Jonathan Merritt had an opportunity in his most recent piece for Relevant.com to correct a prevalent misconception of the complex concept of American exceptionalism. But he whiffed.
First, Jonathan Merritt is a friend and a leader among evangelicals. He’s authored one book—a second is on the way—and dozens of articles, while pastoring a church and finishing two master’s degrees. It is precisely because Merritt is poised for influence in the church that his misunderstanding of such a fundamental aspect of American culture merits a corrective response.
Merritt wants to address the notion of American exceptionalism. Instead, he tackles the popular misconception: that American exceptionalism is, as one liberal pundit puts it, “the theory that Americans are better than everyone else.” To Merritt’s credit, tackling the notion of exceptionalism—a phrase that has meant many things to many people and been used both favorably and derisively—is a tough task. All the more reason it is important that he gets it right. So, while I can affirm Merritt’s critique of the notion that the citizens of one country are inherently better than those of another, by premising his article on the “better than you” straw man he offers a de facto affirmation of a misunderstanding and perpetuates it.
American exceptionalism properly understood is a complex and hotly contested notion involving sociology, economics, history, and, yes, theology. Since the earliest days of American history, scholars and social observers have attempted to put their finger on it. For my money, nobody has done it better than Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson in Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation. But for those who already have their beach book for the summer, I’ll attempt to define exceptionalism in a slightly shorter space.
Early this summer my girlfriend, a reporter for a local paper, was asked to cover the Memorial Day festivities in Bowie, Maryland, a town of about 50,000 in the exurbs of Washington, D.C. I was invited to tag along, and as she scoured the crowd for quotable residents, I found a spot in the bleachers to watch the parade.
It was pure Americana. There was a beauty queen waving from the backseat of a convertible and a sprite group of veterans from the VFW, followed by the high school marching band, the volunteer fire department, baton twirlers and a fleet of antique cars. Then, sandwiched between Uncle Sam on stilts and the local Girl Scout troop, the master of ceremonies announced the Fraternidad Folklorica Cultural Caporales Raices de Bolivia.
It took me a minute to process the scene. Dozens of ethnic Bolivians in traditional costume filled the street, dancing and playing instruments. Their presence was unexpected and yet, not extraordinary. Over the next hour I also saw Korean martial artists, Scottish bagpipers, and musicians from Trinidad and Tobago playing steel pans. I wondered what my friend Sgt. Andrew McConnell would think if he were watching beside me. In 2009, while on patrol in Afghanistan, an improvised explosive device killed him. Memorial Day is intended to honor his sacrifice.
I think Andrew understood that America isn’t exceptional just because our positive traits outnumber our weaker ones. America’s greatness isn’t a catalog of our freedoms, or our economic underpinnings, or even our diversity. He knew that all of these wonderful things are part of what makes America a desirable place to live, but that they are merely distinctives, not what makes us exceptional.
What makes America exceptional—truly unique among the nations—is the tendency of our citizens to participate actively in the life of the Republic regardless of race, ethnicity, or country of origin. In America, a Bolivian folk dance is a tribute to a fallen American soldier (who couldn’t have been less Bolivian) because in America a Bolivian can embrace American civic life by augmenting American culture with the customs of her homeland.
America is exceptional because of its dynamic nature. It is constantly refreshed and renewed by the influxes and influences of immigrants looking to benefit from an inimitable individualistic culture whose hard work contributes to our colorful collective national identity. Here we see that our national identity is derived from an ethos of entrepreneurship. After all, there is no more valuable capital than human. Our freedoms are not ends unto themselves, but guarantees of the right of individuals to live out the fullest, most unencumbered expressions of themselves.
Merritt describes America as a birthday girl who thinks she’s better than everyone else. Forgive the cheesiness, but I would put it this way: On Independence Day, we celebrate a birthday girl who makes us all better. That is, in a word, exceptional.