Barack Obama: American Exceptionalist?


There has been a lot of talk about President Obama’s recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast last week. It was a topic of conversation in my Principles of American Politics class yesterday, as we were discussing the first five chapters of Democracy in America, volume I, by Alexis de Tocqueville. The buzz in social media, blogs, and news outlets continues even into this week. John Fea’s post on the subject from last Saturday is still, even today, generating conversation in the comments section. There are sixteen comments at this writing, with the most recent one posted just a few moments ago. And there will likely be more ink spilled on the speech before the week is out.

There is, indeed, much to say about the President’s speech. I’d like to focus on one aspect of the speech in particular in order to argue that Obama’s remarks fall squarely within the best tradition of American exceptionalism. Yes—American exceptionalism. From Barack Obama.

In case you haven’t seen or read the transcript, the President began by asking this question:

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends? 

The President answered this question by calling on people of faith to exercise humility in their affirmations of truth. The exercise of humility is the necessary practical outworking of doing justly and loving mercy, as Micah 6:8 describes.

One of the aspects the President cited in the exercise of humility was thoughtful self-reflection. In speaking about self-reflection, President Obama articulated a specific American exceptionalist value.

Of course, the President is getting little credit for this. And perhaps he doesn’t deserve credit. Ross Douthat wrote in his New York Times column that “too often [his Niebuhrian style] offers ‘self’-criticism in which the president’s own party and worldview slip away untouched.” Perhaps Obama is guilty of utilizing sophistry to win political points. He is, after all, a politician and according to Gallup, the most polarizing president in the last sixty years. He plays to his base, no doubt about that—and no surprise, either. But when it comes to American exceptionalism, President Obama has come a long way. You might say, he has “evolved.”

But in an attempt to be objective (note: not neutral), let’s just consider the President’s statements on national self-reflection, that which I am identifying as being consistent with an American exceptionalist tradition.

In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Is this statement historically accurate? Definitely. Ta-Nehisi Coates has provided clear evidence for this fact in his recent answer to the President’s conservative critics.

To bring up a profound moral failure on the part of American Christians, and to call them to self-reflection in the context of the National Prayer Breakfast takes courage. And why did the President do this? What was the purpose? Was the purpose to bash America? To bash Christians? Certainly not, at least not in this speech. The President’s purpose was to call us to a humility that rejects the notion that just because we are Americans, and just because we are Christians, we can do no wrong. Actually, we can do wrong, sustained wrong, systemic wrong, destructive wrong, wrong for which we as a nation continue to pay the dreadful consequences.

President Obama’s statement had the effect of exhorting American Christians to reflect on their past actions in order to call them to be true to their own values, specifically the value of humility. In this, he is firmly situated in a tradition that goes all the way back to the Puritans of the seventeenth century. Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705) wrote the poem “God’s Controversy With New England” during a great drought in 1662 to call the people to return to faithfulness to the Lord. He wrote,

Whence cometh it, that Pride, and Luxurie/Debate, Deceit, Contention, and Strife\False-dealing, Covetousness, Hypocrisie/(With such like Crimes) amonst them are so rife/That one of them doth over-reach another?/And that an honest man can hardly trust his Brother?

Wigglesworth’s warning to the people of New England was that God was chastening them for their departure from their responsibility to be true to His moral commands. In the same spirit, Samuel Danforth (1626-1674) preached his 1670 election day sermon “A Brief Recognition of New England’s Errand Into the Wilderness” in Boston. He exhorted his listeners that “the Lord calls upon them seriously and thoroughly to examine themselves, what it was that drew them into the Wilderness” of America in the first place. Specifically, Danforth said, they were to “walk in the Faith of the Gospel with all good Conscience according to the Order of the Gospel.” But instead, Jesus’ question from Matthew 11:7-9, “What went ye out into the Wilderness to see?” was “a sad conviction of our dullness and backwardness to this great duty.”

Were Wigglesworth and Danforth resorting to anti-New England rants? Not at all. They were calling the people to recover their first principles through the act of humbling themselves and engaging in self-reflection. National self-reflection is a thoroughly American habit, most famously practiced throughout our history by the Puritans, abolitionists, woman suffragists, proponents of civil rights, and many, many others. Many of those who called Americans to self-reflection were accused of being false patriots, but history demonstrated them to be the truest patriots of all in calling Americans back to their first principles.

Ironically enough, the conservative evangelical tradition is thoroughly accustomed to calling America to remember her sins and pursue righteousness. Preachers frequently appeal to 2 Chronicles 7:14 in order to encourage Americans to “humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways” so that God would “hear from heaven” and “forgive their sin, and heal their land.” I have my issues with the exegetical propriety of using this passage to call America back to God—but the point is, doing so is consistent with a continuing exceptionalist tradition of national self-examination that is quite old. And conservative evangelicals, of all people, ought to be able to appreciate it when they see it—even from a President with whom they hardly ever agree.


3 responses to “Barack Obama: American Exceptionalist?

  1. Hi John – balanced and well-written as always. Your writing is a breath of fresh air.

    In regards to Gallup’s poll about polarizing. I wonder if the polarization of Bush & Obama [negligible difference] is more so the effect of partisan politics rather than the cause. This wouldn’t move the dial much either way for your article, but just a point of observation.

    I’m also curious on what the implications of “American Exceptionalism” is with regards to “national self-reflection.” Certainly I imagine this is a trait Americans on either side of the partisan line can get behind. But is this truly exceptional? Is America unique in its emphasis of self-reflection? I profess ignorance, but my intuition is that reflection is more commonplace.

    • James, great to hear from you and thanks for commenting.

      To your first question, I think it’s complicated. Both the partisan nature of politics in general and the personalities involved are both at issue. They feed on one another, so there is no simple answer to the question.

      To your next question–very good question, by the way. Some people insist that we understand the term exceptionalism in absolute terms. That is, we must say that exceptionalism demands that there be absolutely no other nation, kingdom, or empire that fits a particular trait–only the United States, etc. But this is not a necessary part of the definition. The term is used more generally, to mean that the US is distinguished by a cultural/political/social difference that marks it out from the rest of the world in a meaningful and measurable way.

      Americans have been a self-reflecting people since the inception of the New England colonies in the first part of the 1600s. They have consistently been so since the beginning. And this self-reflection is always in the context of religion–including American civil religion, which is marked by the principles of freedom, democracy, etc. (See the interview with Peter Gardella right before this post).

      Other nations do engage in self-reflection, to be sure. I’m thinking particularly of Britain and Germany. But they have not been a self-reflecting people from their deepest origins. And their self-reflection is not nearly as informed by religion as in America. So in that sense, self reflection is an aspect of exceptionalism.

      Hope they’re treating you well in law school! Thanks again for commenting.

  2. No matter how much you like his words you must remind yourself his words never come from his heart. Does he believe in anything? Nobody knows.

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