Recently I got into a Twitter exchange with a liberal Methodist who pronounced that American Exceptionalism was “incompatible with the global church.” He responded to my queries by defining such Exceptionalism as belief in American “superiority.” I responded that American Exceptionalism is not about any intrinsic superiority but about the unique American creed of human equality, premised on human dignity for all, which is declared by the Declaration of Independence. He responded: “If what we’re talking about are God-given virtues themselves there’s no reason to associate them with America.” And he added: “I’m just trying to practice integrity which I would do no differently as a German or Japanese citizen.”
Actually, a German or a Japanese, with very different historical experiences, would understand their nationality very differently from Americans. So too would nearly all nations. For better or worse, America is exceptional among nations in this credal self-understanding. Somewhat ironically, the proudly anti-American theologian Stanley Hauerwas comprehends this exceptionality fairly well. He has called July 4, 1776 his least favorite day because it makes America not just a nation like other nations but a spiritual narrative unto itself. At least he understands.
My Twitter interlocutor seemingly did not understand, further responding that: “The only reason you can call America great is because America is filled with critics like me who demand for it to be better.” He was partly right. Americans who are the nation’s harshest critics are the supreme Exceptionalists, exacting of America what they expect of no other nation. Almost all Americans, Christian or not, are Exceptionalists, whether consciously or not. Exceptionalists on the left, with their perfectionist demand for total equality, are ironically the most zealous. Non-Americans typically recognize that Americans across the spectrum are more alike in this regard than Americans themselves are capable of realizing.
The American creed of human equality, which is ultimately premised on Christian anthropology, is I believe superior to other political theologies that dispute equality and minimize the individual. What Christian could rightly deny that all persons bear the divine image and have equal moral worth and dignity? Doesn’t this creed merit celebration and affirmation as a divine gift?
Dismissively caricaturing American Exceptionalism as merely self-celebration amid claims of “superiority” is common, cheap fare that lacks serious historical appreciation and moral reflection. Americans are not innately superior. If Christian doctrine is true, we are not intrinsically by nature different from the German guards at Auschwitz who administered the gas chambers. Human nature is dark. But the American creed, for all of our failures to fully uphold it, amid our own chapters of darkness, is a divine gift, unmerited, and worthy of cherishing, safeguarding and transmitting to future generations. To act otherwise would be gross ingratitude.