Category Archives: US Presidency

Some Historical Context for Clinton’s Remarks on Exceptionalism

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J. William Fulbright

During the first half of 1966, rifts in the Democratic Party began to develop over American involvement in Vietnam. By then, about 250,000 US troops were engaged in operations against the Communists in Vietnam as a result of Congress having granted President Lyndon Johnson a blank check in the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In televised hearings, speeches on the Senate floor, and public addresses in early 1966, Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned that if the war in Vietnam continued indefinitely without prospects for victory or negotiated peace, domestic divisions over the war would become dangerously pronounced. There was also grave risk of the war escalating into a general Asian war involving China.

On April 21, Fulbright spoke to the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies on “The Arrogance of Power.” In this speech, he insisted that dissent against the government’s policies during the course of a war was not unpatriotic, but one of the purest expressions of patriotism. “To criticize one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment,” he said. “Criticism . . . is more than a right—it is an act of patriotism—a higher form of patriotism, I believe than the familiar rituals of national adulation.” Ultimately, Fulbright’s argument was moderate. Rather than advocating for a withdrawal from Vietnam, he underscored the necessity for serious reflection in the application of military power. That reflection must take place in government according to the pattern laid down in the Constitution—in the give and take of advice and consent which was supposed to occur between the legislative and executive branches of the government. Fulbright noted that as a first rate power, the United States is continually tempted to “confuse” its power “with virtue.” Furthermore, it is “particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations . . . to remake them in its own shining image.”

Less than a month later, Johnson responded to Fulbright with a speech of his own—“The Obligation of Power.” He delivered this speech to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, shortly after the completion of Robertson Hall at Princeton University on May 11. Johnson spoke of how Americans did not exercise power in a spirit of arrogance, but of “agony.” “We have used our power not willingly and recklessly ever but always reluctantly and with restraint,” said the president. “The United States of America has never sought to crush the autonomy of her neighbors.” (A strange statement, considering the events of 1846-1848, for example. But I digress.)

Johnson went on to insist that America was not a servant of its power, but the master of it. He warned against withdrawal from Southeast Asia, implying that doing so would not only send the message that America could not be trusted, but also that darker forces would enter and fill the vacuum left behind. Johnson said, “a great power influences the world just as surely when it withdraws its strength as when it exercises its strength.” In the Vietnam War, America was engaged in defending transcendent values—the triumph of right over might, the defense of the weak, and the championing of the principle of self-determination. It might be tempting to cut and run, but Johnson’s advice to dissenters against his foreign policy was to face reality such as it was. “That is all we expect from those who are troubled even as we are by the obligations of power the United States did not seek but from which the United States cannot escape,” Johnson said.

Both Fulbright and Johnson were calling on American exceptionalism, even though their appeals represented two distinct articulations of the idea. Fulbright said that “America is worthy of criticism,” and that its strength lay in diversity of cultures, nationalities, and points of view that were united “in an open, receptive, generous, and creative society.” Ultimately for Fulbright, it was precisely because of America’s greatness that the nation would be able to overcome the destructive allure of power.

In contrast, Johnson articulated a rigorously interventionist form of exceptionalism. He believed America was indispensable to freedom and justice in the world. “What nation has announced such limited objectives or such willingness to remove its military presence once those objectives are achieved? What nation has spent the lives of its sons and vast sums of its fortune to provide the people of a small thriving country the chance to elect the course that we might not ourselves choose?” Johnson asked.

Johnson’ brand of exceptionalism imagined a consistent (even inherent) judicious and humble exercise of power. Johnson’s America was innocent of the transgressions of empires past—even though it only takes a cursory look at American history to witness the emptiness of such a conception. Fulbright’s exceptionalism is celebratory of American ideals, but realistic enough to recognize that America is flawed, and vulnerable to great error. Fulbright identified one of the brilliant characteristics of American republicanism is the division of power in the national government, in order to check the willfulness of any one person or group of people in power. The Congress is to be a check on the President  because it is human nature to become enamored with power for power’s sake while cloaking irresponsible uses of power in the rhetoric of innocence, good intentions, and patriotism.

I was reminded of this feud between Fulbright and Johnson after reading the transcript of Hillary Clinton’s remarks on August 31 before the national convention of the American Legion. Her statements on American exceptionalism were surprising to many. Most of us are used to Republicans giving harangues on exceptionalism. But here we had the Democratic presidential nominee criticizing her Republican opponent for not believing in American exceptionalism! I’m looking around now to see if any pigs have taken flight. Haven’t seen any yet, but Election Day is still many weeks away.

Clinton (I am not on a first-name basis with the lady, so I’ll confine myself to the more formal use of her last name here) claimed that her belief in American exceptionalism was her “one core belief that has guided and inspired [her] every step of the way” in her political career. Her exceptionalism is based on American ideals, determination, and grit. Diversity is central to her articulation of exceptionalism too, but Fulbright’s emphasis on unity arising from diversity is conspicuously absent from Clinton’s version. She noted what a blessing it is to be an American, and correctly observed that the reason so many people around the world clamor to get here is because they also recognize what a blessing being an American is. But the flip side of this blessed state is the responsibility that attends it.

This is where Clinton’s exceptionalism is so much like Johnson’s as he articulated it at Princeton in May 1966. She called America “the indispensable nation” with a “unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress.” Similar to Johnson, Clinton maintained, “our power comes with a responsibility to lead humbly, thoughtfully, and with a fierce commitment to our values.” And what if America were to withdraw its hand? Clinton said, “when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum” that other nations—whose motives are presumably not as righteous as America’s—will inevitably fill.

Clinton’s exceptionalism, at least as she articulated it to the American Legion the other day, is Johnsonian. There is little moral reflection in her understanding of the proper uses of American power aside from flowery rhetoric about peace and progress. Ironically, she seems to have scant appreciation for the limits of American power despite her many experiences with those limits since her political career began in the United States Senate in 2001. Furthermore, her brand of exceptionalism is defined by American innocence, just as Johnson’s was. This is perhaps the strangest part, because when she first began talking about exceptionalism, she cast it in terms set forth by Lincoln, Reagan, and Robert Kennedy. Reagan did see America as an innocent nation, but by no means did Lincoln or Kennedy. Clinton’s calling on these figures was great for the emotional appeal, but for historical, philosophical, and civil religious reasons, their articulations of exceptionalism do not belong in the same category.

So far, I’ve left Trump out of this analysis. Part of this is because Trump has distanced himself from the term “American exceptionalism” as Clinton rightly noted. But he still deserves mention. After all, his campaign slogan (in case you didn’t know) is “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s exceptionalism seems to be birthed out of a desire to recover a golden age long gone. This feature of exceptionalism is also prominent historically, along with innocence and responsibility.

All this goes to show at least one important truth that I have spent a great deal of energy trying to argue over the years: American exceptionalism is a complex and ambiguous concept. When the term is used in political discourse, it seems that everyone assumes that we are all talking about the same thing. And over the years, I have seen a lot of ink expended on the thesis that American exceptionalism is irrelevant, nobody takes it seriously anymore, and that millennials in particular see it as a dead issue.

But American exceptionalism is clearly not dead. Historically, it has taken various forms. Moreover, whatever form it has taken in whatever historical context, exceptionalism has always been multi-faceted. And when exceptionalism is called forth in today’s political discourse, its meaning depends on both the person using the term as well as its contextualization.

For example, many have accused President Obama of being ambivalent about exceptionalism. Such people usually refer to comments he made early in his presidency about Americans, Brits, and Greeks all believing in their exceptionalism. But those people have either misunderstood him, not listened to him, or are mischaracterizing him for political purposes. Obama has referenced exceptionalism quite frequently during his presidency. One of the most notable references was in his speech celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march in March 2015. In the context of Bloody Sunday, he said, “What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that 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?” Self examination is central thread in Obama’s exceptionalism, but he is hardly the first American to recognize its importance. The American tradition of patriotic self examination goes back to the Puritans of the 17th century.

Obama certainly has embraced American exceptionalism during his presidency. It just isn’t Lyndon Johnson’s brand (or Clinton’s, at least as she articulated it in front of the American Legion). But it is consistent with an open, inclusive, idealistic exceptionalism espoused by Abraham Lincoln, who was perhaps the first American president to put  patriotism on a higher moral plane than a narrowly defined, temporal set of national interests.

American exceptionalism is not one “thing.” But it isn’t in the eye of the beholder either. Its parameters are definable, despite its complexity as a historical and contemporary national identity paradigm. While it has not always been called “exceptionalism,” the idea is alive and well. Always has been. Probably always will be.

Obama’s Selma Speech: Self Examination as American Exceptionalism

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This post appeared at Then and Now on March 11, 2015.

This past Saturday, March 7, 2015, President Obama spoke in Selma, Alabama, marking the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”–the assault by Alabama state troopers on marchers from Selma to Montgomery for equal voting rights for African Americans.

His speech is remarkable for many reasons, but one of the things I find really remarkable is that it ranks as a singular example of presidential exceptionalist rhetoric.

There’s nothing new in all that. We’ve come to expect our presidents to use exceptionalist rhetoric in their speeches. Ronald Reagan was particularly skilled at portraying America in exceptionalist terms, being fond of quoting Thomas Paine, who famously said of Americans that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again” in Common Sense. He also liked to use Abraham Lincoln’s descriptor of America as the “last, best hope of earth,” although Reagan often substituted “earth” for “mankind” in his use of the phrase.

But President Obama is considered by many to lack love for his country. Early in his presidency, at a press conference in Cherbourg, France on April 4, 2009, Obama himself watered down American exceptionalism by saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” But Obama’s views on exceptionalism have evolved over the course of his presidency. In September 2013, in his address to the nation regarding a possible US military intervention in Syria, President Obama embraced exceptionalism by saying, “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.” And speaking at West Point’s commencement in 2014, the President said, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”

Unlike Reagan, Obama’s view of exceptionalism subtracts the idea of American innocence. Central to Obama’s patriotism is the notion that true love of country entails national self-examination in order to more sincerely pursue the highest ideals of the American liberal tradition. This notion comes through in most, if not all, of President Obama’s articulations of American exceptionalism.

His Selma speech is, at least to me, his most eloquent expression of this form of exceptionalism. Consider these lines from his speech–

And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?

What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people – the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many – coming together to shape their country’s course?

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that 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?

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:

“We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny. For founders like Franklin and Jefferson, for leaders like Lincoln and FDR, the success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all our citizens in this work. That’s what we celebrate here in Selma. That’s what this movement was all about, one leg in our long journey toward freedom.

American exceptionalism is a controversial idea because two political groups at odds with one another claim it–conservatives and liberals. What adds to the controversy is that both of these groups often seem to see their contention as going far beyond a simple political disagreement. They often seem to be at war with one another, with the complete destruction of the other as the shared goal between them. The question of what constitutes a true American? is thus a fundamental, existential question in today’s political and cultural discourse.

For many, a true American is specially favored of God, carrying out a divine mandate to spread the American way of life around the globe, situated on a sacred land, heir to a glorious heritage–and defined by an innate righteousness, no matter by what agency he uses in America’s name. For many, these are the aspects that define American exceptionalism.

But Obama’s conception of exceptionalism is the right one, both historically and practically. It is historically right because it is this vision of exceptionalism that has carried Americans ever closer to their stated ideals of individual rights, democracy, human equality based on innate dignity, and peace since the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. It is practically right because it fosters unity by eliminating the false dichotomy of the “Chosen” and the “Other,” a dichotomy borne out of racial, religious, ethnic, and class prejudices.

Read the transcript of the speech. Obama’s articulation of American exceptionalism is expansive, inclusive, and consistent with the canon of American civil religion: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, to name a few texts in that canon. But most importantly, it is marked by self examination. Without self-examination, Americans cannot live up to their ideals. Without self-examination, America implodes.

Quote of the Day

Wilson460“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.”

-President Woodrow Wilson, Eighth Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1920

According to intellectual historian Milan Babík, author of Statecraft and Salvation: Wilsonian Liberal Internationalism as Secularized Eschatology, (Baylor University Press, 2013) Wilson is the only president ever to use the term “manifest destiny” prescriptively in his official capacity.

TR’s Life a Testament of Hope

     John Fea of Messiah College has invited me to contribute a post to the Hope blog relay begun by Ed Blum, religion historian at San Diego State University. Dr. Fea is a gentleman and a scholar, and an engaging and incisive historian as anyone can see in his books. In the introduction to his most recent book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, he asserts that the study and practice of history “has the amazing potential to transform our lives” (xxvii). Keep an eye out for his next project, forthcoming in the next year or so, in which he will develop this helpful theme more thoroughly.
     In that spirit, allow me to share a personal anecdote as I begin these thoughts on hope. I am trying to teach my oldest daughter, aged 7, about overcoming doubts and fears. Over the summer, she set her sights on the high dive at our pool. She would climb the ladder to the top of the diving board, and then find herself terrified, unable to jump. She then would miserably climb back down the ladder, defeated.
     She didn’t want to be defeated, but she was. I told her that it was OK to be scared. Everybody is afraid of something. The difference between courage and cowardice is that the courageous person overcomes her fears while the cowardly person allows her fears to control her. A few days ago at the high dive, my little girl climbed that ladder and ran off the diving board into the pool without hesitating. She found out, in her small but significant way, how to overcome a fear that had previously gripped her. She found hope in the face of the yawning chasm of fear that was before her.
     One of my heroes is Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-sixth president of the United States, 1901-1909. (By the way, his name is Theodore, not Teddy. Few dared call him “Teddy” to his face.) His life contains one story of hope against adversity after another. As a young boy, he almost didn’t survive violent bouts of asthma. He lost his mother and his first wife on the same horrible night, February 14, 1884. His younger brother Elliott became an alcoholic and committed suicide at the age of 34 in 1894. But Roosevelt looked past these and many other adversities and is known as one of the most courageous—and hopeful— men ever to lead this country.
     Everyone knows about Roosevelt’s leadership of the First US Volunteer Regiment, the Rough Riders, in the Spanish American War. Most know also that Roosevelt was the first president to invite an African American, Booker T. Washington, to dine at the White House against the howls of Southern Democrats. He saved the nation from disaster by negotiating the end of the 1902 coal miner’s strike. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the warring Japanese and Russians together in 1905. His list of accomplishments is overflowing and inspiring.
     He said in his autobiography that there were two types of successes. The first type of success comes to a Washington, a Nelson, or a Lincoln, he said. This type of success is rare, and comes only to those with exceptional gifts. But the second type of success comes to ordinary people, and Roosevelt included himself in this group. He said, “It is the kind of success which is open to the average man of sound body and fair mind, who has no remarkable mental or physical attributes, but who gets just as much as possible in the way of work out of the aptitudes that he does possess. It is the only kind of success that is open to most of us.”
     Herein lies the essence of hope seen in Theodore Roosevelt’s life. He wrote further, “Having been a rather sickly and awkward boy, I was as a young man at first both nervous and distrustful of my own prowess. I had to train myself painfully and laboriously not merely as regards my body but as regards my soul and spirit.”
     One of the methods of this training was the discipline of overcoming fears. Roosevelt’s way of finding courage was to consider that of which he was afraid, then act as though he was not afraid. Then, he acted decisively. “There were all kinds of things of which I was afraid at first,” he wrote, “ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”
     Owen Wister, the great Western novelist and author of My Friendship with Roosevelt: 1880-1919, described the kind of man Roosevelt was with these words:
In 1912, he is shot close to the heart on his way to make a speech, nobody can stop him, he speaks for an hour and a half, and then goes to the doctors. In 1913, he wins a libel suit for ten thousand dollars against an editor who had published the favorite falsehood of his drinking. He waives the damages. Defendant in a libel suit brought by a political enemy during the Great War, and with a jury containing Germans, he denounces the sinking of the Lusitaniawhich happened during the trial, regardless of how this may affect the verdict. At the Convention of 1912, approached by the emissary of thirty disgusted Taft delegates with an offer that would put the Republican nomination in the hollow of his hand, he sends the emissary back, explosively. “This is a crooked convention,” he exclaims, “and I don’t touch it with a forty rod pole.” In 1912, upon our entering the Great War, he offers to raise a division himself, and go over and fight. Cannot many who knew the man, match these instances with a score of others?
     Roosevelt’s hopeful perspective is seen in something he said to Wister just shortly after the death of his youngest son Quentin in the skies over France in 1918, and a few weeks before his own death. “It doesn’t matter what the rest is going to be. I have had fun the whole time.” This perspective, defined by hopeful expectation, brings out the meaning of hope as a certain expectation of something wonderful to come. Christian theology teaches us about that kind of hope. History does too, through those who lived hope’s meaning in a myriad of ways, and overcoming legions of fearful challenges.
     Now, I pass the baton on to my friends and colleagues–
Rich Holland, philosopher and theologian who is a friend of wisdom
Tom Foley, intrepid Christian missionary to Eastern Europe and one of the wisest men I know
Evan Lenow, ethicist and dear friend and colleague at Southwestern
Josh Bush, chemical engineer who deftly shows connections between faith and science
Nathan Finn, insightful historian and theologian at Southeastern

He’s the President

Who is President Obama? He’s the President. That’s all you need to know.

Evangelical Christians are often conservatives, politically, socially, and economically. Conservatives, philosophically and historically, are respectful of authority and guard the primacy of authority in the community. Evangelical Christianity takes seriously the biblical admonition to obey rulers and authorities (Romans 13) and to pray for those who rule the community (1 Timothy 2).

These same conservative Christians are Americans. They are not Europeans. In fact, Americans in general are quite distinct from Europeans and consider them to be backward in many ways. Americans, particularly Americans who have a basic understanding of how our political process works and why, know that authority is limited. The power to govern has been delegated to the institutions of the government and to the people who were elected to fill the offices that represent those institutions.

Barack H. Obama was elected president by a clear majority on November 4 in the year 2008. Every citizen over the age of 18 who was registered to vote at that time had the opportunity to have their say. Obama received 69,456,897 votes. His opponent received almost ten million fewer votes than Mr. Obama. Out of 270 electoral votes needed to win, Obama received 365. Presidential power was transferred peacefully from George W. Bush to Barack H. Obama on January 20, 2009. These things happened according to the very specific guidelines established by the U. S. Constitution and other laws passed by local, state, and federal legislation.

If you call yourself a conservative, you are bound by your profession to guard authority as it is defined in the U. S. Constitution. If you call yourself an evangelical Christian, the Holy Spirit commands you to obey and pray for your leaders–not just the ones you agree with or like. We all must show deep respect for President Obama, whether we like him or agree with him or not. It is time for another election, and we must bear this in mind as we prepare ourselves for what everyone says is going to be a brutally disrespectful campaign (who could doubt this after having witnessed the political dialogue over the past three years?).

Who is President Obama? He’s the President. But wait–isn’t he a Muslim?

Doesn’t matter. He’s the President.

Wasn’t he born in Kenya?

No, Hawaii. And he’s the President.


Isn’t he a socialist? A Marxist?

Doesn’t matter. He’s the President.


Doesn’t he violate the Constitution?

Perhaps. Make your case. But he’s the President.


He always uses a teleprompter.

Doesn’t matter. He’s the President.

He’s always taking vacations.

Doesn’t matter. He’s the President.


He’s gutting our military!

He is the Commander in Chief of the U. S. military. He’s the President.

He allowed gays into the military! He’s pro-choice! He’s for gun control! He likes broccoli!

It doesn’t matter! He’s the President.

If you do not approve of the President’s policies, then speak up–write your congressman, write the President, and vote for his opponent in the next election. Or, you could do what my brother did and run for office yourself. Then you will see that the job of political officeholder ain’t nearly as easy as it seems. 

I am a committed conservative and I am an evangelical Christian. I agree with very little that the President has done in his first, and hopefully only, term as President. I plan on voting against the President in November. But as a conservative, I am very interested in guarding his, and every American constitutional officeholder’s, authority. As an evangelical Christian, I am praying for the President, for Mrs. Obama, for their family–for their health and vitality, and that God would give him wisdom in his decisions. I am going to show him the utmost respect while it concerns me to do so. When I speak of the President, I am going to give the man the benefit of the doubt. I am not going to question his integrity unless there is evidence it needs to be questioned. I will not attack him on the basis of his religion, whatever it is, because the Constitution requires no officeholder to have any particular religious article of faith to be eligible to hold office (U. S. Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3). I’m going to do my best to stick with my understanding of the issues, and keep the irrelevancies and absurdities down to a minimum.

No hoping he fails; no comparisons to Adolph Hitler or Karl Marx; no references to socialism when his name is mentioned; no speculations on his faith commitments; no musings on the place of his birth. He is my President, and yours too. He is the President of the United States, just as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and the forty-one previous occupants of the office before them. He is our President, not Charlton Heston, or whomever the NRA president happens to be.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison on January 30, 1787, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” One of the beauties of our Constitution is that it provides for a little rebellion against the legislature every two and six years, and against the president, every four years. It’s called an election. If you are a conservative who is against President Obama’s policies, go into your polling place and let your voice be heard. But remember to separate the man from the office. Don’t hate the man. If you are a conservative and you hate the man who holds the office of President, you are, logically speaking, on your way to treason. If you are a Christian and you hate the man who is the President, you are on your way to treason as well as murder (Matthew 5.21-22) and hypocrisy.

Let’s keep our tone civil and respectful this election season. He is the President.

To American Presidents: Put Up and Shut Up?

Stephen Hayward has an editorial in today’s issue of USA Today in which he advocates for less talk from US presidents: fewer speeches, fewer statements, and fewer promises. He compares the public activity of pre-20th century presidents, who were generally a lot quieter, with more recent presidents including President Obama, who seem to pronounce on a daily basis,.

Is Hayward’s argument convincing? I sympathize with what he is saying, and he’s right that candidates in this election year ought to tone down the promises and rhetoric, and just govern effectively if elected. Still, I think Hayward allows nostalgia for period that was less noisy to intrude into his thinking, and this results in his holding modern presidents to an unrealistic standard.

Your views? Here is Hayward’s editorial.