American exceptionalism” has become one of the most frequently heard terms in conservative political argument in the United States. That one might not “believe in” American exceptionalism has correspondingly become a serious accusation—so much so that many liberal politicians (President Obama among them) have felt a need to profess their faith in the notion as well. But just what is American exceptionalism? Why has belief in the exceptional character of the United States suddenly become a box that must be checked by candidates for office? Should it be so? What sorts of policies or conduct might the slogan promote in domestic and foreign policy?
The current prevalence of the term American exceptionalism suggests that it is deployed primarily as a weapon, a fairly crude one, in the ongoing culture wars. But it also sometimes serves as justification for an aggressive international promotion of American ideals connected to wars of a different kind. Its origins are more interesting and more complicated, and its implications may give us salutary pause in reflection as Christians and Americans.
The idea of American exceptionalism is not new. Its proximate origin is in the work of social scientists in the mid-20th century who were concerned to explain just why socialism had not caught on in the United States as it had in other countries, especially in Europe. America alone seemed to lack a serious and electorally viable socialist party, and the disputed ideological territory was notably narrower in the United States than in other countries.
An Egalitarian Ethic
These thinkers had a distinguished 19th-century and European predecessor in Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America argued the thesis (not entirely comforting to his European readers) that while the United States offered Europeans a glimpse into a fated democratic future, it was also a distinctive society with historically particular characteristics that made it quite different from the nations of Europe.
Foremost among these was the lack of a tradition of inherited status and hierarchy. This and its largely uninhabited territory offered the possibility of extraordinary social mobility, which served as a potent source of energy in American life. Not all the manifestations of this met with de Tocqueville’s approval, but by and large he thought it led to a more free and humane society. It seems an odd thing that a piece of social science should become a piece of ideology, but there is more to the matter than that.
One can add to these characteristics of American democracy the idea—going back to the earliest Puritan settlers and exemplified by the image of America as the biblical “city upon a hill,” which appears in John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon to the settlers still on board the Arbella—that America had a unique role in God’s providence. A secularized version of this seems to have captivated many of the founders. Some historians see it in the very first of the Federalist Papers, in which Alexander Hamilton describes the American political experiment as one of universal relevance for the future of all people: “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
A similar note was struck during the nation’s most perilous moments by Abraham Lincoln, who, in making a case to Congress for emancipation in 1862, called America the “last best hope of earth,” a phrase frequently repeated by conservative writers of late, albeit an odd one for any Christian to accept.
One notes here both a sense of American exceptionalism as a kind of datum, a way of empirically describing certain important facets of American political culture, and as the object of a kind of faith. American exceptionalism thus counts as both fact and value. But there is something beyond this; the new prominence of exceptionalism seems related to a new kind of worry in the new world about the old. Exceptionalism was originally associated with the contrast between a European society that was rigidly hierarchical, where a person’s destiny was largely determined by her origins, and a new world in which the present and future were always pregnant with liberation from the past, where one could achieve whatever one’s talents made possible in an environment of freedom and possibility.
The new emphasis on American exceptionalism is being made partly to contrast the United States with the postwar European project, which is now exhausted. It also has its roots in the worry that such a failure could become our own. The worldwide economic crisis of the last two years has hit Europe hard; and this, combined with Europe’s less flexible labor laws, extensive systems of entitlements and demographic near-collapse, has appeared to many as evidence of something more serious than a recession. Add to this the immigration into Europe of a large number of Muslims, and many Americans see not just decline but the last days of a great civilization. Across the board Europe presents an image of a future many Americans want to avoid at all costs. Doubtless, this anxiety is related to the continuing effects of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. 2011, but the deeper roots of the notion in American thought give it a resonance that was clear in last year’s elections and will likely figure in the presidential campaign just beginning.
Comparisons between 19th-century Europe and the United States, however interesting they may be as history, are water long under the bridge. The implied comparison with contemporary Europe seems of much more importance. This is in one way related to what the founders thought. It has seemed to many that part of Europe’s problem is that it has lost faith in its own ideals and appears listless and indifferent in the face of its fate. The debate over the unsuccessfully proposed European constitution, which mentioned Europe’s classical heritage but ignored its Christian past, was noticed in the United States, as are data that consistently show religion to be more alive and more publicly relevant on this side of the Atlantic. Americans have watched with foreboding the economic crises in Greece and Ireland. Moreover, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent admission (followed quickly by similar statements from France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron) that multiculturalism has failed seems another significant sign. It is comparisons of this kind that transform the fact of exceptionalism into not only a value but also a slogan. Indeed, much recent U.S. discussion of Europe has a kind of Tocqueville-in-reverse quality.
Are Principles Destiny?
There is, however, still another and deeper sense in which one can understand exceptionalism. While national identity in most countries is cultural, a function of language and other traditions, America’s sense of its identity is also crucially tied to principles, those of the Declaration of Independence with its emphatic statement of self-evident truths about human equality and rights grounded in nature and nature’s God. Lincoln also described America in the Gettysburg Address as a nation “dedicated” to a “proposition.” This is a rare and significant thing. The proposition, that “all men are created equal,” is not all there is to American political culture, a complex reality that, like our institutions, is always changing in greater or lesser ways. But the principle at the heart of the American regime functions to discipline and develop our institutions and culture.
The Declaration of Independence was central to the rhetoric of the civil rights movement and will account in no small measure for its ultimate success. It is also, in my view, central to the rhetoric of the right to life movement, as it should be. Of course, not everyone sees it this way, and that presents a challenge. The U.S. commitment to principles requires interpretation and continuing appropriation of those principles. This is a contentious process in which different parties argue for rival interpretations that must be continually reformulated, extended and defended. What it means to be a people dedicated to self-evident truths is less settled than one might have expected. Let me suggest an example.
The declaration affirms our endowment with certain unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What does it mean to speak of a right to pursue happiness? It seems important that the right is not to happiness itself. What government could guarantee happiness? To make “pursuit” the object of the right might suggest a kind of agnosticism or relativism on the part of government, perhaps a neutrality toward conceptions of happiness. This has sometimes been either recommended or condemned as a good or bad aspect of the liberal political philosophy of the founders. On the other hand, one might take it to refer to the government’s commitment to securing for its citizens a kind of equality of opportunity or, as Lincoln himself put it in 1861, “to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life.” But just what is required here is still under dispute. Some would point out that guaranteeing everyone an unfettered start requires a great deal of intervention that may ultimately be intrusive and unsustainable.
A third interpretation is distinct from but not incompatible with the second, because it can help one think about filling in or applying the second sense more concretely. This interpretation would see in the phrase “American exceptionalism” less a commitment to classical liberal political philosophy (understood as implying relativism or even neutrality, as seen in the first interpretation) and more a view of the institutions of government as essentially instrumental—a means toward the flourishing of the persons they serve and no end in themselves. Another great French thinker deeply interested in the United States, the 20th-century Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, wrote, echoing St. Paul, that “the state is for man; man is not for the state.” Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his social encyclical “Charity in Truth” (2009) that the political common good is “sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it” (No. 7).
This last notion is crucial and can bring us back to one of the early statements of American exceptionalism by Alexander Hamilton: “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” While the slogan of American exceptionalism has sometimes of late taken on a kind of chauvinistic color, as a positive mandate to spread the American way of life around the globe, one can imagine it quite differently; and Christians in particular, whom St. Augustine called citizens of the “pilgrim City of God,” should do so.
While some have taken Hamilton’s vision as grist for the project of aggressive dissemination of America’s values and political institutions and demanded assent as a condition of participation in the debate, one can just as well interpret it as meaning that the fate of self-government in the United States may provide the world with lessons and examples apart from American policy, just as it did for Tocqueville and in a different way for Maritain. In this view America is called upon by its exceptional historical status to be a model of self-government (including, among other things, self-restraint), and its status as a model is related to its history, to its place as eldest sibling in the family of political modernity.
The United States has shown and will continue to show the world something about the fate of political freedom. Americans should be conscious of this and even intend it—not through force, however, but by example. That will require serious attention to our own problems, financial, political, cultural and moral. The rhetoric of exceptionalism here is less helpful than a renewed commitment—thoroughly patriotic—to self-critical reflection on just what lessons the rest of the world takes from our culture, institutions and policies. This commitment would return us from the rhetoric of exceptionalism to reality.