Monday, November 29, 2010

"What Have You Done For Me Lately?"

Karen Tumulty surveys the debate over American exceptionalism, which President Obama triggered (by being a bit too clever answering a question last year in France) and Republicans are exploiting for political purposes (by sowing more doubt about whether he can be trusted).

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.


MK said...

Excellent essay. I like your assessment. Progress made, more needs to be done. Or, as you put it so well, what have you done for me lately. Natural laws don't change, even for a country with an exceptional start. One can’t move into a pristine, solidly constructed new built house and make no efforts at repair or improvement over the next 50 years. Put another way, building character and developing sustainable values is a lifelong process. So too does maintaining success in business require constant effort. Why wouldn’t it be the same as with all other human endeavors in nurturing national greatness? As adults, none of us would point to an award won in grade school and say, “I did great, teacher liked what I did! Now I can coast for the rest of my life.” Our start in life provides us a foundation, it's not a capping achievement.

There are several elements at play here, some of which appear to be conflated by some observers (not you, you get it right). I’m thinking of exceptionalism, triumphalism (which can affect the writing of historical narratives), and boosterism. They can get mixed up in a morass of neediness. Matt Miller sent up the mix well in a column ("Ohh, America, you're so strong") about Palin a couple of weeks ago. He sent up the neediness beautifully by focusing on the cooing aimed at voters, "ooh, baby, you're so handsome, so strong."

Obama’s statement about the U.S. and other nations seemed innocuous to me when I first heard it. I took it to mean, “we’re proud of our country and its singular qualities, just as people in other countries may be proud of theirs.” To me, it’s a sign of the hypersensitivity and hyperpartisanship of our times that his statement became the source of the flap it did.

That said, I approach these flaps about exceptionalism with caution and a large degree of cynicism. Very often, what is missing is proportionality. Joe Scarborough has noted how starting with Clinton, political opponents have tried to delegitimize U.S. presidents. Commentators on one side did it to Clinton, ones on the other side did it to George W. Bush, and now others are doing it to Obama. The most prominent usually are people outside the government. When *everything* a president of one of two parties, both of which have legitimate governing philosophies that fit within a small d democratic framework, does is painted as bad or evil or eek-aack scary, then there’s a danger that most criticism won’t resonate except with an established amen corner. This is a major flaw in Palin’s tactical approach, which relies on near daily complaints on Twitter and Facebook and speeches and tv commentary.

Fr. John said...

Thanks so much, MK. God bless America!

Ed Cimler said...

A couple of change takes a long time. Proclamations from the government don't necessarily change people's opinions or behaviors. I think that our country has traditionally been well ahead of the curve.

I also don't think that Newt believes that God has chosen America for special treatment. I think that his point was that people have God-given rights and that America was founded on that concept.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, Ed. From one incrementalist to another, I agree. I do think that since most people (though not all) who proclaim American exceptionalism do so in the context of God's purposes, they have to accept (if they're Christians) that in Christ, all status comes with the profound obligation of servanthood and pouring-out of ourselves. It's not just so we can enjoy our gift of the promised land.

MK said...

Hah, the messed up post didn’t take. So I was able to fix the errors. Here it is: Gingrich and Palin aren’t the only commentators who lack proportionality in their comments about exceptionalism and American character, of course. We seem to be in a permanent “silly season.” Sometimes it feels to me as if “reality” shows serve as the models for political discourse these days, with finger wagging, yelling, table flipping “Real Housewives” (and I use that for both genders) overreacting to every event. Such histrionics dilute the rhetorical currency of political discourse.

During RN’s tenure, he could appeal to a “silent majority” of Americans by laying out difficult policy goals and asking citizens to do “do the right thing.” Can you imagine a cable or talk radio blowhards saying now, as RN did in his grown up “Silent Majority” speech, “I recognize that some of my fellow citizens disagree with the plan for peace I have chosen. Honest and patriotic Americans have reached different conclusions as to how peace should be achieved.” I can’t. (Limbaugh would call RN chickified for that.) And that tells me something about the present day “war” over “exceptionalism.”

RN even pointed to some weaknesses in the way America does things in that speech, noting that “We Americans are a do-it-yourself people. We are an impatient people. Instead of teaching someone else to do a job, we like to do it ourselves. And this trait has been carried over into our foreign policy.” If you re-read his speech, it’s a far cry from the ego-boosting, put a yellow ribbon or a flag decal on your car and consider-yourself-a-patriot vibe we saw in recent years. To say nothing of the “put it on the credit card” approach to waging war we’ve seen during the last 10 years. Our foundational roots haven’t changed. But there’s something about how too many pundits regard the people they address – a curious lack of respect for them as adults -- that has changed over the last 20 years. It’s as if instead of seeing Ray Price, William Safire, John Andrews, and Pat Buchanan write speeches of differing styles and sensitivities for RN, there’s only one gear—the snarky, hard charging, red meat flinging, writing for Agnew, Buchanan.