Are Americans Really Exceptional?

How to turn an election cycle rallying cry into a reality

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In the beginning — before the beginning, really — Americans have thought of themselves as exceptional, as the new chosen people of God. Either before departing England or en route aboard the Arabella — it is unclear which; the ship arrived in 1630 — John Winthrop, a layman trained as a lawyer, wrote a sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity” in which he said “we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world …”

The “city upon a hill” phrase — Winthrop borrowed it from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount — echoes still. (It is interesting to note that only Ronald Reagan could improve on Jesus in terms of communication: it was Reagan who added the modifier “shining” to the image.) In a recent Pew poll, when asked if they agreed with the statement “Our people are not perfect but our culture is superior others,” 49% of Americans said yes, compared to 32% of Britons and 27% of French.

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In rough political terms, the Republican presidential field argues that America is a place set apart, a nation with a divinely ordained mission to lead the world. A corollary to the case as it is being put in the 2012 cycle is that President Obama does not believe this. George H.W. Bush leveled the same charge against Michael Dukakis in 1988, claiming that Dukakis thought of the United States as just another country on the roll of the United Nations. The argument is well-suited to reassure voters who are pessimistic about the life of the nation and about the place of America in the world.

We are going to be hearing more about this notion of exceptionalism, possibly far beyond Iowa and New Hampshire and into the general election. So let’s be clear about the history — and the uses and abuses — of the vision of America as an instrument of God’s will on earth.

This sense that we are the new Israel, a chosen people, is among the most ancient and most potent of American ideas. It has informed our finest hours and some of our worst. It has given us the confidence to project our power in defense of the weak and of the innocent and the persecuted. It has sometimes fed a sense of hubris and moral self-certainty. And it is bipartisan: George W. Bush is often criticized for his religiously informed language, but it was FDR who delivered a prayer of his own composition on D-Day, and John F. Kennedy closed his inaugural address by saying that “on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

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When the rhetoric of exceptionalism is invoked — and it often is, by Republicans and by Democrats — liberals should not roll their eyes nor should conservatives to salute blindly. A sensible way forward is for us to weigh our history and our sense of ourselves in the manner of Lincoln, who called us “God’s almost-chosen people,” and saw the nation’s story as one in which we struggled in the twilight to seek to perfect a still-imperfect union.

We are exceptional not because of who we are but because of what we do and how we put the ideals of human dignity, individual freedom, and liberty under law into action. Those ideas are rooted in part in our religious traditions; it is ahistorical to deny that faith played a critical role in the development of American freedom. Here again Lincoln had it right. During the Civil War a Northern minister once came to the White House and said how glad he was that God was on the Union’s side. No, no, Lincoln replied: we had to hope that the Union was on God’s side.

America is a great country, and we have done great things. We can again. And one key to national restoration lies in another, less-quoted part of John Winthrop’s sermon. “We must delight in each other, make others’ condition our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together.” To be exceptional we have to do the exceptional thing and unite in purpose.