Wednesday, February 2, 2011

American Exceptionalism

One week ago, the President gave his annual State of the Union address. Prior to the speech, analysts and strategists and talking heads said the President hoped to evoke a renewed sense of "American Exceptionalism," or the concept that America is special and unique above other nations. Pundits said that this feeling is missing amongst Americans today. We had it, and we lost it. So apparently the hope was that the President, through some eloquent turn of a phrase, could inspire us again to believe that we were special and unique among the nations.

Many believe that America is special, exceptional even. Often I hear that America is the greatest nation in the history of the world. Perhaps even that America [or democracy or capitalism] is the hope of the world. Perhaps even that God's anointing is on us [more so than any other nation].

I once read a bumper sticker that said, "You're special. Just like everyone else."

And I agree. America is special. Just like everyone else.

But that's just the problem. When we begin to believe in our own "exceptionalism," we begin to elevate ourselves, either as a nation or as individuals [or both], to a higher plane than everyone else. We become convinced of a superior "us" and an inferior "them." "Our" ways must be right, and "their" ways must be wrong. "We" are better than "them." After all, we're special. We're unique. We're chosen by God. God is for us; who can be against us?

The greatest atrocities of mankind have been committed by people unshakably convinced of their own superiority.

Do we really need a renewed sense of American exceptionalism? Or is it possible that one of the greatest things the last few years of recession and decline have taught us is a renewed sense of humility? Or the realization that we aren't too big to fail? That we aren't too mighty to tumble? That maybe we can't trust and hope in our own "exceptionalism"? That we should pledge our allegiance to something even higher and greater than ourselves?

I don't think we need a renewed sense of American exceptionalism. I think we need a renewed sense of faith, hope, and love. A renewed love of God and neighbor. I think we need a renewed sense of humility and servanthood, following in the way of Jesus.

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