Should you find yourself speaking at a college these days, and should you desire to watch some of the students and faculty grow red-faced with anger, I know just what you can do (actually, I’ve got firsthand experience regarding several tracks of discussion that will quickly engender such responses).
But if you’re gathering data on “Audience/Presenter alienation by the fastest possible means,” you may achieve this is by speaking up in favor of patriotism and “American exceptionalism.”
“We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.”
“American exceptionalism” gets a rise out of many students, some citizens, and virtually all academics, I have found, because they assume the defender of the concept is a proud, pompous, nationalistic blowhard who takes it for granted that the U.S. deserves the best.
The rejecter of American exceptionalism assumes the proponent somehow believes that we are better, smarter, and more deserving than the rest of the world. Years ago, the phrase “ugly Americanism” was used to describe Yanks traveling abroad who behaved badly, or who carried themselves with an air of entitlement.
Let the record show: None of these things define the essence of American exceptionalism.
But before we look at what American exceptionalism might truly stand for in a positive sense, consider data that hit the wire in early March, reporting that seven out of 10 fear we are “losing our national identity.”
A poll conducted by the Associated Press notes that citizens are deeply concerned that “something” core to our national DNA is being lost. There is much discussion about just what key attributes are endangered, but a majority agree: America is changing, and not for the better.
Not surprisingly, the AP poll showed Democrats and Republicans disagreeing on certain values that each would see as “core” to America’s health. Although differing in percentages, adherents of both political parties agreed that Christianity has been a part of what made America — well, America.
And therein lies a key to understanding the meaning of American exceptionalism. Properly understood, the term means that this nation is different. In founding, growth, and culture, America has been unique.
The first reference to America as an exceptional land occurred long before the United States became a nation. One of America’s key early leaders, Rev. John Winthrop (who served as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for 12 of its first 20 years), said in 1630, “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.”
“America was built on an idea, and the idea is this: For the first time in history, a nation declared in its founding document that man’s rights were unalienable, that his rights came from Creator, not from government.”
In their book “Understanding America,” authors Peter Schuck and James Wilson stated, “America is indeed exceptional by any plausible definition of the term and actually has grown increasingly exceptional over time.”
Winthrop’s view was not unique. In the early days of America, many writers referred to America as a place of God’s blessing. In the 19th century, French writer Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and wrote, “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional.”
The freedoms of religion, press, and speech, and the opportunity to vote for elected leaders, freedom to travel, and the ability to conduct business freely struck Tocqueville as unique from the European experience.
What is our “X Factor” and how we can restore it? The concern of many — that we are losing our national identity — is an absolutely legitimate concern. American exceptionalism is not a matter of national pride, but rather an understanding that the nation has been uniquely blessed in numerous ways that exceeds other nations of this era, or of any nation in human history.
Regardless of how contemporary critics seek to revise American history, it is undeniable that the nation was founded with a belief in a Creator God and upon many biblical principles. Michael Prell, author of the book “Underdogma,” wrote, “America was built on an idea, and the idea is this: For the first time in history, a nation declared in its founding document that man’s rights were unalienable, that his rights came from Creator, not from government.”
A close look at the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and other important early legal documents of the nation repeatedly noted God’s existence and the importance of biblical values. If we want to perpetuate what we had for 240+ years (unparalleled liberty, security, and prosperity), then we must restore and promote those neglected things that gave us our “edge” and made us exceptional: morality and Christianity.
Did we always measure up to these highest of standards? No, because the ground of moral reality is God Himself. But was it agreed upon that there was objective, actual moral truth that we all are accountable to follow? Absolutely.
The dehumanizing tyranny of political correctness is squelching creative thought, free speech, and is fast eroding our nation’s soul. Our loss of national identity can be countered by embracing that which our Founders so prioritized: goodness and God. If we want current and future generations to experience the blessings our predecessors died to give us, we must unapologetically promote these as being inherent to the American experience.
Alex McFarland is a religion and culture expert, national talk show host, speaker and author of 18 books, including the new “Abandoned Faith.” He also serves as director for Christian Worldview and Apologetics at the Christian Worldview Center of North Greenville University in Greenville, South Carolina, and spent 20-plus years training teens and adults in the biblical worldview, including as Teen Apologetics director at Focus on the Family.