A very concerned Washington Post recently ran a front page story about the persistence of “American exceptionalism,” followed up by an online panel of religious experts pontificating over the reputed problem. A recent poll, of which the Brookings Institute was a partial sponsor, showed nearly 60 percent of Americans believe God has assigned America a “special role” in human history. Most believing were white evangelicals, over 80 percent of whom uphold this special role for America, as do two-thirds of minority Christians. Majorities of Catholics and Mainline Protestants also agreed.
Of course, the left-wing religionists from The Post’s “On Faith” discussion were very distressed. The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State tied exceptionalism to America’s darkest sins. “After the European settlement, strange ideas about ‘manifest destiny’ were used as an excuse to push Native Americans from their land,” Lynn explained. “Later, in the antebellum South, some preachers routinely endorsed the thesis that slavery, American-style, was endorsed by God.” Lynn deliberately concluded: “Today’s ‘exceptionalists’ are really no different, a theologian’s equivalent of the child in the backseat telling his sister that ‘Mom likes me better than you!’”
So apparently Lynn believes the majority of black and Hispanic Christians in America who believe in America’s “special role” are the moral successors to slave-holders. He forgot that American exceptionalists have included Abraham Lincoln, abolitionists, civil rights advocates and hosts of social reformers motivated by America’s highest ideals. Most Americans who believe in a providential role for America probably aren’t aspiring genocidalists or slave traders. Instead, in sync with most Americans across several centuries, they believe America was founded to uphold democracy, freedom, religious liberty, with the opportunity for prosperity to all. They also recall America’s unique role in defeating foreign tyrannies who genuinely did aspire to a sinister global hegemony.
The Rev. Lynn is a longtime specialist in caricaturing traditional Christians as exploitative, aspiring theocrats, so naturally, he blithely links American exceptionalism to his favorite bugaboos. Evangelical Left activist and Emergent Church guru Brian McLaren, in his commentary for The Post, was little different in his grave concerns about believers in America’s special role, most of whom he discerned are prone to “a sense of national superiority, entitlement, smugness, and inflated self-importance.” McLaren offered his own standard Religious Left interpretation of exceptionalism as exempting America from high ethical standards:
It’s wrong for other nations to torture people, but America is an exception. It’s wrong for other nations to develop and discharge nuclear weapons, but America is an exception. It’s wrong for other nations to violate standards of just war theory, but America is an exception. It’s right for other nations to bear responsibility for environmental stewardship, but America is an exception. It’s right for other nations to uphold the highest standards of human rights, but American is an exception.
McLaren, like much of the Religious Left, subscribes to his own brand of Jeremiah Wright-style exceptionalism, portraying America as often uniquely evil, the focus of global injustice, and worthy of ongoing divine damnation, not the recipient of blessing or tool of providential destiny. Agreeing with McLaren, and then some, was Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Arun Gandhi, an Indian journalist and pacifist who frequently joins the American Religious Left for sundry protests. In his own Post op-ed, Gandhi angrily rebutted American exceptionalists as “ignorant and arrogant,” spouting “negative drivel,” professing a “special connection to God,” whom they portray as “vile, vicious, angry, hateful and intolerant,” while He chooses a “handful of people to commit atrocities against fellow humans.”
Gandhi likens American exceptionalists to South Africa’s Boers, who “claimed to be the special emissaries of God sent to save the Black heathens, kill and subjugate them, plunder the land and its resources, enslave and dehumanize people of color and rule over everyone with God given right to commit every conceivable evil under the sun.” The pacifist observed: “They too committed what the world now recognizes as atrocities in the name of God.” Beneficently, Gandhi hopes “God intervenes to bless the American conservatives with some wisdom and humility,” and that He rescues them from their “mission to save America and the world from the liberals.”
Providing a corrective to the Religious Left’s angry stereotypes about American exceptionalism was Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe, whose Post commentary noted that America remains the “greatest hope for those who are oppressed and shackled throughout the world,” America was the “most important combatant on the side that was both right and victorious” in the 20th century’s wars to “overcome successive tyrannies that enslaved humanity,” and America uniquely combines a “rich religious legacy with the best of the enlightenment,” creating “technology and innovation,” and is premised on ideals rather than tribalism. The rabbi concluded that America’s destiny is “critical to the fate of humanity.”
Almost all Americans are exceptionalists. Most, like Rabbi Wolpe, see American exceptionalism as an aspiration for good. Sadly, much of the modern Religious Left can imagine America only as exceptionally bad.