Is America Exceptional?–Part 2

Indeed we are a flawed template – and that is putting it mildly.


Editor’s note: In case you missed it, read part 1 here

American leaders from John Winthrop to Ronald Reagan referred to America as a City on a Hill. The concept is rooted in the book of Isaiah. The Israelites saw themselves as endowed by Yahweh – God the Father – as first fruits of His intention to redeem mankind after our catastrophic fall in the Garden of Eden. Israel saw herself as uniquely blessed and uniquely charged to live and share with other nations a life with and under God. Christians see Jesus Christ as the resurrection of that vision – as well as its empowerment and re-inauguration. When Americans claim that kind of language, we claim not a reincarnation of that vision so much as an adaptation of it in terms of a secular context of unlimited freedom and maximum opportunity. But to secularize the context in no way lessens the sense of giftedness from God or obligation to Him. Tragically, many of us see ourselves as somehow superior to others because of this legacy; others see only the gift and not the Giver; while still others are so conscious of the ways in which we have failed to live up to our destiny that they engage in an orgy of self-loathing whenever the topic arises.

Indeed we are a flawed template – and that is putting it mildly. It took us ninety years to eliminate slavery – we were virtually the last occidental nation to do it – and another century-plus to integrate African Americans into the American Dream. (There are those who argue – justifiably – that the job is far from complete; yet the fruit of our task of making a truly egalitarian society for all of the tribes and nations greatly exceeds that of any other nation.) We have broken virtually every treaty we ever made with the Native Americans who preceded us into the land, and we have treated them with unimaginable brutality along the way. (At the same time, we have acknowledged and acted on their claims more quickly and more thoroughly than have our counterparts in – for example – Australia, New Zealand, or Japan. Our record includes the homesteads provided to ethnic Hawaiians – which are theirs by right, but such rights are flagrantly denied in many other lands.)

Although we hold territory beyond our fifty states, we have never instituted a colonial system; and we have blessed former colonies in which the so-called indigenous people treat those who preceded them in a manner fit for shame. Vietnam, Fiji, and multiple African nations come to mind. We are a flawed template, but we always return to it; and the template of the city on a hill is indeed our exceptional identity.

The nation that gave the world the Monroe Doctrine – forbidding colonial nations from further operations in the hemisphere we swore to protect – practiced gunboat diplomacy when our economic interests were at stake in Latin America right up through the fifties. We subverted governments we believed dangerous – such as Guatemala when a socialist regime was elected – and we supported dictatorships so long as they were not communistic – such as Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua, and Marcos in the Philippines. We promised backing to nations throwing off the communist yoke, and then we bailed out on Hungary and Czechoslovakia when they acted on our promises.

At the same time, we share the heritage of Puritan, Quaker, and missionaries of all denominations who dealt honorably with the Indians because they took their marching orders from God and the covenant they made with Him concerning their life in the new land. (The treaty breaking was in the hands of those settlers and their descendants for whom manifest destiny was an entitlement rather than a calling, according to Marshall and Manuel’s masterpieces “The Light and the Glory” and “From Sea to Shining Sea.”)

We defended groups of people around the world when they were the victims of aggression – from western Europeans to Pacific Islanders attacked by dictators in World Wars I and II. We rebuilt Europe – including the nations of our enemies – and Japan, supported freedom seekers in Southeast Asia and Korea, and defended the innocent of Kuwait and Iraq without so much as a thought to grabbing their oil resources – despite accusations to the contrary. We have supported the Jews who clawed their way out of the Holocaust, and we have supported the legitimate aspirations of the Arabs in what we know as the Palestinian territories. When we saw what domestic racism looked like on television in the sixties, we stepped up to the plate as a people.

In the final installment of this series, I will look at our hope-filled destiny.

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