Every American president until our present leader has expressed American Exceptionalism, but John Fitzgerald Kennedy said it best: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty…The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.” His address speaks to the secular context of an American dream of freedom for all – not just Americans. Yet he knew the book the Puritans tried to live by is the explicit repository of the concepts we combine into what we call our exceptionalism. Paul – speaking for Jesus Christ and His Father and Spirit – says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” The freedom of which we speak is not a means to an end; it is the end of our making and creation.
Toward that end, we remain unique on the world stage as a military power that acts with as much mercy as justice when we attack nations – like Afghanistan – that harbor terrorists and (into the bargain) are so hateful they prohibit women from seeking an education. We attacked Iraq because it continued to threaten its own neighbors as it threatened us. And we remain unique in that we withdraw quickly following an attack – as quickly as a popular government can take the reins and stabilize the nation, and this has always been our pattern. (To those who say Iraq was about oil, where is the Iraqi oil we allegedly stole? Where is the price relief at American pumps?) We behaved in this way with the Philippines, Cuba, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, Italy, and Japan; there simply are no examples of the other way around.
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When we built the Panama Canal, we first liberated Panama from Columbian oppressors. When we discovered the sources of yellow fever and various other public health plagues, we made our knowledge – and our resources – available without hesitation. In the wake of both world wars, we fed those displaced by combat and led the way in their rebuilding efforts. When we led the conquest of space, we also led the drive to avoid militarizing that new frontier; and we have made our space resources and technology available in a precedent setting movement.
We drove the great wave of missionary work of the 19th Century; and we are driving the short-term missions movement of today, with its emphasis on local indigenous control of decision making. Last but not least, our battles and our struggles have always been fought out in public, whether we debate healthcare, treatment of prisoners of war, or the spending priorities of our nation and whether unions have the right to pressure the agenda. This is because we are – at our core – a transparent people on a road of repenting into freedom.
It does not seem to matter whether our leaders are liberal or conservative in their shared commitment to what makes us Americans. Ronald Reagan said, “We have never been aggressors. We have always struggled to defend freedom and democracy. We have no territorial ambitions. We occupy no territories.” Bill Clinton said, “America remains the indispensable nation. America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression, between hope and fear.”
When I taught in the public schools in the seventies and early eighties, I distilled the American Dream for my students into the opportunity for all to make twenty thousand a year and live in a forty thousand dollar home. Those numbers today would look more like one hundred and two hundred thousand, respectively; but the reality has not changed. Added to that opportunity is the chance to practice our faith – whatever it may be and none if we prefer – and work out our lives to suit our own understandings.
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Many will say that such opportunities exist around the world today – and so they do. But they never existed before America, and we are the drivers of such a vision today. Others will ask if the French Revolution and the Soviet Revolution did not lead to the same thing; the reality is that their legacy was the Reign of Terror and the subjugation of millions until their defeat. Reality remains that we – at our best and so long as we serve our founding vision – are the nation that understands that so long as we trust in God for freedom, we are set free – and not for ourselves alone but for a world to whom our guiding light gave His life.
Photo credit: akahawkeyefan (Flickr)
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