In an earlier post, I wrote about American exceptionalism with something less than enthusiasm. But this kind of point, however simple it is at the center, still needs to be nuanced around the edges. Some of this is a summary of what I have written elsewhere, so bear with me and here goes anyway.
American exceptionalism is objectionable because it is a false religion, a false faith. It is a smooth and attractive idol, and probably the idol most likely to ensnare conservative evangelicals. The apostle John’s warning should be kept in mind at all times (1 John 5:21). David Gelernter has seriously suggested that we treat Americanism as one of the world’s great religions. Other treatments of the subject are less adoring, but no less problematic. The problem is that Americanism is seen as a source of ideals, an artesian well of ethics, a fountainhead of standards. This is not just nonsense, it is damned nonsense. I speak metaphorically only, but purveyors of this doctrine need to be splashed around in the village pond for a bit.
To object to American exceptionalism (for I am an American objectionalist) is not to maintain that there is nothing unique about Americans or American history. It is to say that there is nothing religiously unique. We are sinners like everybody else, we need God’s grace like everybody else, we are thoughtless when prosperous like everybody else, and peevish when not prosperous like everybody else. Take off an American’s boots, and you will find ten toes. Son of a gun.
Now one of the unique things that is striking about the wisdom of our founders is that they knew this. The constitutional arranagement they made for us presupposes that we are just like everybody else. The founders did not trust Americans with the kind of power that Obama wants, the kind that Congress wants, the kind that the Supreme Court wants, the kind that the Republicans want, the kind the Democrats want, and the kind that most American voters have hitherto wanted to surrender to the aforementioned. The founders knew that Americans were good, old-fashioned me-firsters, and so they built enough booby traps in the constitutional arrangement to make it look like the beginning of an Indiana Jones movie. They did this to trip up those sneaky, grasping, mendacious Americans — especially the kind that are tempted to run for Congress.
Reflect on what Madison said in Federalist #51.
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
The founders knew that we were in no way unique, and that really was unique. As long as we kept that Calvinistic humility in place, we were greatly blessed. And there is nothing wrong with acknowledging and rejoicing in that blessing. We need to return to it.
So American gratitude is something else entirely. That is not what I am shooting at when I go after exceptionalism. Acknowledgement of God’s great blessing is not just okay, but is rather mandatory. But note how it works.
“Beware that thou forget not the LORD thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day: Lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; And when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the LORD thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage” (Dt. 8:11-14).
If anyone could believe in exceptionalism, and have actual verses to point to, it would have been the Hebrews. And yet note that God warns them of this pattern, which is as old as dirt. He included them. Nothing is as ordinary and boring as nationalistic hubris. Displays of this sin with the stars and stripes waving in the background are just as obnoxious and just as wicked as when anybody else does it — and everybody else has done it. Read a book, somebody!
When you are on the top of the world and on the top of your game, you can go the Ozymandian route — you can descend into madness like Nebuchadnezzar — or you can pour out your thanksgiving to the God of heaven. If you choose the latter route, it is because you have recognized that you and your entire nation breathe through your nostrils. And if you want to use that breath to thank Him, you must mention His name, and you have to use the name of His Son in order for Him to hear you. Do it like they taught you in Sunday School.
Liberals are ungrateful whiners. They are ungrateful because they don’t think there is anything to be grateful for. They are surrounded by unbelievable blessings, greater than any people in the history of the world have known, and they avoid the grace of gratitude by complaining about the pollution, the fact that we stole it from the Indians, the additives in the bread, and the fact that it is all propped up by CIA assassinations overseas. No need to thank anybody for the meal if you think the cook poisoned it.
Conservative exceptionalists (who conserve nothing but this most scarlet of sins) are ungrateful because they deny what the 100th psalm says — they insist that it is “we ourselves” that set this bright and shining light on the hill. There was an old guy up there praying, but we chased him off. Said his name was Winthrop. Then we really got the fire going, for all the world to see! Bring your huddled masses yearning to be free! These so-called conservatives aren’t grateful because they think they did it all themselves. No need to thank anybody for the meal if you think you’re the cook.
Left and right, united in their ingratitude. One is mopey in that ingratitude, hair in his eyes, and the other is sleek and fat, with eyes like Wall Street grease, but they both share a true common bond. They do not honor God as God, and they do not give Him thanks.
Most of the outrage from the idolatrous right that was directed against the Rev. Jeremiah Wright for his “God damn America” sermon was not because of the typical leftist loopiness that caused Wright to say it, but the fact that he even had a category in his mind for saying it. But let me tell you this — people who don’t have a category in their minds for the wrath of God are prime candidates for that wrath. When the sky and oceans have fled away, and the nations are assembled before the great, white throne, will there be any fools who will be elbowing their way to the front of that great and terrified assembly? Will there be any fools on that day who have no category in their minds for the concept of judgment? A nation that slaughters over a million kids a year is a nation that really needs to stop and reflect. That reflection, if it takes a right turn, might become repentance.
So what is this sin of exceptionalism? It is here: “And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth” (Dt. 8:17).