Is American Exceptionalism a Christian Idea?

Battle of Veracruz. Image from Wikipedia

Oliver Thomas has a column in USA Today on the topic. The title of piece is “A Christian View of American Exceptionalism.”

I am working on a paper and a book proposal on the topic of American exceptionalism. My intent is to write a historical and theological analysis of American exceptionalism, and argue that it is not an idea in alignment with Christianity. This column caught my attention.

Thomas begins his piece by saying,

Even before we could get off the ship, Massachusetts’ first governor, John Winthrop, explained it to us. We were to be a city on a hill, a light to the nations, the new Israel. Iconic politicians from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan have invoked this famous biblical imagery to explain America’s role in the world.

Winthrop was the governor of Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630, not the same thing as the state of Massachusetts. He could not have envisioned that what he described as a “city on a hill” would move beyond the shady boundaries of what he could see in 1630. We can also question whether or not his metaphor of “city on a hill” is rightly applied to America’s adventures over the centuries. And while Winthrop intended Massachusetts Bay to be a Puritan commonwealth, and thus a “Christian nation,” that is not what the framers of the Constitution produced, but a nation with full religious freedom. Furthermore, the descriptions of “city on a hill” and “light to the nations” are used in Scripture to apply respectively to the followers of Christ (Matt 5) and to Christ Himself (Isa 49, 60).

America’s self-understanding as a shining “city on a hill” helps explain both our westward expansion and our paternalistic foreign policy. From Cuba and Central America to the Philippines, Vietnam and Iraq, Americans have been willing to impose their will on others. Some will argue it was because we wanted their land or oil. Perhaps. But it was also because we thought we knew what was best.

Thomas is right in his last sentence of this quote. But what nation acts in a particular way thinking they didn’t know what was best? This doesn’t mean they are right all, or even most, of the time. America has been right a great deal in its history as it has acted in its interests. But not all the time.

But probe the biblical metaphor that forms the foundation of the American psyche and you find that exceptionalism is always for service — never for favor. The prophets of Israel emphasized this point. Even the ancient book of Genesis establishes this baseline principle when God speaks to the patriarch Abraham: “By your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”

This first sentence is problematic. One need only to look to the Mexican War of 1846-48, which was primarily a war of conquest. Also, does Thomas truly mean to suggest that Gen 12.3 ought to be applied directly to the United States of America? Certainly if America has replaced Israel as God’s chosen nation, it must. But to reach this conclusion, one must ignore everything the Bible says about God’s plan for Israel and the church.

If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, it is for service, not domination. Parse Winthrop’s words, and you’ll find a similar message. The American experiment was to serve as an example of right living and right governance. “A model of Christian charity,” as he put it. It was never intended as American entitlement.

Again, Winthrop did not envision himself starting “an American experiment.” He saw himself establishing a covenant community in a strange and distant wilderness, an “errand in the wilderness.” He saw himself doing God’s work, but did not see this work in the same nationalistic way that we ascribe to him. This is an anachronistic way of interpreting Winthrop’s sermon.

That’s ironic given the extraordinary generosity of individual Americans. We tend to be good neighbors. When the roof caves in, Americans pile in with blankets, hot coffee and all the rest. From the Salvation Army to Boys and Girls Clubs to Habitat for Humanity to the Gates Foundation, the generosity and creative problem-solving ability of Americans is legendary. But a blessing to the world and a light to other nations? Only on occasion.

No argument here.

I’m thinking of America’s stand against Nazism and Japanese imperialism; her willingness to help rebuild post-World War II Europe; and, more recently, her stunning response to the 2004 tsunami. America also boasts the world’s oldest Constitution, an extraordinary system of governmental checks and balances, almost two-thirds of the world’s top universities and the collective talent to do anything we set our minds to. Ironically, we cannot rely upon our politicians to get us there. They can’t even get to a balanced budget! If America is to live up to the dream of her Founders, it will be because of us. We the people.

No urgent argument here, except to ask what exactly is the dream of America’s “Founders”? The “Founders” were not one thing. They all had dreams for the country, and many of them deviated sharply from one another. Read some of the debates over the proposed Constitution in the states before it was ratified, and you’ll see that the “dream” was not as simple and obvious as it is often sentimentally described.

The path forward is surprisingly simple yet exceedingly hard. We will have to begin acting more like our parents and grandparents. They put duty first, not self-actualization or the titillation of their nerve endings. No wonder they were able to accomplish all they did. And they never whined — not about gas rationing or individual tax rates that soared to as high as 90% in the 1950s. They seemed to live by one simple code: We will leave the world a better place than we found it.
The path to greatness is never well-trod. It is, though, well-marked. Discipline, courage and self-sacrifice are what get you there, not fidelity to narrow partisan agendas. Can America live up to her lofty dream as a shining city on a hill? You decide.
I agree with this also, but we must be careful when we consider the generations that have gone before us. They were just as flawed as we are. Our grandparents’ generation, the same one that won World War II, had the same proclivities to complaining, grandstanding, and power-mongering that we have in our day. They were not demigods. Read some of the political speeches of the candidates during the 1930s-1950s.
Thomas is exactly right, however, to draw a contrast between that generation and this. There was a greater willingness to sacrifice, to accept adversity, to look out for others, to deny selfish desires, to strive for common goals. Americans are special, without a doubt, because of its history, its traditions, its sincere desire to bring individual freedom to every nation, and its willingness to “bear any burden” to relieve the suffering and oppression of others.
Still, we must be careful not to import biblical imagery that was directed in one direction and forcefully point it elsewhere for patriotic self-service. America should certainly be marked by self-sacrifice, duty to others, commitment to justice, and rule of law. These commitments should stem from the fact that they are rooted in the truth, even biblical truth. But to advocate for these things on a shaky theological and historical basis that America is God’s New Israel? That’s bad history, bad interpretation, bad theology, and wishful thinking that can only lead us to impossible “dreams” and disillusionment.

 

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