Saturday, October 09, 2010

Aaron D. Wolf on our Exceptionalism

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America is special. America has a mission. America is a beacon of liberty. America, God shed His grace on thee.

We call it American exceptionalism—the belief that, from among the countries of the world, the United States of America has been uniquely called by God to be X. In this equation, X equals whatever you think America stands for.

The Shining City on a Hill, the New Jerusalem, Manifest Destiny, the Sacred Union, the Great Society, the protector of God’s chosen people—X has many incarnations, some of them draped with Geneva gowns or encased in sidewinder missiles.

Harsh realities have pulled Christians back from the brink of this idolatry—half a million dead here, a generation lost to a sexual or unitarian revolution there—causing believers to remember that Stone that smashed the idol of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, or that line from Kipling about being one with Nineveh and Tyre. Maybe we’re not so special after all. Or just as special as, say, those Iraqi Christians recently liberated from their homes and churches.


Aaron D. Wolf takes on American Exceptionalism and one of its offspring--Mormonism--in "Mormon Apocalypse," found here. This is the first of a proposed 3-part series. So far, so good. It looks to be interesting.

If there is one thing I have learned from my various travels, it is this: we ain't so great. And it is this idea that is met with awkward silences and disbelieving looks in my back-home conversations.

18 comments:

あじ said...

American exceptionalism is a delusion that was chronicled by DeTocqueville nigh on 200 years ago. And you're right: it's almost impossible to convince fellow Americans that their country isn't as fantabulous as they think. How many Christians really believe that they need to "escape from the corruption that is in [America] because of lust [greed, passions]?"

Anyway, I just wanted to say I appreciate this post.

Anonymous said...

Of course we are not to strive for greatness. We are to strive for goodness, and if blessed, for holiness. Greatness is for the Caesars and Napoleons of this world. Not for Christians.

Milton Burton said...

Of course we are not to strive for greatness. We are to strive for goodness, and if blessed, for holiness. Greatness is for the Caesars and Napoleons of this world. Not for Christians.

Ranger said...

Perhaps more credence would be lent to the concept if all of the non-exceptional aspects of American history were not glossed over and excused.

Milton T. Burton said...

Good point, Ranger.

James the Thickheaded said...

FWIW, just about every other large country seems to have some sort of Jingoist drive to it as well. So I'm less disturbed by the view than I should be and simply cautioned that we're not alone in being misguided. And I positively love the New American Exceptionalism as "we're the only ones who see through our so-called goodness to understand we're really bad to the bone". But we do have a good riff or two for that.

But another thought is that what does set us apart - if only on a momentary basis and surely not certain to be overwhelmed by more base instincts - is the fact that we have a history, but without ALL the baggage. Yes, we have baggage, but we don't have a long list of "hates" because of something someone did to us or something we imagined, or something we did to ourselves and blamed on somebody that happened 1,000 years ago. That ignorance of history... lets us believe things about ourselves that may not be true, but sometimes turn out well in spite of ourselves. Some histories can weigh on folks. And no I don't mean to celebrate ignorance but only puzzle through the equally misguided view that intelligence conveys wisdom: the search for a philosopher President continues to hit the "FAIL" button almost as fast as the drinking buddy president.

The problem with all of this is that we also used to have more of an ethic of leaving the rest of the world alone. I remember history teachers banging on us as kids over our willfull history of Isolationism as somehow "immoral" and the cause of World War Two. I wonder if they're all that fired up for our Interventionism after 50 or 60 years of showing the world why in truth we knew what we were doing when we left folks alone. Maybe folks can screw things up just fine without us and we just make messes different? Hmmmm.

あじ said...

James,

You are, of course, correct about other large countries. American exceptionalism naturally has (probably very deep) Anglo-Saxon roots, which should be no surprise (e.g. Puritanism). Powerful nations tend to see themselves in idealistic hues. The danger, as I see it, lies in Christians buying into that idealism. My concerns are as much theological as ethical or political.

But I don't think America has ever been consistently isolationist: the Anti-Federalists may have left that impulse with us, but it has never been rigorously held to. Domestic expansionism (sea to shining sea) came first to be sure, and was bad enough in its own right. But who exactly were Commodores Perry and Dewey working for several decades before WWII? We may be 8 centuries shy of some "real baggage," but I fear we're pacing ourselves a little too well. Economic and military expansion tend to go together.

John said...

Ranger, I agree. This was recently brought home to me when I gave a talk to the local historical society. In researching my subject matter, I had to confront at least one aspect of glossed-over local history. This involved the expulsion of the Cherokee Indians from East Texas in 1839. The general outline of this story is familiar to those of us who know our local history—but only that. A closer look revealed a pattern of duplicity and string of broken promises that was decidedly “non-exceptional.” But far worse was the savagery of the final battle. The Indians were completely broken and the survivors expelled from Texas. The perpetrators of the atrocities now have statues in their honor, as well as being the namesakes of towns and counties. I’m not so naïve that I am shocked when butchers have statues erected in their honor. It is just that we would be better-served if we recognized that in our rush to "fulfill our destiny," a lot of people got trampled along the way.

Milton T. Burton said...

You speak of the Battle of the Neches Saline where Cherokee Chief Bowles was murdered when he was trying to surrender. Some of the fine young Texas soldiers kept bits of his skin for keepsakes.

John said...

James,
You do have a point—we are not saddled with hundreds of years of ingrained and instinctive prejudices. But still, our system of institutionalized ignorance, with no sense of self-identity that is reality-based, is hardly an improvement. At least those with all the baggage seem to have a clearer sense of who they are than we history-less U.S. Americans.

I’m become less and less convinced of our isolationism after the first 50 years or so of our nation’s history. We preached isolationism, but practiced expansionism—Texas, the Mexican-American War, our early involvement in Central America, the stealing of Hawaii, the Spanish-American War, and involvement in Cuba and the Phillipines, etc.

The U.S. is certainly unique in the annals of history. There’s been nothing else even remotely similar (Australia, perhaps?) This I admit. But this uniqueness has been translated into exceptionalism—and with too many, God’s special favor. The problem is that we have been spreading this bull for so long, we’ve come to believe it ourselves.

John said...

@*+ (and Milton),
You get to the real heart of the matter—while it is annoying to witness our public religion (Americanism,) it is only that. The larger problem is that many Christians blindly accept this as normative. I find it interesting that the very characteristics encouraged by an American Exceptionalist view of our history—pride, strength, assertiveness, not taking anything off of anyone else, etc. are the very opposite of those qualities we must cultivate to follow Christ—humility, meekness and turning the other cheek, etc.

John said...

Milton,
You are correct. He was past 80.

Ranger said...

nothing says denying oneself like "rugged individualism."

James the Thickheaded said...

Nah... you guys got me there. I have to agree that our isolationism had its exceptions, and basically only reflected a stance towards other (European) nations - American Indians excepted much to their chagrin so long as the frontier remained. And yes, the fecklessness with which our interventionism has been employed... both in terms of an apparently low threshhold and in terms of the assumption (see Stratfor) that our exceptionalism means we can accomplish our goals with a minimalist approach... means that yes, we sadly seem to be accumulating baggage at a rather high rate these days. Yet while we may give little thought to our past, those hurt along the way seem reminiscent of the "Hell no, we ain't fergittin'!" crowd. Who started what doesn't much matter.

John... there was a book out recently on the Apache nation that it sounds as if you might have read (or might want to read) where NYTimes Book Review quoted it as one of the largest empires of its day. Blood thirsty, yes... because they ruled all the other tribes through fear and intimidation before the white man came. And it was only the arrival of the repeating rifle that turned the tide if I recall.

We don't much study the Indians any more. Sort of give ourselves a pass with calling them Native Americans and think "we're all good with that now". Some so-called self-proclaimed advances in virtue are a ticket to forgetting rather than understanding. The Indian Wars were wars plain and simple. Virtue... not much involved on either side - especially ours.

Elder Paisios was quoted on WW2 as praying for "the less evil side to win". There's a lot in that.

Kirk said...

I am certainly not the studdnt of history that y'all are, but it occurred to me the other day, as I listened to another story of a small town high school who was forced to rename its local mascot from Indians to something benign like "the Storm," that in this process of political correctness, we have completely forgotten the peoples to whom this tribute is aimed. That is, I fear that the Indians are becoming a lost history. No more do our children play cowboys and Indians. And no more do our children possess knowledge and curiosity of the native Americans.

Kirk said...

John, I read the article to which this post refers. Did you post this eye-candy just for me? You must know how prejudice I am against those crazy Smithites. (Grrrrrrr...)

Hey, evengelical Republican base: let's nominate Romney and Palin in 2012. Then we'll have two crazies at the top of the ticket!

melxiopp said...

I've never understood why American can't be exceptional (i.e., unique) without the best. "We're #1" is annoying, and lacking in humility.

melxiopp said...

For me, my mother is mom or mama. For me, your mother is Mrs. or ma'am.

There's nothing strange or unequal about this, it's just that familiar is familiar. Such things are subjective and 'exceptional'.

The problem is when we seek to rank such things. Inevitably, we rank our own preferences above all others'.