I believe in American exceptionalism. Before you boo and hiss me—as my liberal listeners—or before you smugly enumerate my endorsement—as my conservative listeners—I want to clarify. American exceptionalism has its substance, its truth, not in some divine mandate, irrevocable. As it says in Luke’s Gospel: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Lk 3:8) And the Apostle Paul says regarding the inclusion of gentiles into the New Israel that he envisions Christianity to be: “Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”
The substance of American exceptionalism lies in the sum total effect of our actions. Our ability to stick to our principles. In light of President Trump’s campaign slogans, to “Make America Great Again”, which was a stumbling block for liberals, a liberal friend of mine questioned if America was ever great. To me, the statement, “Make America Great Again,” is fundamentally flawed. We never stopped being great. But in her defense, she is speaking as a woman of color, a child of immigrants, and a person of religious tradition and ethnic extraction that have been much slandered in recent years. She is seeing the worst of what we are. But I answered—and I answer now—that our greatness, our exceptionalism, has always lain within our desire—as a nation—to do better. To strive harder and to be better than our forebears. From the start of our nation, our forefathers and foremothers sought to have a better and more equitable government than the monarchies and tyrannies of Europe. They came here to seek religious freedom and economic opportunities that they did not have in Europe, in the Old World, which was dominated by hereditary aristocracies that had made themselves fat on the blood of the peasants whom they were supposedly entrusted to govern. Now did our ancestors in this land immediately solve all problems and establish universal freedom and equality for all citizens and inhabitants of this land? No, they did not. For as humans, they were fallible, and they succumbed to many of the same faults as their ancestors did. For many brought millions of slaves against their will from Africa to labor here under pain of death, the former telling themselves that it was the natural order of things, and soothing their seething souls from the burgeoning conscience that sought to peek through their hardened hearts, by reciting and mangling scripture that justified their usage and furtherance of their “peculiar institution”—that of slavery. But in time, better natures prevailed and our founders and their descendants thought better of their actions and sought to abolish slavery. And many people died, trying to defend their way of life, thinking that they were letting go of their freedom; many people died trying to establish freedom for all men and women and to ensure that the promise of liberty is extended to all people. And in another generation, many women and their male allies fought for universal suffrage, ensuring that women had the right to vote as well as men. And in another generation, we as a nation pulled together to save the world from the tyranny of fascism in its numerous forms—and from Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini. And in another generation, our people fought for civil rights, to close the deal that had been struck with the former slaves, inaugurated by the Emancipation Proclamation, and to reassert the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people, regardless of race, color, or creed. Since that time, we have suffered from other expressions of tyranny, such as unbridled warfare that has served big moneyed special interests, putting oil and corporate profits before American lives; unrestricted government access to our personal information and our private lives; or forms of extremism from both ends of the spectrum, and so forth and so on. Through each and every era, we have fought to make ourselves better. Sometimes we have succeeded. Other times, we have strayed further from the path, thinking ourselves more free or more equitable. But in every age, it has been these principles that have driven us to become better than we were before, and in my opinion, this is the source of American exceptionalism.
One of the marks of American liberalism has been to right the wrongs of former times, to seek justice for the downtrodden, and to repent for our iniquities as a nation. A certain amount of shame has always accompanied the realization that we have done wrong. Conversely, one of the marks of American conservatism has been a resistance to feeling shame about ourselves as a nation, but in some ways that pride has stood in the way of realizing one of the most important principles of the Judeo-Christian faith systems: repentance. Long ago, during the Revolutionary War, patriotism meant willingness to die for one’s country, defending one’s freedom. Modern patriotism has veered off course, attempting rather to defend one’s pride. Modern patriotism has become synonymous with pride, rather than sacrifice. And overweening pride can easily become a sin. I do not seek to take away the source of anyone’s pride. People want to feel good about themselves. That’s their right. We all need pride, as does any child being trained to walk or speak. We all need a gold star on our homework. But how long do we have to be given gold stars in order to keep us moving forward? After a while, we need to put away childish things and walk on our own. And a part of this is recognizing our mistake, taking responsibility for our iniquities, for repentance.
We need a healthy dose of pride in who we are, as a people, as a nation. But we need that pride to be tempered with humility and compassion, and indeed, repentance for our wrongdoings. King David, the model of the Biblical king, modeled humility before God, and embodied repentance. Are we claiming to be greater than David? Have we surpassed him in perfection?
So how do I feel about American exceptionalism? I believe that our exceptionalism lies in our ability to embrace the diversity that made this nation, and through it to build unity. In welcoming the immigrants of all classes, creeds, races, colors, and abilities, who were able to make this nation prosperous and industrious, and who can still do so if given the right opportunities. Taking the best of all cultures and sharing and appreciating them. And are we a melting pot or a salad bowl? I don’t care. We’re both. We’ll start our meal with salad and then we move on to the fondue. And Guess what? After the meal, there is a delicious fruit salad for us all to enjoy! That diversity can make all of us stronger, individually and corporately. And Our exceptionalism lies in our compassion toward other nations, neighbors or not, allies or not, being willing to lend a hand in the face of adversity and tragedy, being willing to build bridges where there were only chasms. Our exceptionalism lies in our ability and our desire to make peace and to avoid war, not to thrive in it and get rich on it.
I want us to feel good about ourselves and our accomplishments. But I want us to do better and to be better; to never stop trying to become what God wants us to be, what our better natures want us to be. We have a lot to be proud of, but we also have a lot farther to go. As with any promising teenager, we cannot let them rest on their laurels and be satisfied with a few A papers, a few perfect test scores, a few goals or touchdowns scored. There is a whole life ahead of us, but we are going to have to graduate high school and go to college, or embark on a career. No one is going to give us handouts just for being a good student. We have to keep working. And if that requires a little humility, and a little repentance, and a few “I’m sorries”, then so be it, if it will ensure that we remain righteous and that we retain the greatness that our ancestors worked so hard for. Be proud of our achievements, be humble about our natural abilities, and be quick to apologize, to police our own, to make amends, to build alliances and to move on. And to embrace the greatness that I know we are capable of.