there such a thing as American Exceptionalism? Is America really
different or better or greater than any other nation? If it is better
or greater, what is the reason?
recently if he believed in American Exceptionalism, President Obama
said, “Sure, I believe in American Exceptionalism just like an
Englishman believes in English Exceptionalism.” On the surface of it,
that sounds realistic. After all, England and the Magna Carta laid the
foundation for a free and democratic society. English common law led
the way to a government of laws, rather than of men.
French gave us great art and led the way in invention. They built the
Suez Canal and made the world smell better with their perfumes. Germany
gave us great music and the Bible in the language of the common man.
Spain, where I am writing this from, had the foresight to finance
Christopher Columbus, who, on his way to India, stumbled across the New
World. Many, many countries have enriched culture, made discoveries,
and brought inventions to the world, so why would America be
“Exceptional” or unique among the world’s nations?
Americans smarter than any other people? Of course we are not. Does
America have more natural resources than any other nation? No, many
poor nations in South America and even in Africa have more natural
resources than the United States. Some would argue that Germany and
Japan and South Korea make better cars. Others would say that culture
is richer in Latin America or that other nations are more advanced in
science, mathematics, or even music. So how can one state that America
is superior or unique or better than any other nation? Is American
Exceptionalism just nationalism, as President Obama has stated?
we as Americans discard American Exceptionalism as a silly idea? A
spokesman for the national association of social studies (formerly
history) teachers said recently, “Get over it, America is just another
country, like any other country, no better or worse.” Was he right? Is
Obama right? Is America just another country, no better or worse than
any other country?
Rather than opinion, what
does the hard evidence indicate? Let’s start with immigration to and
from the United States. Are there just as many people heading south
across our border into Mexico and Latin America as there are headed
north? No, of course not. But Obama might argue that’s just because
our economy is so much stronger and better than Mexico and South
America. Or he might say that you can’t compare the United States with
third world nations. OK, let’s set aside for a moment the reason Mexico
and South America are to a great extent relatively poor, third world
nations, and agree that it’s not fair to compare them to the US. We’ll
also exclude Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe for the same reasons,
although it’s hard to argue that Japan is a third world nation.
Nevertheless, we’ll limit our comparison to Europe. Is there any desire
for those in Europe to visit and stay in the US? And, let’s forget the
politicians and other privileged classes of Europe who live in luxury.
In fact, I’ll use just a simple example.
friend Bob runs a large printing and shipping operation in Virginia.
Not too long ago, a young Frenchman who had traveled to the US applied
for a job. Bob asked him why he wanted to come to the US to work and
live here. He had a simple, straightforward answer, “Everyone knows
what a great place the United States is,” he said. “Everyone wants to
come to the US. Everyone knows that the US is the greatest country in
the world.” Apparently not everyone, according to our President.
it can be argued that this simple example is not a scientific study.
But, in fact, surveys in Europe and around the globe indicate that
people everywhere envy, respect, and admire the United States. They all
wish they had the widespread prosperity and freedom of the United
States. They stand in awe of the American “can do” spirit.
the fact that Americans enjoy broader and deeper prosperity more than
any other nation in the world is not the cause of American
Exceptionalism. It is representative of American Exceptionalism, but
the great spread of prosperity, and the movement from poverty to riches
that is possible in the US, is made possible only because of individual
freedom. That freedom is the cause of our prosperity and the reason
that America is the land of opportunity as no other nation in the
history of the world is or has ever been.
Although freedom itself is a part of American Exceptionalism, it too is an effect of what makes America truly exceptional.
de Tocqueville set about to discover the greatness of America when he
traveled to this nation in the 1830s. At that time, America wasn’t
markedly more prosperous than any other nation, but it was free and the
people were constantly in “the pursuit of happiness,” as the Declaration
of Independence stated it. What was it, de Tocqueville wondered, that
gave the United States this special greatness?
said he looked for it in our institutions and in our industry, but it
was not until he discovered our churches afire with the flame of
righteousness that he identified America’s greatness. Or, as another
writer put it, “America is great, because America is good. When America
ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
de Tocqueville identified public virtue as the source of American
greatness. Virtue is that part of the American character that makes a
man accept personal responsibility for his actions. It is virtue that
causes him to work diligently to support his family. It is virtue that
causes him to be a good citizen. It is virtue that causes a husband and
wife to instill these same values in their children and to be faithful
to each other. It is virtue that encourages each of us to be our
But where does such public
and private virtue come from? Virtue, public and private, doesn’t
happen accidentally. It doesn’t come out of the blue. It isn’t
Personal virtue is a reflection
of God’s love for us. The God who blesses us with faith in Jesus as
our Savior, grants us, through his Holy Spirit, the opportunity and the
ability to show our appreciation for God’s love by exercising public
virtue. It’s not that we are perfect. We are indeed just like every
other person in the world, imperfect. We sin against God and against
each other every day, but God’s love for us constrains us to show our
appreciation and love for him by acting in virtuous ways. We are to
care for each other. We are to show compassion. We are to understand
and appreciate our fallen state and ask for God’s forgiveness.
two Englishmen, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, wrote the
book, God is Back. What is clear from reading this book is that what
sets apart Europe from America more than anything else is America’s
faith in and dependence upon God. As secular and even anti-Christian as
America has become in the 21st Century, it is clear from Micklethwait
and Wooldridge’s empirical study that it is America’s faith that sets
this nation apart from Europe.
Yes, it is
faith that comes to us by God’s grace that is the source of American
Exceptionalism. By God’s grace we come to faith, by His grace we strive
to live lives of virtue. When we strive to live a virtuous life, we
are blessed by God with freedom and freedom leads to wide and broad
prosperity. Free markets and free speech do not create a perfect
society. There is no perfection on this earth. The earth is not an
enduring place. Heaven is the home that God created and intended for
us. It is to be our destination, and it is our destination by God’s
grace through faith.
Yes, President Obama, America is, as people all around the world instinctively recognize, an exceptionally great nation.