The Heresy of Exceptionalism

A Facebook friend recently posted a link to an article/newsletter by David Barton. Normally I am loath to read anything by Barton (the self-proclaimed “renowned historian” without even an undergraduate history degree or any clue about historical methodology), but since this had to do with Texas politics and particularly the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, I thought it might be worthwhile to give it a look. Barton’s contention is that Speaker Joe Straus isn’t really a conservative and not much of a Republican. Fair enough.

But what really caught my eye was an attack Barton made on one of Straus’ allies. After commenting on a piece of pro-life legislation that State Affairs Committee Chariman Burt Solomons prevented from reaching the floor of the House, he says, “Incidentally, as a reflection of Solomons’ philosophy, he had previously even objected to teaching that America is a blessed and unique nation – i.e., American Exceptionalism…” There’s no indication as to whether Solomons currently objects to this teaching, and the comment is a bit of the cheap ad hominem that is sadly found pervasively in conservative circles.

In my youth I imbibed heavily from the trough of American Exceptionalism and have held to it explicitly or implicitly for most of my life.  As a result, I have done the only logical thing: I have repented.

America has been a blessed and unique nation, but recognising this is not adhering to American Exceptionalism. Many nations have been blessed and all nations are unique, but this is not what David Barton believes. American Exceptionalism is the teaching that the United States is special above all other nations – that God has blessed America and likes America more than the others.

American Exceptionalism has been used as an exemption from the law of nations. The attitude is that international law may apply to the rest of you but it doesn’t apply to us, because we’re special and we don’t have to play by everyone else’s rules.  We will tell you what you can and can’t do in your country, but don’t you dare tell us. In fact, international law so doesn’t apply that we can violate the sovereignty of other countries and have done so with impunity. All countries are sovereign, but some countries are more sovereign that others. The sovereignty of other countries is always secondary to American interests.

This doctrine of American Exceptionalism is not something new. One hundred and seventy years ago it was called Manifest Destiny (though the term is often used for the period between 1812-1860, it was coined in 1839 and only came into common use around 1845). It was used to justify the expansion of the United States at whatever cost. The biggest acquisition was 42% of Mexico as a result of the Mexican War, which started as a dispute over the territory between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers in South Texas. This is a bit like taking an area twice the size of France as the result of a dispute about an area the size of, for example, Alsace-Lorraine. This area now contains over 16% of the US population, so it could be argued that we eventually needed the lebensraum.

It was also the justification to gain control of much of the central part of the continent that had been purchased from a European power which claimed it by right of conquest.*  Most of the inhabitants were completely unaware they had been conquered. When they objected to their lands being taken by white folks, the US Army brought this to their attention. They were, after all, savages, so it was okay to kill them. Having no concept of private property, they also had no property rights, so it was only right that it should be taken over and controlled by folks who understood their God-given right to plat and deed every inch land. Now it must be said that out of the goodness of their heart, the American government did reserve some of the Indians’ own land for them, force them to live there, and shoot them if they objected.

The most extraordinary thing about this American Exceptionalism is that it is generally agreed to have its roots in a thesis (it is often called a sermon, but we have no record of it ever being spoken to a gathering of people in church or otherwise) by John Winthrop, written aboard the Arbella on the way to Massachusetts Bay in 1630. The thesis was called “A Model of Christian Charity”. It is best known for the phrase “city upon a hill” which appears near the end.  I reiterate that this is an extraordinary thing, because there is nothing in Winthrop’s thesis that supports the idea of Exceptionalism or Manifest Destiny. If you doubt me, you need to read it. I welcome you to challenge my understanding of it.

“A Model of Christian Charity” is explicitly an exhortation of how the Massachusetts Bay colonists should behave toward one another. This is based upon their religious covenant to each other. Winthrop does say that what they are doing is extraordinary – not in founding a nation that would stretch from sea to shining sea, because they did not see themselves as founding a country nor did they have any concept of the size of North America. They saw what they were doing as extraordinary, so that living by the Golden Rule was going to be essential. The avoidance of usury was going to be essential. Being knitted together as the body of Christ was going to be essential while they struggled to hang on to an existence on the shores of New England.

I have outlined (barely) some of the practical results of Exceptionalism. I have demonstrated, if only enough to encourage you to read the original document (David Barton would be proud), that the connection with the Puritans and the “city on a hill” is non-existent. But none of that relates to the most important aspect of all and the reason I have titled this essay as I have. None of this is the reason I have repented.

Exceptionalism is a heresy. The more one tries to support it with a religious foundation, the more heretical is becomes.

Americans are not God’s chosen people. The Church is God’s chosen people. The Church includes some Americans. Americans do not even make up the largest fraction of national representation in the Church. (That would be the Chinese. Current estimates indicate that there are likely more Christians in China than there are people in the United States.) When St Peter said, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light,” he was referring to the Church.

In that oft-used phrase, John Winthrop refers to Matthew 5:14 – “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” The “you” to whom Jesus is referring are His disciples – those who are hearing and following His teaching – the Church. Winthrop was referring to his fellow Puritan settlers as Christians living out the Gospel, not to the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, or a democratic Republic, which would have been the furthest things from his imagination.

With all due respect to Ronald Reagan, who co-opted Winthrop’s phrase in his Farewell Address, as well as by his own admission having use it all his political life, the city on a hill is not prosperity nor is it freedom. No, if we go back to the Original Document and Original Intent (I hope David Barton would be pleased), the city is the light of Christ. Inasmuch as it refers to freedom, we would have to cross-reference to John 8:38, “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”

Has the United States been blessed? Certainly. Has the US as a nation done some good things? Of course. Has this blessing been because we have somehow fulfilled Winthrop’s vision for Massachusetts Bay? Absolutely not. It has been by the grace and mercy of God, despite some very terrible shortcomings as individuals and as a nation. How dare we say, “Our fathers expanded and built the United States this way and look at how God has blessed us – surely this is evidence of our righteousness!”

Everyone knows the bit of Winthrop’s thesis that says, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” The important bit follows: “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake.”

As Christians we are the light on a hill. It is we who have a responsibility to live out the Gospel. Not because of what John Winthrop wrote and a connection we feel to the Puritan fathers, however tenuous that may be. Not because we are Americans. Because we are Christians. We have a responsibility to live charitably toward one another. Again, if you want to know the characteristics of the city on a hill as outlined by Winthrop, as true and biblical today for all believers, read the whole thing.

God does not love America more because some of the first white settlers of an area that eventually became a colony and eventually broke away from England were good Christian folk. (And just for the record, we have no covenantal connection to those good Christian folk of Massachusetts Bay, so we are not reaping what they have sown. But that’s an article for another time.) Nor does He love us more because a lot of people that were involved in the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention were Christians and even those who weren’t occasionally used Christian shop talk.  Nor does he love us more because we are a democratic Republic that has tried to spread our form of government around the world, whether other people wanted it or not.

I’m blessed to be an American, but that does not make me special to God, nor did it make the generations of my forefathers going back to colonial times any more special to God. Nations rise and nations fall. The United States hasn’t been around all that long and it won’t be here forever. God operates on a completely different time scale.

The exceptional thing is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, whether we were blessed to be born in America, Europe, Africa, Asia or anywhere else. As the Church, we are God’s special people and unique nation. That is the Gospel.

*Technically, it was purchased from a country (France) which acquired it in a treaty from another country (Spain) which had acquired it in a treaty from the first country (France), which had laid claim by conquest.

12 Responses to “The Heresy of Exceptionalism”

  1. Lee Says:

    Well done! You anticipated some of my objections, and answered them well. I posted this to my FB page.

  2. Carl Says:

    Not sure I see the ad hominem. You didn’t reference Barton’s article so I can’t read it in context. While I don’t disagree in general, I’m not sure Barton subscribes to the type of American Exceptionalism you’re describing here.

  3. sol Says:

    Thanks, Lee.

    Carl, the whole article can be found here. The full paragraph reads, “Solomons also held the pro-life sonogram bill in committee long enough to keep it from coming to a floor vote, even though it had already passed the Senate. (Incidentally, as a reflection of Solomons’ philosophy, he had previously even objected to teaching that America is a blessed and unique nation – i.e., American Exceptionalism, and he also adamantly opposed a house bill to have Texas students recite portions of the Declaration of Independence.)”

    Solomons’ objection to American Exceptionalism (and for that matter his opposition to the bill that would have required recitation of portions of the Declaration of Independence each day) has nothing to to with whether or not his pushed a pro-life bill out of his committee and onto the House floor. It is not a reflection of his philosophy about that or about immigration in the previous paragraph. It is only relevant if its purpose is to further turn Barton’s audience against Solomons as a person. Being an Exceptionalist has nothing to do with support for pro-life legislation. Exceptionalism is a theological position. Barton might has well have been whispering, “He’s a bad guy anyway – after all he’s a [insert your own not-one-of-us denomination here]”.

    I have tried to do some rudimentary research to determine if Barton subscribes to a Manifest Destiny-denying form of Exceptionalism. Watched some of his videos on YouTube that I thought might be relevant, but in these cases he only refers to historically unique facts in American history, which aren’t a philosophy or “teaching” to object to (by Solomons or anyone else). Barton’s facts get a little shaky at times – okay, wrong – but the general scope of things is correct.

    That was before Barton went way off the Wall, so to speak, further into the videos. His use of scripture proof-texting was completely out of context and truly bizarre at times, to be equalled only by his use of court cases. Barton may not have trained as a historian, but he’s even worse as an amateur lawyer. His inability to understand both the jurisprudential process and the court decisions is jaw-dropping.

    I have to say this in light of just the few videos I watched: No Christian lawyer should be letting him get away with this, and especially not one with aspirations to sit on a state supreme court, if you know what I mean.

    • Carl Says:

      I know less about law than I do history – and I know very little about history – but I still don’t see the ad hominem. If we could hear the inflection, see the body language, then, perhaps. But to describe someone by their actions as a way of understanding their socio-economic-political-etc. perspective hardly seems a personal attack. How else could it be done? Each example does have something to do with the other if that’s my purpose.

      I also don’t see it as a personal attack even if my purpose is to discourage people from supporting / voting for a particular candidate by calling his “philosophy” into question. The items cited are all political actions, which, are a reflection (or should be) of a person’s “philosophy.”

      Still haven’t read the article, didn’t think I needed to for this reply. Hopefully, I’m not mistaken. Will read it as time permits.

      Finally, don’t let my ad hominem concern skew the conversation on the primary topic – we can take our discussion off-line of needed.

      • sol Says:

        I can see how it could be seen as something other than ad hominem. I still don’t see it as relevant to whether he backed a pro-life bill or kept all immigration bills from coming to the floor (though with regard to that, see Solomons’ website).

        I am interested in what you think of the primary topic.

    • Carl Says:

      One might think the delay in my repose was due to an in depth consideration of the topic; alas, that is not the case…

      However, I think perhaps a distinction needs to be made. In the eternal, salvific sense, I agree completely. There’s nothing unique or superior about the U.S. or U.S. souls. He has determined the boundaries and the times, and in the grand scheme of things, the U.S. is just another nation.

      In the temporal sense, though, I do think the U.S. is exceptional. I do not believe our founding or history is nearly as pristine as some would like to believe. We are broken vessels in the process of being repaired. I am not surprised at the less than exceptional behavior even of our most cherished historical figures. But that does not lessen what God has done – for I am inclined to believe that Providence was quite active in the establishment of this nation and it’s subsequent survival.

      I believe the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution outline a superior set of principles, and form upon them a superior form of government. While not perfect, I believe it is the least imperfect. I do not believe these documents are “inspired” but what little I know of our history would indicate they come close.

      Having said that, I do not believe this exceptionalism gives us any “right” to impose our ways on anyone else. We can certainly encourage and assist those interested in establishing their own similar form of government, but I think it questionable to do more than that.

      In summary, I think it is exceptional that this nation exists. I think this exceptionalism is a great blessing for those who dwell here. I think it offers an exceptional opportunity for outreach by private individuals and organizations. I do not, however, believe that our form of government alone gives us the moral high ground on any particular issue or the right to impose those views on others.

      Hopefully I’ve expressed my meaning well. Communication is a tricky thing – especially text.

      • sol Says:

        Carl, I know you have had a lot of other things to consider in in recent weeks, though your erudition has not noticeably suffered.

        Given the nature of God inasmuch as He has revealed it to us, how within the His Providence is the grand scheme of things (in which the US is just another nation) less active and in the establishment and sustaining of US quite active? Is it possible for other nations to survive without the Providence of God? If the US is just another nation in the grand scheme of things, can it last any longer or be ended at any time before it’s place in the geo-political space-time continuum is complete? Or put more theological, while still using your terms of choice, does God have separate eternal and temporal senses to His Providence?

        As for the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, first of all we have to distinguish between the two in terms of purpose. The Declaration did not establish a form of government. At the time it was adopted, there was no certainty about the form of government that would be adopted by the thirteen erstwhile colonies. Even the Article of Confederation were not proposed until 1777 and not adopted until 1781.

        As for the Constitution, I would concede that it created the least imperfect form of Government to suit the context of its creation. In the late 18th century, to unify a group of independent states which shared certain common recent history of representative government, an English common law jurisprudential basis, a lack of clan or tribal loyalties or authority, and general recognition of Christian ethics and morality, it was a stroke of genius. Because most of those things habe remained fairly constant, it is continued to be sustainable, though wisely created as amendable.

        For nations that do not have that combination of attributes, it will necessarily prove to be less perfect. I would argue that the further a particular nation is from those attributes, the less successful such a form of government will be.

        I think American exceptionalism of the moderate form that you propose (as distinguished from the form that drove the expansion of the nation in the 19th century) is still tainted with ethnocentrism, not unlike the chrono-centrism that has plagued much of the evangelical church, especially in America, but also in some of it’s exported varieties, that assumes we must be living in the end times. I wonder what people living 500 years from now will think of either one.

  4. A Matter of Sovereignty « Solomon Hezekiah Says:

    […] goes back to my most recent post: it is consistently the view of the US government – at least of the Executive and Legislative […]

    • Carl Says:

      As I said, text is tricky.

      Whether or not God is active was never in question. Whether or not his actions grant one group the moral high ground is in question.

      In the grand scheme of things, in the eternal, salvific, sense, at the end of the day – it isn’t about where you come from or the groups with which you did or did not affiliate. The only thing that matters is whether or not you accepted the free gift of salvation. There’s nothing about being a US citizen that will give anyone a leg up in that race. It is in this sense, that there is nothing exceptional about the US.

      In the temporal sense, in the right here and now sense, I have to wonder if God views the nation of North Korea the same as he does the United States. Is it likely that God does not favor one over the other? Do you think His involvement in the establishment of the North Korean government was the same as His involvement in the establishment of the US?

      I think, at least historically, His favor was on the US. The follow on question is whether or not this gives the US the moral high ground to impose its interests on others. Again, I say it does not.

      As for the Declaration, I included it not because it outlined the form of government, but because it outlined the conceptual basis for it. As you point out, the form without the conceptual foundation is unlikely to survive.

      You argue the form is only applicable to a group which happens to find itself in the in the unique situation in which this form of government is applicable – as if the context was the sole source of this form of government. Almost, as if, by happenstance. But, Who controls that happenstance?

      This is why I included the Declaration (and by implication other explanatory documents of the time). I don’t believe the US form of government was the result of random chance contextual forces. In fact, your comments beg a better question. Is the US form of government the best expression of Biblical principles as applied to civil government that we have?

      That any people without the conceptual foundation to support such a government will likely fail in their attempt is only logical. I believe this is why in the Old Testament that recent converts couldn’t hold office. In fact, if memory serves, no one from that family could until the 3rd generation.

      Finally, I’m not proposing a moderate form of exceptionalism – as if we can impose our will on other nations so long as we do it moderately. I am offering, perhaps, an alternative definition.

      • sol Says:

        Is it likely that God does not favor one over the other? Do you think His involvement in the establishment of the North Korean government was the same as His involvement in the establishment of the US?

        I think you are on to something here. I would agree that God has favoured the United States. However, I would say that his involvement in the establishing of the North Korean government was the same. To say otherwise would be to subscribe to some form of deism. Scripture is replete with both doctrine regarding and examples of God’s differring favour and disfavour. So I think we have some common ground of agreement here.

        Is the US form of government the best expression of Biblical principles as applied to civil government that we have?

        I used to assume so. I am much more critical of the scholarship of the likes of E.C. Wines who wrote in 1853, ‘I have sometimes imagined all the legislators of America gathered into one vast assemblage, and the Jewish lawgiver appearing suddenly in their midst. “Gentlemen,” he might say to them, “at length my word is fulfilled. What you boast of doing now, I accomplished, as far as in me lay, in a distant age.’ (Commentaries of the Law of the Ancient Hebrews republished in 1980 as The Hebrew Republic and in 1997 as The Roots of the America Republic)

        I think there is nothing particularly biblical about the separation of powers. Wise, perhaps, but not innately biblical. Even Wines, as I recall, doesn’t argue for legislative bicameralism. Neither is a fixed term of office for any governmental officer biblical. I suppose it come down to how specific you think the US form of government is.

  5. Carl Says:

    “… I would say that His involvement in the establishing of the North Korean government was the same.”

    On this distinction, we agree. His favor and His involvement are two distinct issues.

    I’ve never heard of Wines quote before. That sounds over the top. I was thinking of a quote by one of the founders (again, if I remember correctly) that basically stated that while the did not believe the founding documents were inspired, they were at least Divinely guided – or something to that effect.

    I would agree, there are provisions that might not be directly taken from a particular Bible passage, but I suppose it also depends on what you mean by “biblical.” (It’s times like this I wish I had gotten around to reading the Federalist Papers, etc…)

    Passages like Isaiah 33:22, “For the LORD is our judge; the LORD is our lawgiver; the LORD is our king; he will save us.” English Standard Version (©2001) occur to me and I wonder if it couldn’t have been used to at least inform the idea of these distinct powers. Understanding the biblical definition of Man’s nature might at least incline one to separate them. If an idea is second or third order, does that make it less “biblical.”

    I wouldn’t argue that our founding documents were “perfect” – just the best we have so far. Though, I would repeal a couple of amendments…

  6. sol Says:

    I found the Wines quote myself by looking at the book online today. It is in the concluding chapter of Part 2. I would be interested in the quote from one of the founders, though of course the belief of a particular 18th century politician doesn’t matter a matter of theology true.

    By “biblical” I did not mean taken directly from a particular Bible passage, but rather reasonably derived from scripture using any of the commonly accepted hermaneutical models.

    This brings us to Isaiah 33:22. I am curious about your choice of the ESV (©2001). The translation is exactly the same in the NIV, NASB, KJV and NKJV (and those at the only ones based on the Hebrew text that I bothered to check) though slightly different in the LXX, albeit still referring to the Lord having those three attributes.

    I know David Barton likes this passage as biblical proof of the three branches of government used by the founders. However this fails in two respects. First of all, there is the hermaneutical problem of deriving doctrine from prophecy. This is especially true given the context of Isaiah 33, which does not serve to explain this parenthetical statement. The other problem is that the idea that there were different and distinct functions or powers within government was not a new one. I would be interested in anything more than a hindsight reflection from any of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention that the separation of powers was decided upon (or even that a justification was suggested) based upon at particular approach to biblical anthropology. (And no, not some wandering obiter dictum in the dissert to an obscure court case of the sort Barton is so fond.) I can’t remember if Barton tries to attribute the use of Isaiah 33:22 to any particular founder.

    I do think that if an idea is second or third order, it does make it less biblical. The more human reasoning based on a myriad of cultural and philosophical influences that is interjected into it, the less claim there is to call any idea biblical. And again, the more it diverges from commonly accepted hermaneutical models, the less it should be termed biblical. Those models may in fact conflict, thus making something quite biblical in one framework and completely unbiblical in another, but for the sake of charity toward the brethren, I am happy to acknowledge that reasonable minds may differ.

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