President Obama’s views on American exceptionalism are famously nuanced. In almost all of his statements on exceptionalism, he stresses America’s need for partnerships with other nations as well as America’s past failures to live up to its stated ideals. Nevertheless, Obama insists that he believes in American exceptionalism.
Since visiting Selma last March, many have commented on Obama’s articulation of exceptionalism. Articles have appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Hill, National Journal—and even one by an obscure writer over at Then and Now—analyzing Obama’s unique strain of exceptionalism that is inclusive, impatient with hypocrisy, calls America back to its original vision, and animated by an objective articulation of justice.
Many on the right become frustrated with Obama’s views on exceptionalism because he does not leave room for American innocence—which I argue in my forthcoming book is a facet of an exclusionary and imperialistic brand of exceptionalism which hijacks Christian theological affirmations (closed exceptionalism), and has been articulated throughout American history. Perhaps one reason why Obama comes under such criticism from conservatives is because we became accustomed to Ronald Reagan’s version of exceptionalism. Reagan sincerely believed that America was morally regenerate. To point to one example among many, he said in his 1984 presidential nomination speech at the RNC in Dallas, “America is the most peaceful, least warlike nation in modern history. We are not the cause of all the ills in the world. We’re a patient and generous people.”
But Obama’s reflective version of American exceptionalism is not an innovation. The Puritans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries gave us a patriotic tradition of what George McKenna called “anxious introspection.” This anxious introspection appeared in their jeremiads, their particular genre of sermon that called their communities to repent from their sins and return to what they believed was their covenantal relationship to God. In his excellent book, The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism, McKenna argues that the Puritan tradition of anxious introspection has been handed down to every generation of Americans since the colonial period, and has been a distinguishable mark of American patriotism for centuries.
Today, Mr. Obama took to the podium to talk about the progress of the fight against ISIS. He made a salient statement in his remarks—“Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they are defeated by better ideas and more attractive and more compelling vision.” Doubtless, many conservatives are sure to pounce on those words as being weak. But in making that statement, Obama again firmly situated himself in an American exceptionalist tradition. The idea that America’s real strength is moral, spiritual, and philosophical rather than military is one that was articulated by two luminaries of American exceptionalism: John Foster Dulles and Ronald Reagan.
Dulles served as President Eisenhower’s secretary of state from 1953 to his death in 1959. No one has more consistently and strenuously articulated an image of America’s divine commission in the world than Dulles. He cast America’s confrontation with Soviet Communism in the early Cold War in cosmic terms of an eternal battle between good and evil. But he was confident in America’s final victory over Communism, because America was on the side of right. Furthermore, America would finally prevail over the Soviets, not because of superior arms, but by using the weapons of ideas. He said in his 1952 speech titled “A Policy of Instant Retaliation,” “Non-material forces are more powerful than those that are merely material. . . . We should use ideas as weapons; and these ideas should conform us to moral principles.”
Reagan saw the Cold War in similar terms. In his famous speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in March 1983—the same speech in which he said that the Soviet Union was “the focus of evil in the modern world”—he stressed that the way to fight the ideology of Communism was with the ideology of freedom and democracy. He said, “While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.”
Obama’s insistence that he believes in American exceptionalism is undeniable. His brand of exceptionalism is more nuanced than Giuliani’s, and even Reagan’s, to be sure. But even when Obama is not making any overt references to exceptionalism in his rhetoric, he shows himself to be squarely within the historical tradition of open American exceptionalism. This open exceptionalism is a Lincolnian articulation that appeals to the “better angels of our nature” in order that we may more consistently uphold the vision of the Founders and renew our faith in the justice of that vision as we face any and every trial.