The United States was blessed to have been born at the apogee -- indeed as the apogee -- of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Our founders were inspired to root a nation in their profound understanding of our God-given liberty. No other such nation exists. But that was just the beginning of the story. Still being written, the rest is how we live into our destiny by deepening our commitment to liberty and opportunity for all our people.
No party or politician has a monopoly on exceptionalist props. Some want to limit our freedom by further enhancing the power of the federal government. I'm not a big fan of bureaucrats and regulators, but they're an incredibly easy target. It's also too easy to single out those whose commitment to freedom of religious expression, and freedom from religious persecution, was found wanting as soon as a short-term political advantage could be gained by scapegoating and frightening our Muslim citizens.
Instead, let's try these:
Freedom: When it comes to human liberty, our record as exceptionalist stewards has been improving slowly but steadily. We've been a living exemplar of freedom for centuries, and Americans have fought and died for others' liberty where before great nations fought only for themselves. Yet it took us until 1865 to free the slaves, 1920 to let women vote, and the 1960s to eliminate de jure racial persecution in the South.
Today, some still want to deny gay and lesbian people the right to the same public benefits that heterosexuals receive when they set up households and have children. I'm not taking about the sacrament of marriage, which is the business of the church and other faith institutions. I'm talking about financial and other practical advantages still being withheld from homosexuals because some in politics think it's the government's job to enforce St. Paul's rules, as they understand them, as expressed in the Letter to the Romans.
Opportunity: Also serving as barriers to the full realization of American exceptionalism are those who tolerate and even act to prop up our society's unfair system for funding public education. Teachers in rich districts are paid more than those in poor ones, and higher-poverty schools within districts still sometimes get fewer resources than lower-poverty ones.
What, do you imagine, does God really think about that? When it comes to public education, the favorite conservative slogan is local control. Here, a commitment to gospel principles evades some of those conservatives who number themselves among the faithful. Jesus Christ commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves -- quite literally to worry as much about a child in Watts as one in our own house or neighborhood.
But when we hoard opportunity for our own children and community, we violate the Enlightenment ideals behind American exceptionalism by victimizing the most innocent and powerless among us -- children who can't possibly thrive without a good education. It doesn't excuse our selfishness to say that the federal government lacks the wisdom to equalize opportunity. Our obligation to do so remains.
Tumulty's article says this about our conception of the religious roots of American exceptionalism:
A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: "God has granted America a special role in human history."
Gingrich says Obama fails to understand that "American exceptionalism refers directly to the grant of rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence," and that it is a term "which relates directly to our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God."
Unique assertion? I'll grant that, for the reasons I've already given: That the American experiment was launched at a unique time in the the West's intellectual and spiritual development. Unprecedented set of rights? That actually doesn't make any sense. What was unprecedented was humanity's all-too-tardy recognition, as the scales of medievalism fell from our eyes in the 18th century, of the abundant love God has always expressed for all his creatures as unique individuals. We'd been hearing about it through the Hebrew prophets since the 8th century B.C.
But if Gingrich or that 58% in the Brookings poll are saying that God loves America or Americans more than any other nation or peoples, they're obviously wrong. The means of protecting individual rights and diffusing state power that our founders derived from God's law are available to all, and democratic societies around the world are doing pretty well with them. Our special status as stewards of freedom will always exist because the light was first lit on our shores. But that doesn't mean God won't always be asking what we've done for him lately.