America is fundamentally distinct from all other countries in its founding, in its national life, and in the values, rights and privileges it confers upon its citizens. In other words, America is exceptional. And if it is exceptional in its domestic character, in what it offers to immigrants in search of a better life, then it would follow that America is exceptional in what it has to offer to the global community.
America is not an ethnicity or mere geography, but a creed, a set of first principles to which we pledge allegiance - freedom, human dignity, self-government, and equality. Anyone who pledges allegiance to these values can consider himself or herself an “American.”
America has been blessed by God in unique ways - we are not just another country, but neither are we God’s special people. I do not believe that America is God’s chosen nation. God established one chosen nation and people: the Jews. We are not the new Israel. We cannot assume “God is on our side.” We are not God’s gift to the world.
America does not have a special claim on God. Millions of Americans do, however, believe God has a special claim on them - and their country.
The concept of American “exceptionalism” was first popularized in the early 19th century by Alexis de Tocqueville, although the idea was hardly invented by him. The roots of this view go back to the beginnings of Puritan settlements - how else do you explain the Puritan understanding of a “shining city on a hill” to light the way for the Old World? Or Francis Scott Key’s imagery of “the heav’n rescued land” in our national anthem, which he wrote in 1814 after he saw the Stars and Stripes still waving over Fort McHenry after a night of fierce bombardment from British ships?
American exceptionalism is the understanding that America is a unique nation with a unique sense of purpose that started with the nation’s settlement and has since morphed through various meanings, all of them centered on the observation that America is distinct from other countries in the world - in its founding, in its government, in its social and economic structures, and in its religious and cultural character.
America has been blessed in manifold ways. When you look at our resources, our protection by two oceans, our standard of living, can you argue that America has not been uniquely and providentially blessed? The natural resources that lie within the confines of our borders are without parallel anywhere in the world: not just rich, arable land, but vast resources of iron, coal and oil under the ground. We didn’t put them there; we were just led to the place where they were.
We have had the opportunity to enjoy them and to benefit people around the world with them. Perhaps the most fertile land on the planet is our Great Plains.
We have become the breadbasket for the world. We feed much of the world’s population, in part because we are good farmers, but also because we believe in private ownership of land and property. Can you name a nation that in any way can claim to have been the recipient of God’s unearned blessings to the measure that we have been?
The blessings are not just material, however. It is remarkable that the one generation that produced our Founding Fathers emerged and put together the Constitution that has served us so well for more than two centuries and has brought unparalleled freedom for an unparalleled number of people - unequaled by any other country in the world.
We enjoy freedoms that most of us have not risked our lives to establish, protect or preserve. All of us, unless we are immigrants to this country, have by the providence of birth been bequeathed an incredible legacy. Over the last two and a half centuries, there has been no other country in the world within which such a high percentage of the population has had the guaranteed freedoms we possess: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly. We have guaranteed freedoms in our Constitution that even Canadians and Britons don’t have.
There was either a fortuitous or a providential set of circumstances in the development and rise of this nation. Since I’m a Christian, I believe in providence more than fortune. I believe that it was a uniquely providential set of circumstances that allowed the flourishing of this triumph of freedom and the dignity of human beings. It certainly didn’t happen that way in the French Revolution, and I believe it is no coincidence that the philosophy and convictions fueling that revolution were not based on a transcendent divine authority. They were based in human reason (or what the revolutionaries mistook for reason) alone, and the upheaval quickly degenerated into a maelstrom of chaos, violence and power struggles.
The Founding Fathers of the American Revolution, by contrast, affirmed that human rights are not mere human constructions, but are unalienable rights conferred by God.
Government could not create those rights; all it could do was recognize, support and protect them. This idea of divinely ordained rights had not taken root anywhere else in the world. It was a new and unique concept.
“Blessings,” by definition, are undeserved. From the richness of our undeserved legacy comes obligation. If we have been given much, we are obligated to give much to others. If we love our neighbors as ourselves, we will seek not only to preserve and protect our liberties, but to assist others in their efforts to attain these same liberties for themselves.
American exceptionalism is not a delusion of national grandiosity. American exceptionalism is not a doctrine of pride and privilege. It is a belief that God has blessed this nation in amazing ways, and those blessings invoke a reciprocal obligation and responsibility to seek to share, but not impose, the blessings of freedom and democracy with others around the world.
Let’s all pause to give praise and gratitude to our Heavenly Father for the manifold blessings of being an American and to say thank you to all those who have sacrificed to protect and defend those precious liberties.
This article was originally published on July 2, 2010.