I have heard over the past couple of days several people talking about “American exceptionalism.” I have remained quiet as I have listened to these people tenaciously defend the concept, one person saying that anyone who didn’t believe in American exceptionalism was not a true American.
The concept of American exceptionalism holds basically that America was chosen by God to be a beacon of light to the entire world. In an article which appeared on the CNN website this weekend, CNN Religion Editor Dan Gilgoff wrote that “the Puritans saw themselves as the last, best hope for purifying Christianity and for saving the world.” (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/30/despite-fights-about-its-merits-idea-of-american-exceptionalism-a-powerful-force-through-history/?hpt=hp_bn1)
Gilgoff writes that “America’s exceptionalism was a religious idea with big political repercussions.” The Pilgrims, Gilgoff writes, formed a theocracy which they thought would be a model for English Christianity.” I guess that means that the Pilgrims believed that they had to create something better than the Christianity in England from which they had fled.
Boston, America…were to be the “New Israel,” the “New Jerusalem.” But for whom?
Gilgoff’s article makes me lean toward believing that the first Americans really wanted an egalitarian society. Democracy, he writes, meant that everyone had rights, but everyone also had responsibilities. That is a delicious, democratic thought, at least as I have always interpreted “democracy” to mean.
But the reality was that by the time the United States Constitution was written, the notion of egalitarianism was gone. Howard Zinn makes the point, which I had never thought about until I studied him, that the Founding Fathers only meant for men of means, property holders, to be exact, to be included in the definition of “all men being created equal.”
That revelation broke my heart…
As America grew, it was clear that there was no intent for the government to make everyone equal politically and economically. America did become the symbol of economic opportunity, and really did allow (and does allow) more economic freedom than I have read exists in other countries.
But America has also sorely neglected many of her own people. Native Americans, African-Americans, women…are amongst those who were never intended to be granted equal rights. So, the notion of Independence Day, a day where “everyone” in this nation is free, has at times left a bitter taste in the mouths of some Americans.
A nation, it seems, cannot be “exceptional” if it neglects its own, even if it is helping people in other countries. There is a strange disconnect when a family can ignore its own while it reaches out to others. Today I heard someone on NPR said that “big business and big government should work together.” For whom and for what?
I wonder how American exceptionalism will play out, or if it will have a role or will be thought about, as this nation wrestles with its economic situation. I have heard some Americans call us a “welfare state,” the disdain unmistakable. I have heard people criticize entitlements, programs put in place by government to help more people live a decent life in this country. At the end of the day, will “exceptional” America cast its poor to the wind, drastically cutting programs and funds for the most needy?
Don’t get me wrong. We need our economy to get a whole lot better…but can a nation which calls itself “exceptional” really feel OK about perhaps going after programs that make life more bearable for millions of people?
It seems to me that that’s kind of impossible…but maybe that’s just me…
A candid observation…