The other day I was looking at the website of Tim Wolfe who is running against Jan Schankowsky in the 9th district. While on his site, I noted he stated a belief in American exceptionalism. The phrase is packed with a lot of baggage and means many things to many people.
In my own upbringing, a military family with Calvinist leanings, it was not unusual to think of America as having been set apart from the nations of the world. All nations may be blessed by God, but one in particular was ordained by Providence to be a beacon to all others.
I knew what my upbringing did with such a belief, but I wondered exactly what Wolfe could mean by it. My feeling is that he is feeding the Republican rhetoric of being part of a great land unlike any other, but there seemed to be something a little more to it than this. Of course, I could not get at the whole of it. Such things are impossible on websites. But there was enough there to make me think of it. I wonder if Wolfe appreciates the tremendous nature of the claim or how often anyone does.
In 1630 on board the Arbella, John Winthrop delivered a sermon to the Massachusetts Bay Colonists that would be invoked more than 360 years later by John F Kennedy and after that by Ronald Reagan in their “city on a hill” speeches. All of these men delivered exceptional rhetoric and all three knew where the words came from, even if many in their audience did not understand it was Jesus who first spoke of this city.
The words from the Sermon on the Mount put into this context, begs the question as to why would a nation want to be a city on a hill? Jesus admonishes his listeners to not hide a lamp under a bushel and says that they must be like a city on a hill that their good works may be seen and glorify God who is in heaven. The call is great. And when Winthrop, Kennedy, and Reagan gave the call to America, they expected great things.
My upbringing taught me that this was an exceptional nation and a nation of which great things are to expected, but a great call make for difficult tasks. Do we realize how difficult and do we ask ourselves those difficult questions that would mean those on the right and the left are wrong when they narrowly define their agendas and insist on a vision that is only theirs. Does the left expect great things when it okays the slaughter of innocents and gives free money to banks at rates no average American could never attain. Does the right expect great things when it ignores the social welfare of millions and insists that cheap oil is more important than the protection of the good earth? Is it so important to get elected and hold public office that you can only have half a vision?
Go ahead and use the words “American Exceptionalism” but only do it if you are willing to make America exceptional and think seriously what John F Kennedy meant when he said “those to whom much is given, much will be required.”