Category Archives: citizenship

White Evangelicals, We Have a Responsibility for Women, Immigrants, and People of Color

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A new president has been elected. Under normal circumstances, the supporters of the new president are thrilled and the supporters of the defeated opponent are depressed. But for the most part, just about all Americans are willing to fall in behind the new administration and give it a chance to govern.

But those circumstances, alas, are not ours. A polarizing figure has been elected. Another polarizing figure was defeated. It is unfortunate that these were our two major choices. According to the New York Times, only 9 percent of Americans voted to nominate Clinton and Trump. That in itself is a galling reality. But it is still the reality.

There are protests all over the country, less it seems over the fact that Clinton lost and more over the fact that Trump won. But as I see it, the consternation goes deeper than that. Trump, because of his own statements and behavior, has sent the message to the nation that he is anti-immigrant, misogynistic, and racist. (When I say racist, it is not necessarily because he doesn’t like black people–rather, it is because he is supportive of power structures that favor white people). Women, minorities, and immigrants are afraid for their safety and security–because of how Trump has constructed his image over the past 18 months. They are also worried because, as has been underscored time and again, Trump is an unknown element. Nobody knows what to expect out of a Trump presidency, because he has been so short on details and long on generalizations and emotions.

And since eighty-one percent of evangelical Christians supported Trump, they have a particular responsibility to demonstrate support for women, minorities, and immigrants. Evangelicals have risked their public witness by abandoning their traditional conviction that persons who stand for office should have an honorable character. They have also, in their support of Trump, gained (maybe–I stress, maybe) a seat at the table of power, while wagering their own credibility in the public square. If evangelicals ignore those who have legitimate concerns about their futures, then they will indeed lose any and all credibility that remains for them in America.

Many evangelical Christians did not vote for Trump. But even those who did not have a special responsibility to marginalized people, because they will be implicated in Trump’s election whether they like it or not.

Ed Stetzer and Laurie Nichols have a piece out in Christianity Today laying out some helpful specifics on what evangelicals can do to show support for those who are anxious for the future. It’s very helpful, and evangelical Christians should follow their prescriptions.

Here is a portion of the article:

As such, let me share six ways that White Evangelicals, among others, can respond.

First, if you’ve never spoken up about some of the offensive things that Trump has said, this would be a good time to apologize for that.

I was deeply disappointed that many Evangelicals changed their views about the private character of public officials as President-elect Trump emerged. And many Evangelicals, who were deeply concerned about Hillary Clinton’s possible election, were inappropriately silent while Trump acted and spoke so divisively.

It’s a good time to apologize for that silence. Even if you made the decision that Hillary Clinton was a greater evil, if you never spoke up about some of Trump’s comments, you’ve failed those to whom those comments were addressed.

Second, if you are in ministry leadership, affirm (or begin) a commitment to developing a multicultural approach that more intentionally elevates people of color.

My friend Derwin Gray, who is lead pastor at Transformation Church in North Carolina, has a helpful video to help us get started in our churches. We must lead our churches in such a way that when non-Christians come in, they see a commitment to Oneness in the Body of Christ. We must provide places where each person in the church, regardless of race or gender or age, feels welcomed and affirmed.

The last place I spoke before the election was the Mosaix Conference, where I and many others expressed a hope (and plan) for a more diverse church. As our nation is more divided, at this moment, the church needs to become more visibly diverse.

Honestly, I don’t really consider myself a “White Evangelical,” and maybe you don’t either. I preach every week at Moody Church, a multicultural congregation of over 70 nations, but the fact that “White Evangelical” is so clearly a thing reminds us of the work we have to do.

Third, we must all speak for—and sometimes even join—those who are marginalized. My friend Charlie Dates, who serves as senior pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, wrote a helpful piece on The Exchange recently. In it, Charlie wrote:

Evangelical churches in America can benefit from the testimony of other Christians who have long lived on the cultural margins, from a people group who wielded no political influence or economic superiority—a people who functioned largely as a subset, or minority in the larger American Evangelical story. In their history abides a witness, a recipe for thriving ministry, and an illustration of the gospel’s power to make buoyant a church relegated to the periphery of national significance.

His statement is powerful; it is a lesson for White Evangelicals to embrace the opportunity to join those who have historically been at the margins for the good of the Church and the glory of God.

This may mean more advocacy in the face of injustice. It may mean volunteering time with inner-city youth who come from single-parent homes. There are many opportunities for compassion and solidarity, and we should be looking for them.

Fourth, we must embrace the refugee, the immigrant, and people on the move. This is a particularly frightening time for some people, precisely because of campaign promises that were made by candidates and approved by voters. Some families genuinely have no idea what will happen next. We cannot underestimate their fears, and we should be the first ones ready to show love and care.

When World Relief launched it’s ‘We Welcome Refugees’ campaign, thousands of people planted a sign in their yards in a symbolic act of solidarity. As white Evangelicals, we pray hard and work hard so that those who find themselves without home and community have people of safety to run towards. We must be places of refuge.

Fifth, we must speak up and quickly condemn any and all racist comments flowing out of this election. Many were quick to condemn statements about other issues, and would have continued to speak out if things had gone a different way.

Racism is evil and we cannot pretend that it was not a part of the rhetoric in our culture these past several months. It simply must not continue, and we should be among the first to repudiate it.

Sixth, we must elevate non-Anglo evangelicals. If you have a platform, join me in sharing it with people of color. It’s not a mistake that I’ve just done a series on Race in America (hosting all African American Evangelicals) and been doing a series on Diaspora Missions (i.e. refugees). Share your pulpit, platform, conference, blog, and more with people of color.

Most of these things we already owe—as Christians, to brothers and sisters of Christ—but if we listen to our minority brothers and sisters, we owe them particularly now.

 

Talking Tocqueville at the Acton Institute

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Just returned home from Grand Rapids, Michigan where I was honored to give a talk on “How to Read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America” for the Acton Lecture Series. I lectured for about half and hour and then we had a great Q&A session afterwards about the role of voluntary associations in public life, religion and politics, the frontier and American identity, racial prejudice and slavery, and thinking historically about Tocqueville’s classic work. The audience was exceptionally well read, as evidenced by one person who brought along her copy of George Wilson Pierson’s Tocqueville in America to the lecture and referenced it in her question.

My host for the event was Trey Dimsdale, my former colleague at Southwestern’s Land Center for Cultural Engagement. He accepted a position at Acton this past July as Program Outreach Director. Trey had a big year this year–he finished his Ph.D. residency at Southwestern (AOS, ethics), passed the Texas Bar exam, and moved himself and his family from Ft. Worth to Grand Rapids in a U-Haul with no power steering and no cruise control.

My lecture was focused on the importance of grasping the historical context of Democracy in America as a necessary discipline for appreciating the many insights and perspectives Tocqueville offered in his classic work. Tocqueville was born into an ancient, yet only moderately wealthy, aristocratic line in 1805 and died in 1859. His great grandfather went to the guillotine during the Terror, and his father and mother were imprisoned and scheduled for execution. They were released from prison only after the execution of Robespierre. The experience of the Revolution lingered over the family for decades, and Tocqueville’s perspective on America was shaped by his family’s experiences. He was also deeply impacted by the rise and fall of Napoleon and the July Revolution of 1830 which toppled the restored Bourbon monarchy and raised Louis-Philippe to power. Perhaps the most salient feature of French political, social, economic, and religious culture during Tocqueville’s life was instability. When Tocqueville came to America, one of the features that struck him was the comparative stability of American culture, even though the United States was born out of a revolution.

We also have to understand that Tocqueville visited America during a ten month window of time in 1831-1832. That world is long gone. Tocqueville is often considered to be something of a prophet, because there are some uncanny warnings and prognostications in his work that we clearly recognize in contemporary times. It is also tempting to be nostalgic about the America that Tocqueville saw in the early 1830s. Tocqueville strenuously believed in human freedom, that persons were responsible for their own choices and actions. Although he believed that the spread of democracy was being directed by God, and hereditary privilege would soon be irresistibly supplanted by a providentially directed world movement of equality, he rejected historical determinism. He never considered himself anything more than a studious observer of America–an America that, while he admired many characteristics about its people, institutions, and habits, still did not escape his criticisms. One of his most penetrating censures was how Americans tolerated slavery, and more importantly, race prejudice. “Slavery recedes,” Tocqueville said of free blacks in the North, “but the prejudice to which it has given birth is immovable. . . . Thus the Negro is free, but he can share neither the rights, nor the pleasures, nor the labor, nor the affictions, nor the tomb of him whose equal he has been declared to be; and he cannot meet him upon fair terms in life or in death.” Nostalgia for 1831 America is misguided for many reasons–but with regard to reading Democracy in America, we completely miss the point of the book if we pine for a recovery of the past.

So it was a great visit. Ben Domenech of The Federalist will be up next, speaking on “The Rise of American Populism.”

Memories of the Confederacy and Black Lives Matter

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Lee Park, Charlottesville, Virginia

I have written about my family’s Confederate heritage in the past here at the blog (see here and here). My grandparents were like second parents to my brother and I growing up. They sought to instill in us an appreciation and love for our Southern heritage and for our ancestors who helped shape it.

As a child and as a young man, I idolized my grandmother and grandfather. In many ways, I still do. They died when I was in my early twenties–and over twenty years after their deaths, I still have the urge sometimes to pick up the phone to call them (I still remember their phone number with the same ease I remember my date of birth; and I still carry their house key on my key ring). Their portraits hang in my house and I keep their memory alive by talking about them with my children. So, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between my love for them and my yearning to honor their memory from how I think about the South with all its historical complexities. I love the South and much of its history because I associate it with my family, to which of course I will always be devoted.

And yet, I am ashamed that my ancestors were slave owners, and that some of them were instrumental in defining the pro-slavery positions argued in public discourse during the 1840s and 50s. Some of my ancestors served as senior officers in the Army of Northern Virginia and another in the Confederate Senate. After the war, some of my ancestors’ former slaves continued to serve as domestic servants. I wrote about some of those former slaves here.

On the issue of the propriety of displaying Confederate monuments in public places, my views have changed over the years. If you had asked me five years ago about whether or not it was appropriate to display monuments commemorating the Confederacy, I would have advocated for it strenuously. But spending time reading Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter Woodson, MLK, Jr., Malcolm X, Cornel West, and other African-American writers; after building building relationships with scholars of African-American history like Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Edward Blum, Edward Carson, Keisha Blain, Robert W. Williams, Vincent Bacote (a theologian), and others in the African American Intellectual History Society; after teaching in the Darrington prison, which is predominately black (and see Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness); and after reflecting on biblical teachings on unity in Christ and neighbor-love, I have come to see this issue of Confederate monuments in a different way.

For example, in my former home of Charlottesville, VA, an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee has kept vigil over the city square adjacent to the courthouse since the 1920s. It is an impressive statue, and the park where it sits, Lee Park, is beautiful and tranquil. Recently, a fifteen year old Charlottesville High School student started a petition to have the statue removed and to rename the park. The city council has taken up the issue and will decide on the fate of the park in the next month or so. As you might imagine, the issue is extremely controversial.

I recently co-authored a piece over at Then and Now with Edward Carson on this issue. In reflecting on the student’s petition, I am left to ask–who exactly is making the request that the statue be taken down and the park renamed? Is this a group of foreigners? Are they carpetbaggers? Are they outsiders? Or are they members of the community fully vested in its interests? In other words, are the people Charlottesvillians? Virginians? Americans?

If they are outsiders, then their request should be taken with a grain of salt. But if they are full fledged members of the community, then their voices should be taken seriously even by those who would disagree.

Consider a historical parallel. All over the colonies during the 1770s and 1780s, Americans were removing statues of George III. They did so because he no longer served as an appropriate symbol of the people. They were no longer his subjects. And it was entirely appropriate for them to remove those statues. Furthermore, the people hauling down the statues were not Frenchmen or Spanish interlopers. They were Americans. They had the legitimate emotional, political, logical, and historical bases to do so and nobody objected by calling on the historical value of statues of the king of England.

Robert E. Lee–notwithstanding the nobility of his character, his Christian faith, or even his magnanimous attitude after the war–is not a unifying symbol in Charlottesville, or anywhere else. As a symbol, Lee is divisive. To significant elements of our local communities all over the South, Lee is a repelling force. The question of whether or not he should be divisive as a symbol is another question. The fact is, he is.

The last thing Americans need is one more thing to divide them. We are already incurably divided up into factions so much so that another civil war actually seems possible. It is unfortunate indeed that no matter what happens with Lee Park–whether the statue stays or goes–the decision of the city council is going to be divisive.

But here I will offer some unsolicited advice to my friends who would advocate for keeping the statue. First, I am one of you. I have more than my share of Confederate heritage credentials. My great great great grandfather was Thomas R. R. Cobb, chairman of the Confederate Constitutional drafting committee, brigadier general under Longstreet, killed in action at Fredericksburg after hurling back the main Federal assault six times from the Sunken Road. My great great great uncle, Howell Cobb, was former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Secretary of the Treasury under Buchanan, major general in the Confederate army, and Confederate Senator from Georgia.

Second, we who love our Southern heritage need to honestly investigate the impact of our ancestors’ actions on black persons. We need to ask–why do African-American persons react the way they do to Confederate soldiers and statesmen? Why does the pain of slavery endure after all these years? How would we see a statue of Lee or Forrest or A. S. Johnston if we were black and growing up in a small Southern town? And what would we think about Confederate memorials if 7/8 of the period of our experience on this continent since 1619 was defined in terms of slavery or state sponsored apartheid?

Or let us think of the issue another way. What would we as Americans think about a statue displayed in a public park of George III? Or Santa Anna? Kaiser Wilhelm II? Yamamoto? Rommel? Ho Chi Minh? Saddam Hussein? Osama bin Laden? What do all of these figures have in common? The United States was at war with each of these leaders, and many of us can claim family members who fought and died to defeat them.

If black people are Americans, does it not make sense that those Americans would recoil from commemorating the enemy of their country?

We who have emotional attachments to the Southern Confederacy can honor our ancestors’ memory without continuing to ignore and marginalize the historical experiences of our fellow citizens who are African American. We can honor our ancestors’ memories, remembering that they were not gods, but sinful men and women. In honoring them, we must apply honesty and humility when we remember the meaning of their lives’ work, work which was not always performed for the flourishing of all persons. I know that my grandparents would not want me to deify them, but to remember them with honesty. I like to think that my nineteenth century ancestors would want the same.

A fellow conservative recently accused me of being PC friendly the other day because I said that there are valuable aspects to the Black Lives Matter movement. Everyone–especially Christian people–should affirm the human personhood of black people. I don’t agree with everything associated (fairly or not) with Black Lives Matter. However, I do think that the statement “black lives matter” is true, and deeply meaningful given that American society has not historically affirmed the truth of that statement.

It is tragic indeed that African American persons often think they need to make the statement at all. It is also sad that more Christian people do not rise up in solidarity with black folks who see the necessity of making the statement.

Count me in as a white Southern conservative Christian who stands in solidarity with African Americans. From a Christian perspective, this seems to be a no-brainer: black lives matter.

New Abridgment of Tocqueville’s *Democracy in America* Forthcoming

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) , french jurist and political thinker, painting by Chasseriau

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) , french jurist and political thinker, painting by Chasseriau (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

I’ve been out of the blogosphere the past several weeks because I have been finishing up my abridgment of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic work, Democracy in America for Lexham Press. My project was specifically to take a Goldilocks approach to editing this book–to produce an abridgment that was not too short, not too long, but “just right.” Tocqueville’s two volume work comes in at just over 300,000 words, and I brought it down to 150,000. I hope it will serve as a useful resource for students in high school and college, but more importantly, I hope that it is accessible to the broader public.

I included a 9000 word introduction to Tocqueville’s work. In the introduction, I gave a brief biography of Tocqueville and also touched on some of his major themes. Equality of condition, despotism, liberty, manners, religion, exceptionalism, and interest rightly understood figure prominently in Democracy. These are, indeed, some of the things for which the book is most famous. But Tocqueville’s chapter on race–chapter XVIII of Volume I–is the longest chapter in the book. And while Tocqueville admitted that race was a secondary topic in the book, he was unable to simply ignore it. I find it interesting also that Tocqueville’s views on race, which were quite forward thinking for his time, are often slighted or ignored altogether by many who have analyzed his work. One abridgment that I am aware of does not even include chapter XVIII–which I found to be a profound weakness.

One of the ways I hope the abridgment will be useful is that I did not cut any chapter out in either volume I or II. I also did not cut any of Tocqueville’s sentences short. I tried to make logical cuts at appropriate points in the prose, without disturbing Tocqueville’s overall development of his ideas.

More on this project later, but the good news is that I recently submitted the manuscript to the publisher. It should come out in late 2016 in three formats–electronically, as part of the Logos Bible Software platform; paperback; and cloth bound hardback.

In the meantime, head over to The American Conservative and see my op-ed on Tocqueville and the importance of manners in a democracy, and what they say about the status of our national character and value-assumptions.

What Are We Missing in the Gun Debate?

Like many Americans, I have been following the conversation on the most recent mass shooting in Oregon.

Many helpful perspectives have been offered. And if I could, let me begin this post by recounting a brief personal story.

When I was sixteen, I was held hostage in an armed robbery of a gas station in Sandy Springs, Georgia. I stopped in to fill up my puke-yellow colored Dodge Omni on the way to pick up a buddy. We were planning on going to see a movie (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Don’t judge me.) The pumps were turned off, so I went inside to ask the attendant to please cut on pump #1. Immediately, a man that was on this side of the counter put a gun in my face, grabbed me by the shoulder, and held the gun to my head while he demanded that I tell the attendant to give him the money.

It all happened so fast. Three seconds earlier, I was safe and sound, looking forward to seeing a goofball movie with my goofball friend. Now I had a gun jammed right under my ear, by a person who appeared to be in deep earnest who was prepared to kill me where I stood.

Long story short, the assailant shot the attendant in the face, took the money, and ran out the door. He had to get past me to get to the door, and as he was running for the door I remember him looking right into my eyes. I closed my eyes, believing with all sincerity that he was going to shoot me, too. He didn’t. He ran out the door and was never caught (to my knowledge, at least for that particular crime).

Let me also say this about myself. I am a gun owner, and grew up surrounded by guns. My grandfather was a World War II veteran and an avid hunter. He taught my brother and I how to respect guns, how to shoot guns, how to clean guns, and how to hunt with guns. I consider that education under my grandfather’s wise tutelage critical to my upbringing and formation as a human being. In teaching me all about guns, Papa taught me how to value life—all life, the life of animals and the life of human persons.

Now I realize not everyone was blessed to have such an education. I realize that there are a lot of idiots out there with guns. And I’m not opposed to some smart and effective gun laws that seek to curb gun violence that claims the lives of precious sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, grandmothers, and grandfathers. As a survivor of gun violence myself, how could I be opposed to the enacting of such laws?

But I do not believe that more laws are going to deter the lawless. The cretans who take lives in movie theatres, churches, schools, and other public places will find means to do so no matter the laws. That’s why they’re lawless.

There are 300 million guns in this country. As many people have accurately pointed out, the only way to eliminate gun violence is to eliminate guns. But there will always be guns in our society. Always. And guns will always be available. Even if we rounded up all the guns (which seems like a pipe dream) held by private citizens in the United States, more guns will still be available, and people with ill intent will perpetually seek to acquire them. And use them against the unarmed.

So what to do?

The gun problem in America seems to be a symptom of the deeper problem of the coarseness of our culture. To put it in plain English, people are crazy. I watched a clip just this morning of a UConn student that went ballistic in the cafeteria. He was refused service because he had an open container of alcohol while trying to get his food. When he was refused service, the kid went crazy—along with an F-word laced rant, he shoved the manager numerous times, nearly knocking the man off his feet each time. He had to be physically restrained and taken off by the cops in handcuffs. As he was being led away, he offered a classy parting shot. He spit in the manager’s face.

It’s a good thing he didn’t have a gun. But this culture, in which we all are a part, does not value life. It does not value human dignity. It is not respectful of authority. It is contemptuous of the elderly. It is self-obsessed, shortsighted, base, and ignorant. The discourse in popular culture and in politics is self serving, oversexualized, trivial, vain, violent, filthy, and puerile. The culture calls evil good and good evil, and does not even know how to blush.

Add 300 million guns to the mix, and who could be surprised at the number of violent deaths in this country? It’s a wonder the numbers aren’t higher.

Adding more laws to try to control the deviance of this culture may do something of value, but it won’t cure the deviance.

I submit that one avenue of hope is religion. Contrary to the charges of the hard-core secularists, religion is not harmful to the culture. Religion promotes virtue, promotes human dignity, self-sacrifice, neighbor-love, good citizenship, and respect for individual freedom.

What about religious people? Aren’t a lot of religious people crazy, too? You better believe it! Many are. Religious people sometimes betray the convictions of their faith system. There are many hypocrites among us. But the actions of hypocritical people do not undermine the claims of religious faiths. They prove those claims. Take human sinfulness as an example, a teaching that the major religions affirm. Hypocritical religious people simply demonstrate the teaching of human sinfulness in real time.

Now I’m an evangelical Christian. Naturally, I want everyone in the country (and the world) to be a follower of Jesus Christ, who took the penalty of sin upon himself on the cross and rose again on the third day, providing eternal salvation to any person who will place her faith in him.

But I realize that not everyone is going to adhere to the doctrines of Christianity. Others will adhere to the teachings of Moses, to Mohammed, to Buddha, to Confucius, to Brigham Young, and to a host of others. Many will choose to adhere to no religion at all. Every person will exercise her right to follow her own conscience in terms of spiritual truth. That is the beauty of religious freedom in the United States. Religious freedom is being politicized these days, and we must guard against that disturbing trend. Religious freedom is not the property of any particular interest group. It is a heritage intended for all of us, even non-believers.

But religion in general is a good thing. It is good for a society to encourage the flourishing of religious faith, because in that flourishing, public virtue and a culture of life may also flourish.

Our society has only recently bought into the great lie that religion is a bad thing, that it has no place in public policy or discourse, that its place is confined to the four walls of a religious meeting house. Few politicians in office, that I know of, have offered up a serious argument in a consistent way for the encouragement of public religious expression as a panacea to the gun problem—or any moral problem in our country, for that matter. That’s too bad, because the flourishing of religious faith would be a great ally in the struggle against gun violence, among the many other moral woes we face as a culture.

Sure, there are religious people in office and running for office. But they often scrupulously keep their religious beliefs “personal” because their faith “does not influence their policy positions.” That’s absurd. It’s intellectually vacuous. It’s also not true. Every position we take on things that matter is informed by our religious commitments. Nobody is religiously neutral. Even non-religious people stand on absolute moral principles, such as the affirmation that murder, lying, adultery, and theft are wrong and should be punished.

Do laws matter? Of course they do. And we should consider enacting some new laws that make sense, laws that are not crafted for their own sake. And we must enforce those laws that are already on the books.

But to promote a culture of life, to soften the coarseness of our culture, to train respect of other people’s things and other people’s lives—do religions have anything to offer in these noble and civic pursuits?

A thousand times, yes.

And as a Bible believing Christian, I bear witness to unique claims of Jesus Christ to bring life to the world. He said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6.51-52). Christ is the One who laid down his life so that you and I might have life.

The Complexity of American Exceptionalism

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On September 25, columnist David Brooks penned a piece explaining the meaning of American exceptionalism—and how some of the idea’s staunchest defenders are managing to betray it altogether.

First, what is American exceptionalism? James W. Ceaser, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, divides the concept into a distinction between America as “different” and “special.” Ceaser’s distinction can be summarized in a statement George H. W. Bush made in his 1988 GOP nomination acceptance speech. Bush was making a dig at his Democratic opponent, then-Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts when he said, “He sees America as another pleasant country on the UN roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. I see America as the leader—a unique nation with a special role in the world.”

Ronald Reagan, the oft-referenced patron saint of today’s GOP, saw America this way. He was fond of adapting Lincoln’s 1862 description of America, calling it “the last best hope of mankind.” He also used a version of John Winthrop’s descriptor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, saying that America was “a shining city on a hill.” American exceptionalism is a potent patriotic concept and both Republicans and Democrats have been consistently employing it, especially since 9/11.

Which is why Brooks is confounded by the fact that GOP figures like Donald Trump, Ann Coulter, and Ben Carson seem to be betraying exceptionalism with their recent exclusionary statements aimed at immigrants and Muslims.

For Brooks, the spirit of exceptionalism is oriented to the future, not the past. But as Brooks explains, “The GOP is longing to return to the past and is fearful of the future.” He laments that exceptionalism, that is, “this hopeful nationalism is being supplanted in the GOP by an anguished cry for a receding America.”

But while there is much to commend about Brooks’ piece, he is right about exceptionalism—and his critique of those who would undermine its meaning—only from a certain point of view.

Brooks considers exceptionalism through a set of specific contextual lenses, namely immigration and religious pluralism. Understood in these contexts, Brooks is undoubtedly right. The GOP figures he critiques are, without doubt, exclusivist in their pining for a bleached and Protestant American past.

But the problem is that exceptionalism is a painfully ambiguous term, and cannot be defined with certainty in a narrow context. If we think historically about exceptionalism—that is, how it has been articulated since the colonial period—we find that the concept is much more complex.

Brooks rightly notes that many in the GOP are exclusionary and oriented to the past. He is also quite correct that exceptionalism should be understood as inclusive and future-oriented. But this represents only one form of exceptionalism, and it is not the one to which Americans historically default. Inclusive exceptionalism is the ideal, and if Americans have ever secured this form of exceptionalism, they have had to fight hard for it.

Consider Abraham Lincoln as an example of inclusive exceptionalism. Throughout his public career, he knew that emancipation of the slaves was consistent with the Declaration of Independence, the document he thought was foundational to the American idea. He had little patience with those, like his 1858 opponent in the US Senate race Stephen A. Douglas, who thought that the phrase “all men are created equal” only meant white men. Speaking to Douglas’ position in the fifth debate in Galesburg, Illinois, Lincoln said, “I believe the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Independence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence.”

But it took a great civil war, three amendments to the Constitution, and another hundred years thereafter for white Americans to legally acknowledge the equal humanity of African Americans. And in practice, many white Americans still aren’t there.

The point is that exclusivist American exceptionalism has historically been the normal patriotic understanding since colonial times. Inclusive exceptionalism is the form truest to the American canonical documents, like the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. But inclusive exceptionalism requires struggle. It does not come naturally.

During the nineteenth century, the term commonly in use to describe American patriotism was “manifest destiny.” The idea was that God had destined America to overspread the North American continent, extending the rule of the United States south into Mexico and north into Canada. By the end of the century, and into World War I, manifest destiny had a global reach. Speaking in 1920 on what he saw as America’s God given responsibility to bring Christian civilization to the world, Woodrow Wilson said, “This is the time of all others when Democracy should prove its purity and its spiritual power to prevail. It is surely the manifest destiny of the United States to lead in the attempt to make this spirit prevail.”

But manifest destiny was a concept that was based on exclusivism. Slavery, nativism, Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans, and colonialism were all logically necessary to manifest destiny, an exclusivist brand of American exceptionalism.

Furthermore, exclusive exceptionalism posits an America that can do no wrong. Ronald Reagan gives us the best recent example of “innocent America” rhetoric. In his 1984 presidential nomination speech at the RNC in Dallas, Reagan said, “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.”

Unfortunately, Brooks—probably without realizing or intending it—also falls into the trap of innocent America in his recent article. His sunny picture of the exceptionalism that he criticizes the GOP for undermining is consistent with the uncritical articulation that Reagan presented to the world throughout his public career. But innocent America is also exclusivist, because in this America, there is no racism, no poverty, no oppression—only equal opportunity and justice for all.

In contrast, President Obama may present the best contemporary example of inclusive exceptionalism. He uses the term “exceptionalism” all the time in his speeches, and clearly believes it. But he has no struggles in accepting moral ambiguities in the American character. In a speech he gave at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma earlier this year, the president said, “each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals.”

Here, Obama situates himself squarely within the inclusive exceptionalist tradition. He articulated the idea that America’s real strength is moral, spiritual, and philosophical. And by making that statement in Selma, Alabama, we are reminded that true patriotism—the expansive, generous, and optimistic vision expressed in the greatest American documents—must be championed through sacrifices.

Exclusive articulations of exceptionalism are nothing new, and they are not limited to the GOP. When making reference to exceptionalism, it’s necessary to understand the power of context in locating its meaning.

Cover Art and Blurbs for American Exceptionalism Book Have Arrived

American Exceptionalism 6

I am really excited about the cover for the exceptionalism book. I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying cover than this. The folks at IVP know what they’re doing.

John Fea wrote a wonderful foreword to the book–he was the first person to encourage me to write this book and I am truly grateful for him.

Here are the endorsements–

“John Wilsey has delivered a provocative and much-needed account of the promise and perils of American ‘exceptionalism.’ Few other writers possess the combination of historical and theological insight required to produce a book of this kind.”
Thomas S. Kidd
Author of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father
Professor of History, Baylor University

“Nations are what we make them. Inherently, they are neither godly, nor wicked. Most are both. In American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, John D. Wilsey demonstrates this and much more. Deeply thought and engagingly written, this book delves into religious claims about American exceptionalism with passion and compassion. Through the twists and turns, Wilsey offers entirely new ways to be faithfully Christian while participating in the life of the nation.”
Edward J. Blum
Author of W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet
Professor of History, San Diego State University

“This unsparing recitation of manifest destiny, Indian removal, slavery, Cold War dualism, and pervasive jingoism should give all American Christians pause. John Wilsey, in offering an alternative model for Christian engagement with the state, moves the conversation toward a higher ideal of global and kingdom citizenship.”
David R. Swartz
Author of Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism
Assistant Professor of History, Asbury Theological Seminary

“Distinguished by rich historical details and astute theoretical insights, John Wilsey liberates academic discussions of American exceptionalism and civil religion from their ivory tower confines, and presents them anew to a broad audience. Positioning himself as both an unapologetic American citizen and Christian, Wilsey skillfully describes, defines, and critiques these interlocking categories. This book will be of great interest not only to scholars, but also to all people of good will who cherish American diversity alongside the worthy pursuit of establishing a broad and inclusive consensus.”
Arthur Remillard
Author of Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era
Associate Professor of Religious Studies, St. Francis University

“Wilsey provides the most up-to-date history of the concept of American exceptionalism available and shows an astute understanding of its relationship to civil religion. He argues for the adaptation of a pluralistic exceptionalism based on the nation’s continuing struggle for and commitment to equality, freedom and justice, rejecting the frequently invoked model that frames America as an innocent nation chosen and commissioned by God.”
Anne Blankenship
Assistant Professor of History, Philosophy & Religious Studies, North Dakota State University

“In an age that appears as confused as ever about the connections between the kingdom of Christ and American identity, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion is vital reading. John Wilsey has charted the complex course of an historical idea, American exceptionalism, in a way that is fair and nuanced, yet honest and timely. Combining far reaching interaction with the most current scholarship and careful theological reflection, Wilsey tells this story in a way that will be accessible to a broad audience. I am delighted to recommend it widely and enthusiastically!”
Matthew J. Hall
Vice President for Academic Services, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary