In Search of Excep­tion­alism

Pity poor Queen Elizabeth II of England. She tried to give presidential visitor Trump a little background history of the long relationship between the mother country and the still somewhat new republic birthed by the once British Empire. Towering over the longest-serving monarch in modern times, Trump kept some decorum, but showed little sign he caught the subtext of her message.

The U.S. presidential helicopter had come circling down to the Buckingham Palace parade grounds in the sort of grand style designed to ruffle bearskin hats. But especially as the advance copter jockeyed for a landing position and drifted uncomfortably close to interfering tree branches, there was a hint of helicopters hovering over a U.S. embassy in Southeast Asia, and a hint of desperate arms outstretched like those branches for a dangerous connection. Echoes of an exceptional time, when U.S. power was finding its limits in the milieu of agent orange and body counts.

These are heady days for those determined to rediscover greatness and prove exceptionalism. And their inclination is not at all dishonorable. For what can lie behind this search but a troubling realization that the enemy is at the gates: that the grand vistas of a greater nation opened to Lewis and Clark only as they skirted western Spanish territories; that in spite of the Exclusion Act, another great power rises to trade its way to dominance; that all the rancor of a civil war seems to have traveled around an oxbow bend of history and reappeared at flood surge.

But my worry is that we might be struggling to rediscover greatness in the wrong places.

Built up in the existential struggle of World War II, the U.S. military has grown only more formidable under the “workshop of democracy,” skirting the warnings of President Dwight Eisenhower, and is moving to a high-tech role dominated by stealth, drones, and cyberwar. The dreadnought carriers of today may look fearsome, but littoral warcraft show the real tech advantage. But is any military, of any size, a defense against rapidly changing world alliances? And as an army “marches on its stomach,” so today an underlying economic health is the true marker of power. After all, Rome in its final decades chased the military solution till the legions were lost and the barbarians followed the Roman roads back to their source.

If there is one idée fixe of history, it must be this: no people are exempt from the laws of cause and effect. No people yet were given a pass from the trials of the trail—not the mixed multitude who followed a burning cloud into the desert; not the westward wagon trains seeking safe passage from arrow and snowdrift; not the poetic Lebensraum that took a sense of national superiority to genocidal impasse, and certainly we in the United States should not imagine that our promised rest can ever come at the expense of common sense, and yes, higher morality.

I know for most living in the United States it is an axiomatic assumption that we are a peace-loving people. Aspirations are perhaps as important as reality. Reality is the original Anglo-Saxon tendency to conflict came early to the New World shores—ancestral echoes of fearsome blue-faced warriors who gave pause to the legions, the joined berzerker blood in Viking conquest of the Isles, the hubris of Agincourt, all resumed in the new land. I love U.S. history; so exciting as it tilts without much pause from the War of Independence, to the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War 1 and the post-September 11 ongoing war in the Middle East and Afghanistan. And in between, the various Indian wars and interventions! Jesus Christ said it best of our times: “Wars and rumors of wars.” Not exceptional!

When I first came to the United States as a teenager in the 1960s it was to the land of conspicuous consumption and a lifestyle that was envied by most of a World War II-ravaged world. The dollar was king—placed as the world reference currency by the victors’ conference at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. We little thought then, and not even now, of the hyperinflation that nearly destroyed the postwar George Washington era, when the cost became due. We little think now of serious efforts by pretenders such as Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Putin, China, etc., with alternate visions of reference currency. We are not exceptional.

Today as I drove to work, I was horrified to note an entire stand of forest along the highway ripped asunder: trees broken off halfway up the trunk in splintered disarray. Debris everywhere in a swath of destruction. But we are not in a tornado area, are we! It is sobering to think that we each live lives only as secure as the random course of a tornado dictates. It is sobering to think that even national ruin could follow the heave of San Andreas or the mega-eruption of the Yellowstone caldera. We are not exceptional.

I think back to Lyndon Johnston and the Great Society project of his presidency. It was always a little at odds with the social upheaval of the emerging civil rights movement; but it did represent a realization that not all in the land of plenty were well off or secure. And that was back in the days of 30-cent gas and 25-cent slurryless hamburgers! Also on my way to work, I see more and more beggars at traffic intersections and wonder if the Wall Street prosperity is as real. We are not as exceptional as we wish we were.

What more to say about our place in history? We could enlarge it a bit and look to our place in what Martin Luther King called “the moral universe.” How does the American empire stack up in this judgment? A fine oratorio by William Walton is modeled after Belshazzar’s feast and the moment recorded in the book of Daniel when a mysterious hand writes the fate of the Babylonian Empire on the wall. When the choir intones the fingered words “Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting,” I shudder for my own and a nation’s destiny. None of us are so exceptional as to escape moral accounting.

How about religion? In an organized, institutional sense, maybe as culpable as any human endeavor! After all, we are still coming to grips with systemic abuses in Catholicism that perhaps derive in part from its claim to exceptionalism. But we also know the unfortunate role organized religion played in Hawaiian and Indian subjugation and the enduring tendency of spiritual leaders to wave the censer over any war, not matter how secular.

But I cannot, will not, dispose of the religious/spiritual element in American exceptionalism so easily. There is a uniquely American manifestation of spirituality that many snigger at overseas; but it does say something about tendencies most American. I’m talking about religious snake handlers, who still caress the serpents in little convocations in Appalachia. They take literally the promise of Jesus in Mark 16:18, that His followers will take up serpents and not be harmed. Every year several die as a result, but others keep claiming the promise, oblivious to its most likely application as promising protection in dangerous situations when witnessing for Jesus.

But this visceral, spiritual approach to faith is a key to what might best be associated with American exceptionalism. It is easily passed by in remembering the incredible process of a people stirring and breaking free of an old empire, an old king, and an old religion—that the most salient prerequisite for this was the First Great Awakening (1730-1750). Powerful preachers like George Whitefield, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards moved much of the population to spiritual fervor. They built on a combination of Puritanism, pietism, and Presbyterianism to create an energized community, unshackled by tradition, unbound from a state church, and filled an altruism that as easily fueled the later revolution as it did the emergent missionary societies.

Religious revival proves to be the underlying engine beneath American social dynamic and sense of place. The Second Great Awakening (1790-1820) gave the new nation a sense of moral purpose that outlived the boomtown mentality of expansion and settlement. Even during the chaotic days of the 1960s and 1970s, when social upheaval threatened state stability, war in Southeast Asia alienated a whole generation and the emerging civil rights movement challenged the founding promises, it was spiritual revival that, by my argument, helped save the day and the dream. The Jesus movement was real and enduring.

Today we need a good dose of exceptional spirituality in America. Not the type of Old World religion that acts as an auxiliary to political power. No, the best claim to exceptionalism that the U.S. ever showed: a broad-based personal turning to God, and faith turned into world-changing action.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."