Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

American exceptionalism?

I’ve always believed in American exceptionalism but I’ve never known how to defend the idea except to say (with atypical meekness and uncertainty) that I believe God chose the United States of America to play a certain role in the world. This is both similar and dissimilar to God’s choice of his people Israel: dissimilar in that the Jews’ place in the plan of God is unique; but similar in its always-shocking Jacob-vs.-Esau particularity. How to defend this notion of America’s special role? Today on the Brian Lehrer program there was a lengthy discussion of the matter in the context of the Libyan intervention. Brian was interviewing Peter Beinart, a writer whose work I have often admired. Many things emerged from this riveting discussion. One remarkable point: Lehrer noted that the humanitarian internationalists (Samantha Power, et al) and the neocons (Wolfowitz, Kristol et al) were lining up on the same side, for once. Surprisingly (or not? Beinart thought not so surprisingly), the neocons, while opposed to humanitarian intervention per se, are willing to support it if it can (as in this case) be construed as an instrument of American power. But the really interesting part of the discussion about American exceptionalism was the distinction that was drawn between exceptionalism as inherent in American identity and, alternatively and in contrast, a calling that requires ceaseless vigilance and struggle. That seems to me to be humanly, geopolitically, and theologically right. The ghastly new pictures of American soldiers celebrating and posing with their trophy kills (posted on the Rolling Stone website as Special Report: The Kill Team) give us yet one more demonstration of the malevolent capacities within human nature. We must earn our exceptionalism again and again, with national repentance and recommitment every single day, as in daily prayer. Farfetched? Washington and Lincoln called the nation to repentance. If only Obama could do this in a way that would suit our multifaith context….stranger things have happened.