  2. “The United States was founded on Christian Principles”_ Not exactly.  The United States was founded on Enlightenment principles, some of which happened to be Christian.  But, to say that the foundations of our system of government are Christian is disingenuous at best and an out-and-out lie at worst. 
  3. “The First Amendment has nothing to do with the separation of church and state.”_ While it is true that the phrase “separation of church and state” never appears in anywhere in the Constitution, that is certainly what the author meant.  How do I know that, you ask?  Simple; he said so after he wrote it.  James Madison, said author, wrote “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States”.  Again, seems pretty cut-and-dried to me.  The actual phrase was first used by Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, who were worried about the lack of protection in their state constitution against government intervention into religion.  Jefferson assured them that the First Amendment’s proscription against state-sponsored religion built a “wall of separation” between the church and the state. 

Okay, I’ve listed my opposition to some arguments about our founding, but how does that relate to the topic at hand?  Well, some folks believe (erroneously) that because we were founded on Christian principles, we are specially favored by God; even to the point of being a new “chosen people”.  Evidently, they also believe that this special status allows us to justify all manner of what can only be called evil behavior.  Behavior we have never tolerated from other nations, such as torture, rendition, the suspension of habeas corpus, invasion of privacy…, I could go on, but you get the point.  These are the actions of a Christian Nation?

I think the whole idea of our “special place in history” stems from a desire to feel good about ourselves as a people and a  nation.  I’m old enough to remember the malaise that infected this country in the 70’s.  We’d gotten out of an unpopular war and the regime we backed eventually crumbled; the government was revealed as corrupt; our main intelligence gathering service had been found to be involved in all manner of things they shouldn’t be and we’d been humiliated by a little Podunk country who captured our embassy and held our people hostage.  It wasn’t a good time to be an American.  Enter Ronald Reagan in 1980.  As my brother once said the best thing about Reagan was the way he made you feel about your country again.  The thing is, he didn’t really do anything to accomplish that, outside of a few speeches and the like; it wasn’t real.  That’s what the idea of American Exceptionalism does.  Instead of doing things that we can be proud of, like feeding the hungry and protecting the weak, it creates a “feel-good” sensation that’s ultimately hollow.  And, what’s the point of that?

In closing, I say that America, while it isn’t exceptional in and of itself, has exceptional potential.  It’s about time we started living up to it.