The problem of exceptionalism
And the logic of Abraham Lincoln
The “exceptionalist” view of the American experience is an enduring facet of national politics, reaching back to colonial times and persisting up to the present. In the 2008 presidental campaign, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin rigorously espoused this idea: “America is a nation of exceptionalism,” she said during her debate with Joe Biden. “We are a beacon of hope, and we are unapologetic here. We are not perfect as a nation. But together, we represent a perfect ideal.”
Exceptionalist rhetoric might strike some as idealistic, and others as chauvinistic. Indeed, advocates of this idea often cast themselves torchbearers of true American values; while doubters are subject to derision, or labeled as foreign-inspired “socialists.”
Although the contemporary political banter frequently pushes the boundaries of civility, it pales in comparison to the wrenching divisions leading up to the Secession crisis in the 1860s. As the Civil War was concluding, Abraham Lincoln observed that both sides of the conflict echoed the theme of exceptionalism, since both believed that God was on their side:
“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Each looked for an easier triumph. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural address.
So how could God be on both sides? Lincoln reframed the question and offered a startling conclusion: Neither side could claim God’s special favor. “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes,” Lincoln said.
Lincoln’s reflections on the Civil War are further examined in the University of Massachusetts Press book, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective by Bruce T. Murray. Lincoln’s rhetoric is analyzed in terms of civil religion – a belief system that binds the nation’s deepest-held values with transcendent meaning.
“This book is a splendid presentation of the First Amendment – with civil religion as a parallel theme – especially as presently related to so many issues in American political and religious life. Other books on these issues have been appearing of late, but none as clear and thorough as this one.”
— G.H. Shriver, Professor Emeritus, Georgia Southern University
Read about the author here.
“The most powerful form of political correctness in America is patriotism that revels in national idolatry.” — Randall Kennedy critiques Barack Obama for failing to challenge the notion of American exceptionalism. Time magazine, Jan. 28, 2013.
In his book, Civilization, historian Niall Ferguson asserts that we are now living through “the end of 500 years of Western predominance,” and that United States and Europe “will tip over from weakness to outright collapse.” — Reviewed by Jake Guevara, The New York Times, Nov. 15, 2011
“If we truly believe ourselves to be exceptional, a model for all the world and an example for all of history, then why would we practice torture?” — Frank Bruni, New York Times, Nov. 14, 2011