American Exceptionalism

It’s easy to believe that you are the city on a hill, even as the relentless forces of global politics are building up mountains all around you. Jesus said that the high would be made low and the low high, and even though that principle has been at work in the world throughout history, the ever-increasing speed of life in our global community makes it seem that much more prophetic. The question now for Christian Mystics, especially those in the US, is how to rise above the problems of the multitude and not simply mirror them in our personal spiritual life.

America was once the leader in fairness in the market place. We believed that anyone could be successful if they worked hard enough and offered a good product. Craftsmanship was valued for its own sake, and innovation and inventiveness were the driving ideals. Now, profitability is all that matters. But, as the saying goes, not everything that counts can be counted. The same applies in our personal lives: have we become too busy to keep God first?

What made America great was its belief in the individual, that people’s lives were not limited by the class they were born into. But whereas oppression can strengthen the social bonds among equals, individualism tends to shred them. Breaking out of the feudal past has led to unprecedented opportunities, and many have prospered, but unless everyone benefits, all will suffer. An economy has to be as concerned with the health of the society it lives in as much as it is with the lifestyle of those at the top.

Behind closed doors......

Calling ourselves spiritual does not make us so. Huston Smith said it best: “It’s not the altered states but the altered traits that are important.” What good does it do to have all these amazing experiences if our character remains the same? The push toward having actual spiritual experiences was a welcome relief from the moralistic dogmas of the past, but we must not neglect being moral. We cannot allow our sense of spiritual exceptionalism make us believe that we are too good to be good. And while sexual mores are important, they are essentially private, whereas honesty in business and compassion in the courts of law affect everyone – profoundly and immediately. What you do behind closed doors is your business, as long as it doesn’t entail screwing the public at large.

The more spiritual we get, the more we realize that we are no better than anyone else. Everyone matters. As soon as you believe that the world would be better off if this or that group would simply disappear, you’ve lost it. America was great because of the principles it was founded upon. Those principles are spiritual. To be “chosen” means that you have been given something to live up to, not a license to do whatever you want.

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3 Responses to American Exceptionalism

  1. Mary Ann Fry says:

    Fabulous. Thank you.

  2. Hamid Emami says:

    The term ‘American exceptionalism’ conjures up images of the horrors of Nazi-Germany in the minds of those who are familiar with the history of the years from 1933-1945. Hitler’s “Weltanschauung” (world view) was based on two pillars: 1.) that Jews were responsible for all evil in the world in general, and for Germany’s economic and political woes in particular; and 2.) that the Aryan race (mainly Germans), as the most superior, was entitled to more “Lebensraum” (living space) than was provided it by its national borders at the time.

    What followed shouldn’t have surprised anyone; not only because of its inescapable logic but also because he had written it down in a book “Mein Kampf” (my struggle) while in jail in the 1920s: a campaign to exterminate all Jews and a war to acquire that rightfully owed living space.

    An ‘ism’ has roots, functions and forms of manifestation. To add that suffix to the notion that America and, by extension, Americans are special, invites pride in being an American solely on the basis of your place of birth (Romans, 2000 years ago, said with the same pride “civis romanus sum”, I am a Roman citizen).

    This kind of national pride is the starting point of a very slippery slope. Because if you are exceptional it means that someone else is less so (unless you agree with that appeasing mom who said “all children are above average”). And if you can be convinced that someone is less exceptional than you, it is so much easier to conclude that you are better (“superior”) than he or she. And if you can be convinced that someone is inferior to you, it is so much easier to de-humanize him or her. And if you do enough of that, it is so much easier to kill and to exterminate.

    National pride is the cheapest form of pride. Let’s replace the word pride with love – and we have something: patriotism. Let’s love America and Americans, and let’s be proud of being a good father or wife, growing beautiful roses in our back yard, getting a raise at work or earning a big commission etc.

    • Very nicely put, Hamid. Loving one’s country and being proud of one’s country do not necessarily go together, and yet they are so often taken to mean the same thing. The worst thing we can do, socially speaking, is to mistake pride for principle. I am very much a lover of the spiritual principles that undergird our Constitution – our triune form of government, the rule of law, equality – though it has taken 200 years to live up to those principles. We still have a long way to go. But at least we claim them as our national true north. But while people are equal in the eyes of God, their ideas are not. Some are clearly better than others. And I think the American Idea is a great one, experimental as it might be. It’s a shame that it has been co-opted by the moneychangers. It’s even more of a shame that we have let ourselves become distracted by the trivial, the vain, and the contentious, while the values we idealize die a slow death in the shadows. Incidentally, Germany has recently surpassed us in the moral backbone department by taking a firm stand against Google and Facebook on Internet privacy issues, and Europe as a whole is far more conscientious about the perils of GMOs. Americans, as the lead-off graphic of this articles suggests, can see no higher than their pocketbook. It’s too bad. Good for Wal-Mart, though.

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