The Staying Power of American Exceptionalism

Over the past several months, I have taken a hiatus from blogging. I am working on my second book, forthcoming from InterVarsity Press late next year or in early 2015, on the history and theology of American exceptionalism.

About a year ago, I made a request to anyone who reads my blog to give their thoughts on American exceptionalism. In the course of that time, I have received a lot of valuable feedback, on the blog, my Facebook page, emails, and in face-to-face dialogue. The book will incorporate much of this feedback throughout its content.

What is so interesting about American exceptionalism? For one thing, exceptionalism is a topic that gets a tremendous amount of attention. Take President Obama–at the outset of his presidency, in February of 2009 while giving an interview in Strasbourg, France, he was asked what he thought about exceptionalism. He said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In other words, there is much to commend about America’s exceptional character, but other countries have their own exceptional aspects, and the US must partner with them. Recently, on September 10, the president returned to the topic of exceptionalism: “America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.” This statement triggered a chiding response from Vladimir Putin of Russia, who criticized Obama for implying that America was better than other countries.

Exceptionalism is an idea that won’t die. During the 1970s, following assassinations, the US retreat from Vietnam, the fall of Johnson, and later Nixon, the rise of inflation and unemployment, along with a host of other challenges, there was a measurable loss of confidence in America on the part of its citizens. But during the 1980s, Americans elected and re-elected a president that promised to “bring America back,” demonstrating Americans’ deep desire to believe they were exceptional. And more recently, we have been reminded in Iraq and Afghanistan that the successful application of American military power does not necessarily amount to success in accomplishing its moral and political goals. Still, American exceptionalism was one of the primary themes of the 2012 campaign. The recent criticism leveled at our president by Putin of Russia for his (quite innocuous) use of the term resulted in a flurry of editorials on exceptionalism, mostly in defense of the idea. These developments show how the concept does not go away.

In the coming weeks and months, I will be writing more on the idea of American exceptionalism on the blog. As always, I welcome your feedback. You may comment here on the blog, or you might find that Facebook is a better place to engage in dialogue with others. Do me the honor of friending me here.


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