Every year different voices of the Religious or Evangelical Left tut-tut the ostensibly rabid nationalists who mindlessly celebrate the anniversary of their oppressive nation. "American Exceptionalism," which supposedly is the invention of the Religious Right, is the original sin demanding constant repentance.
This year's lament comes from progressive Southern Baptist Jonathan Merritt, son of a former president Southern Baptist Convention president, and author of a new book bemoaning religious conservatives. Frequently appearing on cable television, he is one of the prominent faces of a new evangelical generation that reputedly rejects partisanship of the Right for "nonpartisan" positions of the Left.
"What makes this party unique from others is that the birthday girl—America—thinks she’s better than everyone else," Merritt noted of his country's Independence Day, in an essay nonchalantly called "America the Arrogant."
It's essential mythology for the Religious Left that American Exceptionalism is defined by hubristic superiority wielded by conservatives as ideological justification for American imperialism. That American Exceptionalism is actually much subtler and richer, subscribed to by Americans across the spectrum, and often motivating America's loftiest aspirations, somehow evades these caricaturists.
Merritt quotes left-leaning columnists Michael Kinsley and Richard Cohen in slamming the evils of American exceptionalism. But these commentators are as ardent in their exceptionalism as anyone on the Right, having lectured for decades how America must save the world, or model for the world, their own liberal vision of the Great Society.
Somewhat generously, Merritt grants that America is special and great for its generosity, its freedom, its prosperity, and its democracy. "This is a wonderful place to live, and many citizens of other nations are clamoring to come here while our citizens largely stay put," he admits. Merritt calls America "exceptional" but denounces "exceptionalism as
"bad theology" for supposedly claiming that America has "achieved special standing with God."“
Merritt warns against "exceptionalist politicians" who intimidate their adversaries into silence about America's flaws lest they lose patriotic credibility. He cites America's not so exceptional qualities such as a high murder rate, high execution rate, and a failing education system. Interesting list. Most of the "exceptionalist politicians" he rues likely agree that public education is often a scandal. As to murder rates, they are falling, but nobody defends them. Nor do the cartoon stereotypes of flag waving hyper patriots truly, widely exist much beyond the relished nightmares of coastal Leftists.
In a key argument, Merritt asks how you would react to a "neighbor" who "made no bones about the fact they thought they were better than you," "thought they were specially blessed by God and you weren’t," or required constant reassurance from you about how amazing they were?" Even accepting these rather distorted expectations of American exceptionalists, the answer really depends on what you might need from your reputedly difficult neighbor.
Merritt suggests you would understandably tire of your brash "neighbor," avoid eye contact, and withhold social invites, much as America's "global neighbors are running the other way." But not all of America's metaphorical neighbors have played avoidance. Depending on their needs, many have been saved, and some have been ultimately grateful for supposedly arrogant American Exceptionalism.
Jews in Nazi camps welcomed the sounds of American tanks. Tortured Filipinos welcomed General Douglas MacArthur's grandiose fulfillment of his promise to return. Occupied Japanese were relieved by his benevolent rule that transitioned them from fascism to democracy. Besieged West Berliners heard with gladness the roar of American supply aircraft. Thousands of Vietnamese boat people, fleeing their Communist "liberators," escaped storm and pirates for the sanctuary American naval ships. Under assault by several Arab neighbors, Israelis breathed with relief during President Nixon's emergency arms airlift in 1973. Starving Ethiopians and North Koreans, victims of Marxist economics, were nourished by American food. Soviet and East European refuseniks tapped the words of the Declaration of Independence in their prison cells. Kuwaitis and ultimately Iraqis were rescue from rape and mutilation by Saddam thanks to U.S. armed forces. Millions of Africans are preserved from near certain death thanks to U.S. drugs for AIDS and other disease.
Guilt-ridden, self-doubting, nations lacking a sense of majestic destiny do not typically liberate millions from genocide, hold at bay across decades vast tyrannical empires, routinely feed and rescue millions, create global economic and political architecture providing sustained economic growth and relative security for billions, or absorb the contempt of their critics with hardly a complaint.
Merritt asserts that American Exceptionalism ignores God as the giver of unmerited blessings and instead claims deserved "favored status" with the Almighty, "breeding arrogance and triumphalism." But what he deems triumphalism has been for millions across the decades and around the world a source of liberation and life. No nation can perfectly calibrate its self-image into perfect moral harmony. But Divine Providence, by His grace, has deployed America, for all its many faults, as a force for unprecedented good around the world.
Shaped by our Puritan forebears, there probably have been few nations as obsessively reflective of its sins as America, while simultaneously audacious and sweeping in its soaring designs for the betterment of humanity. American Exceptionalism deserves a more reflective analysis beyond the simplistic calumny of "arrogance." And July 4 deserves vigorous celebration uninterrupted by the Religious Left's armchair angst.
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