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.

Why Kay?

It used to be my job to stay abreast of developments in Texas politics and write about them. I have not been a resident of my native Lone Star State since 1988, so I may not be aware of some of the finer details these days. For example, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is planning to run against Rick Perry for Governor of Texas. Why?

Hutchison’s campaign tag line is “I’m running for Governor because I love Texas and I know we can do better.” How? As states go, Texas is in pretty good shape. It has suffered less in the recession than most states, thanks to Perry’s protection of the rainy day fund. It has lost fewer jobs. So if it isn’t the economy, what is it? What does Hutchison expect to do better?

“On key challenges like property taxes, education, private property rights, transportation, utility rates, insurance rates and health care; we need results, not politics.” What sort of results? What has Perry not accomplished? Seems to me there may be differences with regard to some policies or projects, but Perry has gotten things done.

Most recently Perry has been in the news for standing up to the Obama administration. He has appeared at various TEA parties. Some people tried to distance themselves from him when he made remarks that suggested support for secession, though that raised his stock with me.

A couple of years ago Perry told a group of black ministers, “It’s a ridiculous notion to say you cannot legislate morality.” Perhaps he realises that all legislation is, in fact, morality.

And who would have thought back in 1985 when I was helping to coordinating efforts to get the Texas Board of Education to leave homeschoolers alone that one day a homeschool mom would be on the Board. Word is that Perry is considering her for board chairperson and the liberals are frothing at the mouth. Yep, another tick in the Perry column.

Except for voting in favour of the federal bailout, Hutchison is rather conservative. NARAL don’t like her, though National Right to Life only rate her at 75%. The NEA rate her at 36%, which is a little high for my comfort but still no sell-out to their liberal education agenda.  The environmentalists don’t like her, so that’s good.

But as conservative as she may be, the only reason for her to run for governor is that she wants to. She’s always wanted to be governor and at 66 she’s no spring chicken. In fact, if elected she will be the oldest Texas governor inaugurated to a first term. So this is her last shot, really.

Is that reason enough to send Rick Perry back to Haskell County? I don’t think so.

Diverted

The eye of Hurricane Ike is not longer headed for my home town. It has taken an unexpected turn over the last day and now looks to go ashore about 120 miles up the coast.

Hurricane force winds extend 120 miles from the center, so it is still going to be rather breezy. Flood water from the storm surge shouldn’t reach my parents’ house, but the wind could still do some damage to the woodwork, the roof, the trees, and the fence.  By mid-day Saturday it will have passed over and moved away.

The Older Unnamed Child is all excited about the hurricane in Texas. He was upset that I wouldn’t promise to wake him up throughout the night when a new map is issued about the National Hurricane Center. I promised to record the CBS Evening News, so he can see any report on it.

Ancestral Lands

Since I have been visiting my parents, where much of my personal library is located, I have had a chance to read a book that I got many years ago when it was withdrawn from circulation by the Gonzales Public Library, an establishment that was a regular haunt of mine in my college days.

In what has been one of the more popular posts on this blog, I talked about my Uncle George Littlefield. The book I am reading is George Littlefield: Texan by J. Evetts Haley, published in 1943 by the University of Oklahoma Press. At the time I acquired it, I knew that I was related to Uncle George – and he was always referred to as Uncle George Littlefield by my mother’s family – but I hadn’t made the exact genealogical connection. I just knew that he had put my great-grandmother through college.

Since, as you might expect, the first chapter of the biography covers his family background, it has been very interesting to read about my great-great-great-grandparents (his parents) in a real book (not a self-published genealogy-driven tome) with real footnotes referencing a wide range of primary source materials. The book details both real and personal property they possessed, acquired and sold. Through my genealogical research, I knew where some of this land was.

The personal recollections of former slaves continues to confirm my understanding the positive relationship they shared with my family. Because that is relevant to the novel I am intending to write, this has been particularly helpful.

During the years I lived in Gonzales County, I had thought it would be a nice place to settle. River bottom being the most desirable and fertile real estate, I had always wanted to own the land at the confluence of the San Marcos and Guadalupe Rivers. I figured if one river made for good land, two must be so much the better.

Having never read that book I bought from the Gonzales Public Library, I had no idea my great-great-great-grandmother thought the same and not only acquired that land, but also moved there from the original plantation where she had settled with my great-great-great-grandfather located about 15 miles up the Guadalupe.

Were I to someday win the lottery or perhaps become a wildly successful writer – though the lottery win is the more likely of the two – I might yet buy that land.

Multiple Celebrations

Today is the 172nd anniversary of Texas’ independence from Mexico.

It is also my parents’ 46th wedding anniversary.

So may God grant all Texans, and especially my parents, many years.

Here in the UK is also Mothering Sunday, as it is Laetare Sunday in the Western Church calendar. After the unnamed first child participated in a karate tournament (from which he did not received a trophy, to his continuing consternation), we looked for a place to go out and have dinner. Having not planned ahead, it was not easy to find anywhere with an available table on such short notice.

Having exhausted the possibilities in Hooterville, we tried to see if we could go to our favourite Chinese buffet in another cathedral city. They didn’t have a table until 6:00, so we tried their other location, also in a nearby cathedral city. They had one available at 3:00, so we went there.

It was heaving. There were a lot of English people eating Chinese food on Mother’s Day. The food was okay – not as good as our usual location – but all you can eat.

As this is Meatfare Sunday, I will now be giving up mentioning meat dishes on my blog until Pascha.

How Times Have Changed

When I was Republican County Chairman of Gonzales County, Texas, we were definitely the minority party. Way in the minority. This was at a time with the only winnable statewide race for Republicans was the governorship. Pockets of GOP support on a more local level were beginning to emerge in places, but for Gonzales County, as well as most other rural counties in South Texas, to win the Democratic primary was to win the general election.

So imagine my surprise when I was going through one of the regional daily papers online and learned that the candidates for District Attorney are both Republicans. Whoever wins the Republican primary will be unopposed in the general election.

I’m not particularly surprised that both candidates are women. Texas has a long history of electing women, including the second woman governor in US history in Ma Ferguson. Ferguson would have been the first woman governor in US history, if Nellie Ross hadn’t been inaugurated two weeks earlier to finish her husband’s unexpired term. Ferguson’s husband had also been governor, but had been impeached and removed from office eight years before.

That’s why I won’t be surprised if Hillary wins the Democratic presidential primary. I would, however, be very surprised if she were to win the state in November. No Democrat has carried Texas since Jimmy Carter barely did so in 1976.

But it’s local politics where things have changed. This is the proof that Texas has really become a Republican state. I just wish I was there to enjoy it.