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.

On Sports Mascots and Honouring Indians

This is a repost of one of my old e-newsletters, known as David’s Mental Meanderings.  I wrote this when the NCAA ramped up it’s campaign to force colleges and universities to get rid of Indian mascots.  Now that the University of North Dakota will be voting tomorrow about abandoning the Fighting Sioux, even over the objection of the Sioux who are fighting this, I thought it deserved to be dredged up again.

David’s Mental Meanderings
10th August 2005
The NCAA has decided that universities with mascots or nicknames derived from American Indian sources must change or cover up their nicknames to compete in NCAA tournaments because they are “hostile and abusive”. You would think that those bastions of woolly liberal thinking and political correctness would have already taken such measures on their own, but 18 universities have failed to do so and must be brought to heel. What a load of tosh.

I do not rely upon the 1/16 Cherokee blood on my paternal side as the basis for my credibility to speak on these matters. I’m sure lots of people have a great-great-grandparent who was an American Indian.

I am, after all, a former Honorary Member of the Texas Commission for Indian Affairs. I was appointed circa 1968 when my state senator was Governor for a Day. I’m not sure how long my appointment lasted, but the certificate adorned my bedroom wall while I was growing up.

Seriously, my connection with American Indians is a bit deeper. My maternal grandfather, was employed by the TCIA (renamed the Texas Indian Commission in 1975), as the business manager of the Alabama-Coushatta and the superintendent of the Tigua (pronounced tee’-wah) Indian reservations in Texas. My grandmother was so loved by the Tigua community in El Paso that many of them travelled 700 miles to her funeral and performed a special ceremony at her graveside. My grandfather then married a Tigua woman, adopted her son, and begat two further sons. Thus, I have an Indian step-grandmother with two half-Indian half-uncles younger than me. After my grandfather died, a street was named for him in El Paso in recognition of his contribution to the Tigua tribe.

Political correctness has completely blinded the NCAA. How do they figure that a mascot is demeaning or hostile? By it’s very nature, it is making a positive statement about the people represented. A school (at whatever level from elementary to university) has chosen that mascot to represent them and their pursuit of excellence in athletics. Sure the student in the silly rubber head may inject humour to the proceedings, but his role is not to bring the school or the school’s symbol into a object of derision.

No school says, “Hey, let’s pick out something that makes us look terrible.” I once thought the only exception would probably be the Sandcrab of my old high school. I have heard many people mock the “Fighting Sandcrabs” – and our prowess in most sports proved that we lived up to quality of our mascot. Then I discovered the University of California-Santa Cruz Banana Slugs. Theirs is the oxymoronic web address GoSlugs.com. But we’ll leave the poor choice of animal mascots for another time.

No school says, “Let’s use our athletics programs as an excuse to pick out an ethnic group for abuse.” But for the NCAA, representations that might recognise qualities common to, or legendary of, particular ethnic groups is racism.

The NCAA doesn’t even care that American Indian groups have supported the use of these nicknames. A spokesman for the Saginaw Chippewa, reiterating their support for Central Michigan’s use of the Chippewa nickname, said the tribe does not accept an “arbitrary decision made from an outside source.”

The President of Florida State issued a statement saying, “Florida State University is stunned at the complete lack of appreciation for cultural diversity shown by the (NCAA). . . That the NCAA would now label our close bond with the Seminole Tribe of Florida as culturally ‘hostile and abusive’ is both outrageous and insulting. On June 17, the Tribal Council of the Seminole Tribe of Florida spoke unequivocally of its support for (our) use of the Seminole name and related symbols… National surveys have shown in recent years that an overwhelming majority of Native Americans are not offended by the use of Native American names and symbols. In making its decision, the executive committee has been swayed by a strident minority of activists who claim to speak for all Native Americans. It is unconscionable that the Seminole Tribe of Florida has been ignored.”

When Charlotte Westerhaus, NCAA vice president for diversity and inclusion, was asked why Florida State was on the hit list in light of its agreement with the tribe, she pointed out that there are many other Seminole tribes that do not have that agreement. She has not done her homework. There is only one other Seminole tribe, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. That is a moot point, as Florida State are fairly obviously referring to the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The NCAA also takes no notice that according to its website, “The University of Utah, in cooperation with the Ute Tribal Business Committee, is proud to share in the tradition of the Ute tribe through the ‘Utes’ nickname.” A tribal leader at the Unitah and Ouray Indian Reservation, home of the Northern Utes, echoed the Chippewas, “A non-Indian organization should not be the one to make the decision.”

Lest as 93.75% non-Indian, I fall into the error of the NCAA and presume to speak on their behalf, I contacted both the Tiguas and the Alabama-Coushatta. I spoke to someone in the enrollment office of the former and reached the Public Information Office of the latter. In both instances, it really wasn’t an issue. Both agreed that if Indians are portrayed in a negative way, it’s bad. Neither offered an example of this, but for both, it really wouldn’t be a battle worth fighting. There are too many real issues facing American Indians. They also agreed that if Indians are shown in a positive light, it’s a good thing.

The only organisation that I have seen reported to be in favour of the NCAA position is the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). I should say the only Indian organisation. According to news sources, they have the support of the NAACP and the National Organization of Women. That tells me about all I need to know. This was confirmed by the Public Information officer of the Alabama-Coushatta, who told me that whilst all the federally recognised tribes are members of the NCAI, the leadership of the organisation pushes a particular political agenda.

The NCAA appears to have been pushed along by a 2001 statement by the US Commission on Civil Rights calling “for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools.” I haven’t been able to determine the composition of the USCCR in 2001. However, the present Commission is comprised of three black Republicans, one Hispanic Republican, one white Democrat, and one Chinese Democrat, with two Democrat vacancies. No Indians.

I also looked into the backgrounds of all 19 members of the NCAA Executive Committee. You guessed it. Not a single Indian. Plenty of well-meaning liberal non-Indians who know what’s best for them, of course.

If the Indian mascots have to change, what about others? After all, according to NCAA President Myles Brand, “The NCAA objects to institutions using racial/ethnic/national origin references in their intercollegiate athletics programs.” What negative stereotypes are being reinforced by the Fighting Irish and the Ragin’ Cajuns? “Tar Heel” was an insult levied at North Carolina’s residents who were so poor that they “walked around barefoot with tar on their heels”. Objection should also be raised about the Luther Norse, and Albion Britons. The Bethany Swedes have dodged all this by being members of the NAIA instead of the NCAA. The Hofstra Flying Dutchmen probably get brownie points for taking on the extra nickname “The Pride” and changing the lion on the right side of the Hofstra seal into a lioness to symbolize gender equity.

And who is going to stand up for other the historic ethnic groups serving as mascots, such as Trojans, Spartans, and Vandals? Soon you will have people tracing their genealogy back to these groups and asking for reparations. And finally, what about planetary origin? Surely the NCAA should investigate the Hawaii-Hilo Vulcans.

And Hofstra aside, there is also sexism to be dealt with. What is the NCAA doing about that? Teams at Division III Sweet Briar College are known as the Vixens. From their website: “vix·en (vik-sen) n. 1. a female fox. 2. a quarrelsome woman. The vixen was selected by Sweet Briar students as their mascot in 1979. The Oxford American Dictionary offers two definitions. Either works. Take your pick.” But what about the root issue? Sweet Briar College only admits women. Why is the NCAA worrying about mascots when it has member schools which openly discriminate on the basis of gender? With women comprising 56% of college students, who is looking out for minority rights?

Surely the mascot changes should be more sweeping. There is religious discrimination afoot. After all, what is “Demon Deacons” saying about the congregational leadership of Baptist churches? (They have to be Baptist deacons, as Wake Forest is a Baptist foundation.) The hierarchs of various Christian communions might take exception to Ohio Wesleyan’s Battling Bishops. After all, in 2000 Wheaton College removed any offence that could be taken by the Infidel when its Crusaders became the more meteorologically aggressive Thunder. Perhaps they were following the lead of the Earlham Hustling Quakers — once known as the Fighting Quakers, until the board of regents decided that it was inappropriate for Quakers to fight. But surely the NCAA should issue a ruling about these and the Whitman Missionaries, Providence Friars, and St. Joseph’s Monks.

What about the stereotyping of certain professions like Miners, Mountaineers, Pirates and Privateers, Boilermakers, Cowboys and Gauchos, Cornhuskers, Rivermen, Hatters and Loggers?

But let’s get back to Indians. As many as 11 US states are named after Indian tribes, or in the case of Indiana, after Indians generally. Fourteen others are named from Indian words. Who is going to enforce consistency here and make these states change their names, so they aren’t perceived as racist?

Now I will be the first to say that people groups populating the North America got a raw deal when European settlers arrived. Their land was stolen and they were often systematically annihilated. Those who survived were usually herded off into reservations. It is as shameful a past as that of other nations who have practiced genocide.

The NCAA should put its efforts behind improving the education of American Indians. Only 29% of the Indian population in the US are high school graduates. About 3% of Indians have two-year degrees. About 6% have Bachelor’s degrees.

The practice of mascots and nicknames for schools – and in particular their athletic programs – has provided an opportunity for the names of those tribes, or sometimes just the Indian heritage itself, to be remembered as they were before Europeans decided what was best for them and enforced it with the barrel of a gun. There is nothing racist about that. There is nothing “hostile or abusive” whether they specifically honour the Seminoles, Chippewa, Utes, Sioux, Choctaws, or Illini, or simply the “Braves” or the “Indians”.

Copyright 2005 – All rights reserved

Harry Potter and Immigration

Over at Mere Comments, I was reading Steve Hutchens interesting view of the Harry Potter books and how they are analogous to the Gospel – something I can’t comment on as I haven’t read them – so I scrolled through the comments to see what others thought of this.

What struck me was not the debate of whether CS Lewis’ Narnia or JRR Tolkien’s LOTR is the gold standard of Christian fiction. Rather it was that even in this context people can get really pissy about illegal immigration – and with only a thin veil, immigration generally. Now I’ve written about this before, and even though it is a hot button issue, I get remarkably low traffic on such posts and no comments. Perhaps this is because my regular readers (dwindling number that you seem to be) completely disagree with me, but can’t be bothered to say so – or maybe I’ve made too many readers angry and they’ve vowed never to return.

If you can’t be bothered to scroll through it all, there is a particularly funny sparring exchange that went like this:

  • At the same time, I don’t recall freedom to migrate being written into the Ten Commandments,
  • It’s more than a little ironic, given the context for the delivery of the Commandments. 🙂
  • But, in fact, they weren’t migrating to a foreign country–they were leaving a foreign country to go HOME. For the Exodus analogy to hold, the illegals in the U.S. would have to be enslaved and prevented from LEAVING. Now, if some Mexican prophet were to emerge from the Barrio, go to Washington, pound on the White House door, and demand of President Bush, “Let my people go!”, I would think that the President would say, “Sure thing, compadre. Can we order up some busses and trains to help y’all out?” Certainly beats having the Potomac run red with blood (it’s bad enough in its normal state), or for a plague of locusts to descend on the land (we just got rid of the seventeen year cicadas), or for the first born to be taken (but I know the secret for getting out of that one). Don’t let it be said we can’t learn from the mistakes of the Egyptians.

It is strange that no one thinks of the original settlement of America by immigrants as a problem. I suppose the argument is that the Injuns didn’t have a complex legal system with a refined idea of private (or even public) property law. Therefore it was fair game to take it all and push them into reservations or kill them in the process. Right of conquest and all of that.

I think the last commenter is inaccurate in his depiction of the Mexican prophet. If he were to get anywhere near the door of the White House without being shot, he would be captured, hog tied, and shipped to Guantanimo Bay faster than you can say, “Hasta la vista, Baby!”