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America, the Exceptional

Thomas Jefferson Memorial

Flickr/Nathan Borror

A day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams sent word to his wife with a prescient note:
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
He was off by two days, not realizing the date on the document would overshadow the vote itself—a tribute to the skill with which Thomas Jefferson captured the zeitgeist of the moment. The Declaration was more than an announcement or a contract. It encapsulated a philosophy and vision that set the cornerstone of an exceptional nation. The idea of “American Exceptionalism” is a highly misunderstood thing. To say that America is exceptional is often interpreted in the same sense as someone boasting of their favorite sports team, or as a sort of patriotic dogmatism. That some actually do use the phrase in this way is regrettable. It becomes something to criticize and mock, excusing those who do from the pain of confronting the sobering realities of history and international politics. To be “exceptional” is to be different, and America’s differences are worth noting. The story begins around 400 years ago as independent colonies—some established for commerce, others religion—became sovereign political communities, each blending their own mix of a pioneering spirit, religious ethics and liberties imbued by English common law. By the time the U.S. Constitution was drafted, a rich and very unique tradition had taken hold of the North American colonies. Alexis de Tocqueville was inspired by the American political system and way of life in the 1830s, writing “if there is a country in the world where the doctrine of sovereignty of the people can be fairly appreciated … that country is assuredly America.” He writes later “no one renders obedience to man, but to justice and to law.” As democratic revolutions began to transform the globe, Tocqueville observed republican principles already in full force. More importantly, early America had embraced ideas of liberty and equality as a part of, not antithetical to, religious piety. This is not to say America did not have its share of wrongdoing. Treatment of natives and African slaves has become boilerplate fodder for those who seek to discredit America’s greatness. The injustices that took place cannot be excused, but our reading of these events must be wedded to their historical context and pieced together without superfluous tales, omissions and distortions. Yes, we should acknowledge that some of our Founders owned slaves, but we must also take pride that some were active abolitionists. If we paint a full picture of history, the United States emerges as a nation that has led the world in the spread of peace, prosperity and human rights. The unequalled liberties of American citizens fostered an environment for explosive growth, both economically and geographically. The Constitution established a federal government, but left broad liberties to the states, townships, families and individuals. This meant that almost all taxes and regulations were local and easily constrained. On the frontier, families were limited only by nature and their own determination. It was the birth of the American Dream. The U.S. illustrated that “Government of the people, for the people and by the people” was not beyond the reach of humanity. These words have unfortunately lost much of their meaning over the years as we have become more removed from the blood-soaked battlefields of Gettysburg and Bunker Hill. But it would do us well to count our blessings. Every American citizen participates in the election of our leaders. Power is peacefully transferred from one party to the other. Our Constitution—the first of its kind—is still the longest lasting constitution on the planet. The Statue of Liberty has symbolized hope and opportunity to tens of millions of immigrants who have sought a new life on American soil, not because we grant them wealth, but because they are free to build it. The influence of American success throughout the world is palpable. In 1801, then president Thomas Jefferson led a campaign against Barbary Pirates off the north coast of Africa, who had plundered ships and enslaved crews for several hundred years. The church in Europe could not keep pace with ransom payments, and nations preferred to pay tribute rather than confront the problem. Unwilling to accept this, Jefferson sent a force to rid the Mediterranean of its disease. Madison finished the job in his term. From its earliest days the United States has fulfilled a unique role in world history: a nation that combines great power with unrelenting justice; a nation capable of establishing a “new world order” not of might, but of liberty and equality for all mankind. Empires have come and gone, each sustaining their tyrannical grip for a time—Rome by military conquest, Great Britain by colonialism and economic mercantilism. Pax Americana, however, is characterized by increasing democratization, international stability and global prosperity unlike any time in history. Those who criticize the U.S. for getting involved in global affairs fail to comprehend the international system as an organic and deeply interconnected system where events and leaders rely on the subtlest cues. American exceptionalism on the international stage is not about bullying nations for their lunch money. It is a matter of understanding why America is the leader of the free world, embracing that reality, and using thisinfluence to advancehumanitarian values and international stability. Moreover, we must understand that an absence of leadership is an opportunity for other, less amicable nations to fulfill that role. Why does America ally with the weak against the strong? Why are American embassies regarded as safe-havens around the world? Why do we spend time and fortunes rebuilding countries after fighting them? Why do people travel here to get the best medical attention and find the greatest job opportunities? And why do people still risk their lives every day to get into the United States? This country, founded on bold claims about human rights endowed by our creator; where millions have sacrificed for the cause of liberty throughout the world; where power rests in the consent of the governed and our loyalty is to an idea and a piece of parchment, not a person or party; this country is exceptional. And as I watch the flags and fireworks this Fourth of July, I will be enjoying good food, great company and perhaps a few critiques of our government. And I’ll be grateful for every second of it … because I can.