The source of American unity and exceptionalism
On September 11, 2021, President Joe Biden addressed the nation in remembrance of the 20th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In doing so, Biden attempted to explain what he believed unified America and made her unique. In multiple Sept 11, 2021 addresses, we captured a window into Biden’s understanding of why America is, as he puts it, “unique”. Notably, Biden did not use the term “exceptional,” voiced by so many other presidents in describing America. Of greater significance, Biden affirmatively repudiated the critical importance of America’s religious character and the effects it has had on unity and exceptionalism. Biden’s misunderstandings will not bring the unity we experience after the 9/11 attacks, but recognition of God’s importance will.
Biden’s words about the subject are telling. In an address at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 2021, Biden claimed America is “the most unique country in the whole damn world.” He elaborated, “We’re an idea. It’s an idea...It’s not based on religion. It’s not based — it’s an idea. It really is. ‘We hold these truths…’ I mean, we never lived up to it, but we’ve never walked away from it, except the last — previous four years.” Biden’s confusing reference to "We hold these truths" did not include the full preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which includes reference to God.
From these and other such words about American unity and uniqueness, Biden’s misunderstandings manifest themselves. America is not just “unique”, or different, as Joe Biden puts it, but exceptional among nations in many objective categories. Famed British historian Paul Johnson holds America to be “exceptional” because “America is a God-fearing country, with all that implies”. Biden is wrong to marginalize the importance of religion to American unity and exceptionalism. When the founding Americans justified breaking apart from the British Empire, they began with America’s common belief in God: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their CREATOR with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In America, God comes first and He is the source of our rights. Government is a creation of the consent of the governed for protection of those God-given rights.
Beyond the prime place of belief in God to the American system of government, religion in America was deemed critical for American government to work. One of America's Founding Father John Adams claimed: “This Constitution was made for a moral and religious people, and is wholly unsuited for the governance of any other.” Religion justified public education in America (Northwest Ordinance, 1787): “Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” And French historian Alexis de Tocqueville said of America in the 1830s: “There is no country on Earth in which the Christian religion holds greater sway over men than in America”.
Biden’s understanding of equality was not that voiced by America's Founders. The Founders and other early Americans were heavily influenced by British political philosopher John Locke. Locke asserted individual humans were born with equality of nature and worth among the species. But neither Locke nor early Americans believed the term “created equal” meant that individuals deserved to be “treated equally” throughout life, and that regardless of decisions in life or level of work, all are to receive equal benefits/property; that’s essentially communism. The right to pursue happiness means the right to work harder than others to earn more property or other benefits. Americans deserve to be treated justly, but respected in liberty and property. To do otherwise and force equality of outcome is to destroy the right to liberty and pursuit of happiness.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, America turned “back” to God in a way I hadn’t seen in my 53 years. Congress stood together holding hands while singing “God Bless America”. Prayers and acknowledgment of God was ubiquitous in America in the weeks after 9/11. As one pastor puts it, “You couldn’t find the ACLU with a search warrant (attempting to stop all the open and public displays of religion)”. The National Prayer Service in the Washington National Cathedral unified America like most have never seen. We were probably as unified as those who fought the Revolution and wrote the Declaration of Independence. Americans will not be unified with talk of us being only "unique” but not exceptional. Americans desperately need leadership to voice what has truly made us exceptional: belief in God and respect for the rights God gives us and that government protects.
Bill Connor, a retired Army Infantry colonel, author and Orangeburg attorney, has deployed multiple times to the Middle East. Connor was the senior U.S. military adviser to Afghan forces in Helmand Province, where he received the Bronze Star. A Citadel graduate with a JD from USC, he is also a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Army War College, earning his master of strategic studies. He is the author of the book Articles from War.