Last month my sons and I were discussing some of the early commentary on the 2016 Presidential Campaign. One of them asked my opinion on American Exceptionalism. I had not given it much thought, but spent some time considering the issue because I always try to have a reasoned answer for those I care about.
Merriam Webster defines exceptionalism as “being different from the norm”. Identifying “the norm” is difficult among nations, but could be defined as median GDP, median land area, median population, etc. In one sense, every nation is exceptional in that it has some characteristic which is different from everyone else. As President Barack Obama said on 4 April 2009 “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” The trouble with this is that no one is truly exceptional.
In another sense, America is unique because it combines many exceptional characteristics. The US GDP is the greatest in the world, the population is third highest, the land area is fourth largest, and the military is the strongest by far. The United States is the most diverse nation on earth. By many measures of national power and influence, America is truly exceptional.
America is also exceptional in its history. When General George Washington stepped down from his lofty heights after winning the American Revolution rather than seizing power in a military coup d’etat, the United States was the only full democracy in a world of authoritarian states. Great Britain, democratic as it was, still had a powerful king. Over the centuries, America became a leader in science and technology, but also in human rights. The United States was the driving force behind the United Nations, and US leadership removed the scourge of smallpox from the earth. While far from perfect, and stained by the same sin that marks all mankind, America has been a force for good in the world. As General Colin Powell said about the American triumph after World War II (14 Feb 2002): “And did we ask for any land? No, the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead. And that is the kind of nation we are.”
A leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, one of the founders of America, called the society they were creating “a city on hill”, meant to show the way for other nations. Abraham Lincoln certainly believed in American Exceptionalism when he said that the American Civil War was a test to see if government of the people, by the people and for the people, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, could endure. Ronald Reagan repeated the idea that America is the last, best hope for mankind.
There are those today who believe that America is in no way exceptional. They are wrong. There are others who believe that America is exceptional only in our vices. They are equally in error. There are others who don’t want the United States to be exceptional, because being so carries too much responsibility. Regardless of what they want, we are what we are, and we must do the best we can with what Providence has given us.
The best answer is that the United States is exceptional, and for many reasons, some material and some spiritual. Insofar as American exceptionalism leads to American leadership in solving some of the vexing problems of the world, it is a good thing.
So, my sons, there is your answer. America is exceptional in the world, and therefore has a great responsibility to do good. Remember, to whom much is given, much is required. Such exceptionalism is not permanent; it can be lost in any generation. This is our hour, and we must do good, walking in the light when the light is given. If we do not, the world will fall into darkness.
America is exceptional. It remains for each generation to keep it so.