“Rubio Touts American Exceptionalism” is how the American Spectator summed up a well-received speech by senatorial candidate Marco Rubio at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference.
Rubio, who is running against current governor Charlie Crist for the Republican nomination, told the audience that his parents came from Cuba with “no English, no money, and no friends.” He spoke of “hearing [his] father’s keys in the door as he returned home from another 16-hour day at work.”
His family’s story taught Rubio that America is “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from . . . the only economy in the world where poor people with a better idea and a strong work ethic can compete and succeed,” and the “one place in the world where the individual was more important than the state.”
(Where does Rubio think that the Founding Fathers got their ideas about the relationship of the individual to the state? Does he know that British history is filled with stories about families climbing the socio-economic ladder thanks to their “better ideas” and “strong work ethic?” Has he read Jane Austen or any other 19th century British novelist whose stories frequently depict the contempt that the “well-born” have for those who have succeeded in “the trade?” Has he ever heard of Nicholas Sarkozy? His father was also a refugee who fled communism and his mom was Jewish. Being the child of outsiders didn’t stop him from becoming the president of France, which even Jonah Goldberg would probably admit is a bigger deal that being a candidate for your party’s nomination in a senatorial race.)
At the same time Rubio was addressing CPAC, Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, writing in National Review, called exceptionalism a defining part of what it means to be a “conservative.” According to them, the belief that the United States is “special, with a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary” is what conservatives seek to “conserve.”
All this talk of a “unique role and mission,” especially when couched in religious language, such as “missionary impulse” and “economic gospel,” was too much for some folks to bear: at Mere Orthodoxy, Matthew Lee Anderson worried that Lowry and Ponnuru’s language can be “off-putting to those who worry that the virtues of the American political order can be over-emphasized.” He insisted that “any claims to American exceptionalism has to be tempered and chastened by our own social evils, chief of which is abortion.”
At First Things, Samuel Goldman wrote that there’s something “un-American” about insisting that “movement conservatives have a monopoly of the American creed comparable to America’s monopoly of values.”
I have no idea whether it’s “un-American” or whether non-movement conservatives embody the “American Creed.” In any case, the biggest problem with the American Exceptionalism being touted by Rubio and National Review isn’t political – it’s theological. Exceptionalism is, at best, presumptuous and, at worst, idolatrous.
In The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about the “deep layer of messianic consciousness in the mind of America.” The English settlers believed that God’s purpose for America was to “make a new beginning in a corrupt world.” According to our most basic myths, Americans “had been called out by God to create a new humanity.”
This sense of being a “new chosen people,” as Andrew Bacevich has written, led us to see ourselves as “set apart, [our] motives irreproachable, and our actions not to be judged by standards applied to others.” Thus, exceptionalism became our particular manifestation of what Niebuhr called “spiritual pride.”
This belief in our being set apart was reinforced by a corruption of the Puritan idea of “special providence, according to which every event in history or in nature, for that matter, was thought of as the fruit of a conscious divine decree.”
Whatever you make of that idea, at least the Puritans applied it consistently: disasters, whether natural or man-made, “prompted penance of fasting,” since they were thought to be punishment for our rebellion against God.
By the time of the Founding and certainly by the 19th century, “special providence” had been reduced to seeing America’s natural bounty as evidence of God’s favor, as in approval. In Niebuhr’s words, “our annual Thanksgiving festivals in which we congratulate God on having such a virtuous people are vestigial remnants of this declension.”
What Niebuhr called a “declension,” William T. Cavanaugh sees as a “[divinization of] political authority” and “transfer [of] the sovereignty of God to the sovereign state.” The narrative that depicts the United States as a “New Israel” has turned the country into the “new church” with “little to check the identification of God’s will with America’s.”
That’s because the “political presence of the biblical God [has been] mediated through the official discourse of America, and not through a distinctively Christian body that stands under the explicit authority of Jesus Christ.” (Apposite to what Cavanaugh writes is what Mark Noll, in “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” called “The Evangelical-American cultural synthesis,” in which evangelicals “adapted their Christian convictions uncritically to American ideals.”)
According to Cavanaugh, the idea of the “church as mediator between God and America – a church that has the critical distance to pronounce judgment as well as blessing – is in danger of being erased.” Without the Church being an “irritant,” exceptionalism becomes a kind of idolatry and the church’s relationship to the polity is reduced to providing “a legitimating function for civil religion.”
If Niebuhr’s and Cavanaugh’s analyses of exceptionalism are correct (and they are) and belief in exceptionalism has come to be seen as an essential part of patriotism (and it has), then it’s not surprising – in fact, it’s healthy – that many of Anderson’s peers worry “that American patriotism is incompatible with adherence to the Gospel.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. In his “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell defined patriotism as “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people.” For Orwell, patriotism “is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.”
There is nothing in Orwell’s definition that is per se incompatible with Christian faithfulness. I am fascinated by other countries, peoples, and culture but I am grateful that I was born an American citizen. I enjoyed my time in India last summer and can’t wait to go back but there is no doubt where I’d rather live. My family in Puerto Rico undoubtedly feels the same way about their “particular way of life.”
In contrast, exceptionalism, with its belief in a “special and unique mission” which is to be carried out “through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary,” won’t settle for our being Samwise Gamgee tending after the Shire. Even in its less-bellicose expressions, it makes claims on behalf of the polity that a Christian cannot, in good conscience, agree with.
That leaves the Christian where St. Augustine said he should have been all along: as a kind of internally-displaced person, living in the land of his birth but aware that he really isn’t at home. Like the exiles in Babylon, he is to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” because his fortunes are inexorably tied to those of his neighbors, whom he is commanded to love and serve. It is where he will live out the plans, hope, and future that God has ordained for him.
But he is not to think of himself as a Babylonian. His politeuma, which English-language Bibles translate as “citizenship” but means something akin to “the polity to which he belongs and which from his corporate identity is derived,” is that city with foundations whose builder is God or as St. Augustine called it, the “City of God.”
To put it mildly, we aren’t used to thinking of ourselves in this way. For most American Christians, our country occupies the spiritual space the church is intended to fill. Our anger at the direction of American culture isn’t so much righteous anger at sin than a feeling of betrayal. We are much more likely to cite the Founding Fathers, even amongst ourselves, than the Church Fathers when discussing our relationship to the larger culture.
This is why the response to the Manhattan Declaration is fascinating, as in “what do the nearly half-million people who have ‘signed’ the Declaration believe they have signed on to?” Was it a statement of opposition to the current occupant of the White House and his party’s policies? Or was it a pledge of allegiance to the “better country?” If it’s the former, the polity will call their bluff, for that’s what it is, the political equivalent of holding your breath until you get what you want.
If it’s the latter, then it’s a vital step in becoming what we should have been all along: irritating.
For more information on this topic, get the book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark Noll, from our online store. Or read the article, “Tough Love of Country,” by Charles Colson.