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Thursday, December 17, 2009

American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism

Is 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?

When asked 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.

The 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?

Are 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?

Should 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.

My 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.

Admittedly, 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.

But 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.  

Alexis 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?

He 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.”

Alexis 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 brother’s keeper.

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 automatic.  

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.

Recently 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.

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