American Exceptionalism

The newspaper USA Today predicts that American exceptionalism will become an issue in the 2012 elections. I hope not. It’s a petty argument if its all about bragging rights or pride. It’s theologically dangerous if it’s about more than that.

I would not serve in uniform if I did not believe that our constitutional government played an overall positive role in the lives of men and women, both inside and outside the United States. The American experience created a new way of being a nation – one based on ideals and aspirations rather than ethnicity and or the lust for power. The American values of human freedom and universal dignity have inspired positive change globally. American ingenuity and industry have improved the quality of life for many. American power has defended the weak and set free the oppressed. I have no use for the hateful, self-serving accusations of those who want to see America brought low.

The United States, however, is not perfect. More importantly, it is not God. Within this fallen world, there are negative components to the best of the American experience – and not all of it, by any means, falls under the category of “best.”

There are, I am sure, objective ways to look at the history and character of the United States and compare it with the history of other nations. Such an exercise would, however, be pointless.

For one thing, the question is not, “what has American been” or even “what has America become.” Culture is not static; it is always evolving. Historic greatness is no guarantee of future greatness. If America has been exceptional, it may not remain so.

Unless, of course, it is guided by an unseen hand of destiny or divine intervention. That’s what most people seem to mean when they speak of American exceptionalism: that God or providence has created and maintained the United States to play some sort of messianic role in human history.

Is the existence of the United States the goal of of human history? Does the United States somehow stand at the pinnacle of social evolution? Are we the last great hope for humanity? Has God created the United States to be something like a new Israel through which he will bless the world?

If that’s what people mean by American exceptionalism, count me out.

It’s one thing to humbly recognize that God has blessed your nation and seek to use those blessings for good. It’s quite another thing to puff oneself up with pride and grasp for power because you believe “God has chosen us.”  That kind of thinking leads to all sorts of abuses.

If the doctrine of American execptionalism has any utility, it is in emphasizing the nation’s responsibility, not its prerogatives. The United States is uniquely situated in the world today. It can play roles that no other nation can play and it has capabilities that few other nations possess. Uncle Ben was right. “With great power comes great responsibility.” But even emphasizing America’s practical responsibilities can become paternalistic and condescending toward others.

My greatest objection to American exceptionalism, however, is theological. The United States is a nation among nations. Others came before it. Others will come after it. It serves God’s purpose in the world, but it also stands under God’s judgment. Its citizens have the previously unknown freedom to shape the nation’s life for the common good, but it is also conditioned by institutional inertia and bureaucratic self-interest. It will never rise above being a fallen political state.

The United States is not God’s “city on a hill” – except possibly in a temporary and very limited way that serves God’s own purposes. That’s nothing to brag about. Even Persian king Cyrus was God’s anointed (messiah) in that way (Isaiah 45:1).

There has only been one exceptional, chosen nation in the history of the world, and even its national life did not fulfill God’s perfect intent. As for the rest, God used the power of the world’s empires and he judged them as well. God’s people living under the power of ancient empires used their institutional structures for good, but resisted the empire’s absolutist claims.

It is God’s covenant people in union with Christ who are God’s “city on a hill”. Through the church, God gives the light of Christ to the nations. No nation-state plays that role.

Importantly, the church does not exercise its power in the same way that nations exercise power. The church’s power is found in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. It is found in serving others for Christ’s sake – in the power of forgiveness – in the power of love. There is a place in this world for national power, but it does not achieve God’s ultimate purpose.

American Christians, please, love God and love your country – in that order. Recognize and celebrate your country’s goodness, and work to make it even  better. Seek moral greatness for your country – not just wealth and power. Insofar as you are able, use the  power of your American citizenship to bring good to the lives of people, both in our country and around the world.

Sing America the Beautiful, and pray that God may indeed “crown thy good with brotherhood,” “mend thine every flaw” and “thy gold refine.”

But to put the country at the center of God’s plan for humanity, this is not merely mistaken, it is idolatrous. Don’t do it.