I am an American citizen. I was born here and I will probably die here. Back when I was in school, we were still taught American history in which the United States were still looked at in a positive light. I was taught to love my country, be proud of my country, and be loyal to my country. In other words, I was taught that America is an exceptional country.
If you look up the word “exceptional” in a dictionary, it is defined as follows: “forming an exception or rare instance; unusual; extraordinary.” Given this definition, is America exceptional? I would argue “yes.” Our country is rare, unusual and extraordinary in many ways. It’s formation was exceptional. The United States of America was born when representatives from the 13 British colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776 and won that independence seven years later in 1783 when the War of Independence was won and the Treaty of Paris was signed recognizing the sovereignty of these United States of America. What was exceptional about our formation was that America was the first nation in the history of the world that was founded on the classical liberal ideals of life, liberty and property. The American experiment, as I like to call it, is an experiment in freedom, liberty and self-determination. No nation prior and no nation since has had a founding quite like ours.
Secondly, America was a country that embraced the principle that we are a nation of laws, not of men. Everyone was equal under the law from the president on down to the poorest laborer. The guiding document for the American experiment is the United States Constitution. Our Constitution is exceptional in that it is a document that established as a principle the concept of limited government. It clearly delineates the limitations of legislative, executive and judicial powers and assumes that any authority not explicitly granted to the federal government is left to the individual states and citizens. No other nation prior or since has a Constitution like ours.
Thirdly, America is exceptional because our ethic is based on a Judeo-Christian worldview. I don’t go as far as some in saying that America was founded as a Christian nation. I don’t think that can be supported from the evidence. But clearly, the original English pilgrims and the settlers that followed all came from a country that has been Christian for centuries. Even if many of the people weren’t born again believers in Christ, they all were aware of the Judeo-Christian worldview with its ethical and metaphysical categories.
Fourthly, America is an exceptional country because we quickly became the most prosperous country in the world thanks to our classical liberal foundation and Judeo-Christian worldview. A free market economy and a laissez faire attitude helped ignite an American economy that led the world in invention and ingenuity. Our prosperity was the main reason we went from start up country to world power in less than 200 years.
All of these reasons enumerated point to American being an exceptional nation, but in all these reasons so listed, none of them suggest that the American people are inherently superior to other people around the world. None of these reasons suggest that America is an inherently superior or more moral country than other countries in the world. The founding fathers often spoke of providence. Providence is the idea that God is intimately involved in his creation. Providence speaks to the fact that God sustains and governs his creation to fulfill his sovereign ends. America is a product of God’s providence, but as such, it is not inherently superior to any other country on the planet.
Yet when you hear people nowadays talking about American exceptionalism, this is precisely what they have in mind. The attitude has shifted from feeling grateful and blessed by God’s providence to feeling proud and superior to other nations because of who we are and what we believe. American exceptionalism, as it’s understood now, sees America as the defender of truth, justice and the American way and seeks to actively promote the American way throughout the world.
As is typical of empires throughout history, the belief within the empire is that the empire is good, faithful and true, and must promote its virtue throughout the world; usually through conquest. Nationalism and military expansion go hand in hand, and “American Exceptionalism” is just American nationalism under another name. Nationalism, when taken to an extreme, leads to jingoism, which is nationalism combined with an aggressive foreign policy.
American exceptionalism is the motivation amongst many policymakers here in the U.S. that support the concept of America being the world’s policeman of freedom and democracy. It is the impetus behind our aggressive nation-building efforts in Asia and the Middle East. American exceptionalism nowadays equates to an American hegemony, or a Pax Americana much like the Pax Britannia of the 19th century. As the world’s lone superpower coming out of the Cold War, some believe it is America’s destiny to maintain a level of control and assert a level of superiority across the globe. Much of our current military aggressiveness is grounded in the ongoing War on Terror, which was just a clever way to keep America on a perpetual war footing. The War on Terror is so open-ended and vague that it defies any attempt to reign it in and end it. As long as there are terrorists in the world, we will need to be on constant vigil.
Now given this more recent redefinition of American exceptionalism, I have to ask the question: What is so exceptional about it? Spreading freedom and democracy at the barrel of a gun is not exceptional, it’s being a bully plain and simple. We invade foreign countries on the pretext of aiding and abetting terrorism. We overthrow the current government (which wasn’t good) and replace it with a puppet regime (which is more extreme than the previous regime) and we wonder why people around the world (especially in the Middle East) hate us. GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul recently put out an ad criticizing our foreign policy. The gist of the ad was to get us to imagine that a powerful foreign country (e.g., China) invaded the U.S. and did to us precisely what we are doing to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. If that actually happened, we would be motivated to defend ourselves against the invaders and we would be looked at as terrorists for doing so. (By the way, this was precisely the premise of the 1984 movies Red Dawn).
How does a Christian respond to this? Obviously I cannot speak for all Christians, but I can speak for this Christian, and I think it’s appalling. I used to advocate for American exceptionalism of the current variety until I was recently challenged on that position. After being challenged and rethinking my position, it became obvious to me that I was being uncritical of America’s foreign policy because I believed in American exceptionalism. I believed we were the best country on the planet and that our intentions were always noble and true. I believed that people who were against the War on Terror were liberal pacifists who hated America. In other words, I bought into the rhetoric of the war propagandists.
What got me to think differently on these matters was thinking about the correlation between American exceptionalism and Christian evangelism. Would Christians evangelize in the same manner as those who advocate for American exceptionalism want to spread American democracy? In other words, would Christians spread the faith through violence and coercion? The answer is obviously “no.” Faith, as the Apostle Paul says, comes through hearing the gospel of Christ. They cannot hear unless someone preaches, and no one will preach unless he is sent (Romans 10:14-17). Evangelism is not done at the barrel of a gun. If that is true for evangelism, why wouldn’t it be true of liberty and democracy? More people across the globe would be impressed with America through our peaceful example than through our military. The founding fathers thought America’s exceptionalism would spread through friendship, mutual respect and free trade, not through entangling alliances, war and nation-building.
I think our current foreign policy is wrong on many fronts. It’s wrong because it is unconstitutional. There is no constitutional warrant for America to be the policeman of the world and to spread democracy through the barrel of a gun. The excuse that this is all in our “national security interests” is so transparent as to be invisible. How does having tens of thousands of our military personnel spread across the globe make us more secure here at home? All the War on Terror has accomplished is in giving license to the warmongering neoconservatives in the government to expand military operations abroad and restrict personal liberties here at home through a growing police state.
Our current foreign policy is also wrong because it’s immoral. You cannot spread peace and liberty through war and violence. It is immoral because through our military excursions, we have harmed innocent non-combatants. Our foreign policy is not only unconstitutional and immoral, but also dangerous. Our foreign policy motivates anger and hatred toward the U.S. and its citizens. Terrorist attacks against American citizens has increased since the War on Terror than before it. Furthermore, the 9/11 attacks was, in part, motivated by our Middle East foreign policy for the last 50 years. Despite the incontrovertible evidence that suggests our foreign policy has motivated the attacks against us, many people naively believe the idea that the Muslims attacked us because they despise our freedom and way of life, and to go contrary to that party line is to open oneself to vitriol and ad hominem. Only a jingoistic believer in American exceptionalism can believe that our enemies attack us because of our way of life.
A Christian should have no part in the party of American exceptionalism as currently defined. Many Christians support our current aggressive foreign policy and I believe they do so uncritically because they compartmentalize their Christianity and their American identity. Too many American Christians are too much American and not enough Christian. They operate with a cognitive dissonance in their lives between their Christianity and their patriotism toward America. How does supporting our current aggressive foreign policy harmonize with Christ’s beatitude of “Blessed are the peacemakers?” How can American Christians out of one side of their mouths support American exceptionalism and out of the other side of their mouths say with the Apostle Paul, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18)? Christianity is not compatible with American exceptionalism as expressed in our current aggressive foreign policy. Instead of tacitly approving it, Christians should be speaking out against it.
Nowadays when I think of American exceptionalism, I think of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14. The person who embraces American exceptionalism in all its bloody glory is like the Pharisee in the parable. He looks to God and says, “Thank God I am not like other men, Muslims, Iranians, Pakistanis, Chinese and North Koreans. I am an American and the world should be blessed because of it.”
Brothers and sisters, we are Christians first and foremost and only Americans by God’s providence. America is exceptional, but not because we’ve got the biggest and baddest military in the world and we’re not afraid to use it, but because we value freedom, liberty and self-determination. As Christians, we need to be far more concerned with promoting the Great Commission in the spirit of the Great Commandment rather than promoting American exceptionalism. Our citizenship is from above! We are citizens of the Kingdom of God and subjects of the King of kings and Lord of lords. We are his ambassadors in this dark, lost and dying world. If you are an American citizen, be thankful! You live in a country that was built upon a foundation of freedom and liberty; a foundation that is being eroded day by day. America will inevitably go the way of all empires; it will have played its part in God’s cosmic drama of redemption. We need to be looking for that city whose “designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).