Last night Governor Christie announced it was time to enter a new age of American exceptionalism. I think what he was referring to is a return to American greatness that can be bested by no other nation on earth. If this was what he was saying, it is fine and well and one America should strive for. Unfortunately when heard in a philosophical context, this has broader implications.
Rarely do we hear of American civil religion anymore. We have become too diverse of a society to adhere to such a thing. But we are again hearing the phrase American exceptionalism and it is time to ask ourselves what it means and if it is something to strive for.
First and foremost, the phrase is a theological one. It was born of the mostly Calvinist belief that God has blessed the United States above other nations and has divinely ordain that Americans are to deliver to the world a message of liberty and democracy with a missionary zeal. It became particularly pronounced in the belief that Americans need not answer to the civil and religious authorities in other nations, that our trek west and eventually throughout the globe was part of a Manifest Destiny, and that American progress was a sign that God favored our nation above others.
In 1961 John Kennedy delivered his famous City upon a Hill speech invoking the great Puritan leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony John Winthrop. Today it is hard to understand the importance of the speech, but Kennedy was a shrewd man who knew how the speech would sit on the ears of those who distrusted the global reach of his faith. By calling on Winthrop he went straight to the heart of American exceptionalism and its Puritan roots. Read between the lines and the speech is about how America is to be its own land and that we are not to be ignored, that our light is to be a light to the world with America informing others rather than being informed by others.
Now the one thing that may easily be forgotten in this rhetoric is that neither Winthrop nor Kennedy saw a guarantee for America’s place in the world. Winthrop (and remember there is no United States in his day) placed his words in the context of knowing that hard work also involved charity and that sin was ever present. Kennedy included in his speech the words of Jesus saying, “to whom much is given, much will be required.” This, I am afraid, is forgotten in what it means to be an exceptional people. This is also the problem with Christie’s rhetoric. ….there is no place in it for obligation, only the striving to make America great regardless of whether that greatness is to be shared.
And it is not enough to be great to the exclusion of others. It is not righteous that America be a shining light, if we are to hide our light under a bushel. This is the problem with our political parties. One side seeks to apologize constantly for America and the other seeks an America with no apology. How much better of a nation we would be if we honored the words of John Kennedy marrying Protestant liberty with Catholic obligation.
America is a unique nation. We have much to give the world as well as those within our own boundaries that have far too little. If we honor this, if we acknowledge both our blessing and our responsibility we may again be that exceptional nation blessed by God and sharing that blessing with others.