Obama Appeals to American Exceptionalism

Here is BHO:

…when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.

Because he knows that we will parse him in this way, the President insists that his words be well chosen. Here he alludes unmistakably to the hoary and dangerous idea that the United States has a special pipeline to the divine, and vice versa.

But I am quite sure the President is behind the people on this matter. Surprising, because his pollsters should have known this.

Along with tiring of playing the world’s policeman (he certainly got that part right), we are also increasingly weary/wary now of the old shibboleth that we have a divinely-imparted mission to bring light and truth to the nations. (The “us” vs. “the nations” formulation shares the same Hebraic roots as the special providence concept itself.)

For one thing, we’ve figured out that holding this belief is not an easy path by any means. We understand that claiming and asserting moral leadership imposes a real burden (because it really is more of a burden than a privilege, as I believe Jeremiah often remarks). We’re not that into bearing such burdens any more, which is problematic in some ways but is mainly a good thing. 

Another thing we have figured out, belatedly, is that the world’s Mr. Pecksniff invariably sets himself up for a fall.

But most important, although we still pay some lip service to special providence, and although many older people still cling to it, in the main we no longer believe deep down that we’re better than everyone else. We certainly don’t believe it with real religious force in the way our forebears did. We can thank progressive religion, along with the plain evidence of hubristic blundering in recent decades, for dialing down our New Israelitish aspirations. 

The President said last night that we should never lose sight of our American exceptionalism. He added, “with humility.” But that is precisely the problem: a sense of our exceptionalism and real humility do not cohere well. 

And in a long-awaited shift, Americans are starting to choose humility. Deo gratia.

peterlaarman@gmail.com'

Peter Laarman is a United Church of Christ minister and activist who recently retired as executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles. He remains involved in numerous justice struggles, in particular a campaign known as Justice Not Jails that calls upon faith communities to critique and combat the system of racialized mass incarceration often referred to as The New Jim Crow.