Originally published at “Dave Miller Daily.“
I had an interesting conversation several years ago with a friend who served as a missionary in an Asian nation. The people in that nation love their homeland but do not have the kind of passionate patriotic loyalty to it that Americans, and especially conservative Americans, have for our homeland.
“Americans have a level of patriotism, nationalism, and national pride that other nations just don’t have.”
It is crucially important to many people, a point of doctrine, a test of political orthodoxy, to believe and proclaim that America is not only “the greatest nation on earth” but “the greatest nation in the history of the world.” One candidate, in fact the candidate I will support at the caucuses tonight (I wrote this Monday), stated flatly yesterday that the belief that America is the greatest nation in world history is beyond dispute.
It has become common in academic circles, especially liberal academic circles, to question this concept of “American exceptionalism.” As conservatives want to see America as the font of all good the liberals tend to see it as the source of all evil in the world. America is a greedy, environment-destroying, imperialistic, colonialist, racist nation. President Obama’s tendency (real or imagined) to apologize to the world for America has become a point of debate, with Republican candidates promising never to do so again.
Which side has better purchase on the truth? Does America stand tall among the nations of history or ought we bow our heads in shame? Are we exceptionally good or exceptionally bad?
One of my most constant and harsh critics once told me, “Dave, is there any fence that you will not try to straddle?” I understand his point. He lives in a world of black and white. His opinions are truth and those who disagree are perpetrators of evil. I see many more shades of gray and I believe that the truth is most often found in balancing the extremes instead of picking one of them. Most who choose the extreme position on one side or the other do so by ignoring the facts on the other side. There are some truths that must remain yes and no, black and white, right and wrong. But on most of the issues we discuss in the political realm, on social media, in blogging, and even in the church, there are layers, perspectives, and truths that make a balanced, nuanced, and subtle examination necessary.
Of course, to some, that will always be compromise, and it doesn’t help in a soundbite culture, but as Christians we must be about truth not about snippets and zingers.
So, what is the truth about American exceptionalism? Are we or aren’t we? Are we the greatest nation on earth or are we the root of all evil?
1. Some of this is just opinion and perspective.
My wife’s lasagna is the best in the world. G.O.A.T. I’m not saying that to win points with her – she seldom reads my blogs! I believe it. We could do a taste test. I’d match her recipe up with the best you have – homemade or restaurant. But you may well like your mom’s recipe, or your wife’s (or your husband’s?).
Some of this is a matter of perspective and preference. I like living in America because I’ve always lived in America. It’s my home. If I’d been born in Zimbabwe or Korea or Ecuador, perhaps that would be the nation I’d love the most.
2. America is exceptional in many ways.
The American system of government is genius. There’s not a system on earth I’d rather have. Not one. Is there one you’d prefer? The three branches of government and their system of checks and balances. Representative democracy. The Bill of Rights and the freedoms it guarantees. It is a brilliant system unmatched and certainly unsurpassed (in my humble but correct opinion) in history. If you were starting over, what would you do differently?
3. America has been uniquely “good” in history.
Think about the nations we have defeated in our major wars. We beat Great Britain twice. In World War I we defeated Germany. In World War II we beat the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, Austria and Japan. We engaged in wars with Afghanistan, Iraq twice, and other smaller countries.
What do all these nations have in common? They are our allies to one level or the other.
It is possible to argue whether America’s forays into the Middle East and our efforts at nation-building have been wise and effective. But our efforts there show a huge difference between the USA and other great and powerful nations on earth. Most nations have conquered, occupied and attempted to absorb, or at least maintain control over other nations. When we defeated other nations, we set them free and helped them rebuild!
Ever watch the absurdist movie “The Mouse that Roared?” It’s based on the premise that the best thing that can happen to a nation is to lose to America in a war. The little nation of Grand Fenwick accidentally wins the war, complicating things. But about what other nation in world history could it even be argued that getting defeated in war by that nation could be a good thing?
Yes, we can have the argument whether America should be the “world’s policeman.” But has there ever been a nation that tried as hard as ours to help other nations? Sure, you can cynically argue that its all about oil or something else, but I don’t think so. We are fundamentally motivated to make the world a better place and that makes us unique in the history of the world.
4. Our Founders were exceptional men.
Sorry, fellow-believers, despite what David Barton has said, the nation’s founding fathers were not an enclave of evangelical believers who gathered to pray, proclaim the gospel, and found a godly nation that would usher in the glory of God on earth.
But they were men who laid their lives and their fortunes on the line for a cause they believed in. They put the needs of the nation ahead of themselves. Things could be very different today if George Washington had been more like Donald Trump. The people wanted him to become King of America, but he refused. An ungodly man like Thomas Jefferson had some brilliant ideas about government, about freedom, and he was willing to put his life on the line for that vision.
5. Our Founders recognized God’s authority.
I do not believe America was ever a “Christian nation.” For one thing, God sent his son to redeem people, not nations. But the founders, even those like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson who were not Christian in any sense we would recognize, had a sense of divine authority – they realize that we humans are accountable to God. They avoided an establishment of religion, but they did weave a sense of accountability to God into our founding documents and into the warp and woof of our nation.
6. We are now, and always have been, a nation of sinners.
There is far too much mythology and nostalgia about our nations past. To hear some talk, you’d think the Constitutional Convention was actually a Sunday School class and revival meeting.
I heard someone recently talking about “restoring our nation to it’s godly heritage.” Christians, that is language we just need to stop. It’s inaccurate and it’s offensive. We have a noble heritage, but we do not have a godly heritage.
What do you think black Christians think when they hear us talking about the days of slavery, segregation, lynchings, and dehumanization of the black race as the days of our “godly” past? What do your think Native Americans think when they hear us talk about our terrible treatment of their ancestors as if it were part of a Christian utopia?
7. America has had several “besetting” sins.
That’s an old-fashioned word, but a besetting sin is one that hounds, harasses and seems to continue unhindered. Some people have the besetting sin of anger, or lust, pornography or materialism. America has had several besetting sins.
- We have had the besetting sin of racism.
Yes, we’d like to deny it and rewrite history. But truth is truth. Many of our founding fathers, writing about our God-ordained rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, owned slaves. We were horrible to Native peoples. Asians often suffered discrimination. America has a long history of less than sterling treatment of non-white peoples.
Just recently I was horrified as Christians boldly and without any sense of shame or irony said, “Let’s keep those refugees out of America. Our safety is more important than theirs!” One pastor even said we could send missionaries to tell them about Jesus, but let’s keep them out of our nation to keep us safe. The hypocrisy of that did not even occur to him.
- We have had the besetting sin of materialism.
American freedom, industriousness, work ethic, capitalism, and other factors have created an environment in which prosperity has abounded. But it has also led to the glorification of materialism. The American dream, which once was the freedom to live by my convictions, has morphed into the greedy goal of having everything I want. Crushing debt. Political corruption. So many things have flowed from the sins of materialism.
- We have had the besetting sin selfishness.
Our freedom has often led to self-indulgence.
8. Our exceptionalism does not negate our sinfulness and our sinfulness does not negate our exceptionalism.
So, my “hater gonna hate.” There I am straddling the fence again. But you cannot choose between the two. Are we an exceptional nation? Absolutely. The American experiment has produced some amazing results. Does that mean we are a “godly nation” – a spiritual utopia that has never sinned, a nation whose every action has been pure, righteous and good? Puh-leese! You know better. Our black brethren certainly know better. The poor know better. Refugees know better.
- Has any nation ever had the power than America has had and tried to use it for the good of the world in the way we have? I cannot think of another.
- Is America perfect? No.
- Have we been guilty in history of some serious sins, stains upon our national character? Need I even answer this? Of course we have.
We are both exceptional and sinful. I love this land. We need not try to create an artificial narrative about our “godly” past. We have a great heritage, rooted in our constitutional freedoms, one that is noble and worth protecting for further generations. We need not pretend that we are more than we are.
We are a wonderful, flawed, exceptional, imperfect people. And there’s no place on earth I’d rather be.