Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bad Theology: On American Exceptionalism

Over at the Washington Post, there is an essay on American Exceptionalism and the Republican capitalization of it:
"The nation's ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire," wrote the late political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the leading scholars of the subject.
Indeed, exceptionalism has often been employed to explain "why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party," Lipset wrote.
The proposition of American exceptionalism, which goes at least as far back as the writing of French aristocrat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, asserts that this country has a unique character.
It is also rooted in religious belief. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: "God has granted America a special role in human history."
Gingrich says Obama fails to understand that "American exceptionalism refers directly to the grant of rights asserted in the Declaration of Independence," and that it is a term "which relates directly to our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God."
I believe there is something to be said for a form of 'limited' American exceptionalism. I am willing to grant that America is not just subjectively one of the best nations but objectively has granted the most amounts of freedoms to its people. It has led the way in many fields, not least the promotion of democracy but also science and innovation because of its free market ideals among other things. This is not to say we can "go it alone" or that we should not engage a globalized world. This is to say America has a uniqueness amongst nations of the last two centuries. While we have commonalities with other democratic nations, there is something that has been embedded since our founding. It is something that I think should be in its own form embedded in other nations. I think other nations can and should aspire to this ideal of granting the liberty of a democratic republic to their people.

That said: I deplore the notion that we are "unique to God's history." Quite frankly, if as American we rejected the divine right of kings, then we should reject the divine right of nations, particularly as it pertains to us.

(1) Americans can't even agree on who God is--nor should we pretend that we have some common creed. 'God' is cannot be a generic noun with which we fill whatever we want into it.

(2) Nationalism should not and must not be routed in civil religion.

(3) When we start thinking we have a 'special role in God's history' --we make America take on a sort of Messianic quality. Theologically only Israel and the church as the 'people of God' fulfill this character and only then because of their union with the Messiah.

(4) I agree that our rights are granted by God. Human beings are made in God's image--but let's not replace that with a notion that we are special because we've found it. I think most of us are going to be shocked at the judgement that God will have for us because of our American sins.

(5) While there are something that we can look at in history and say that America was uniquely suited and raised up to do something and that something was infallibly part of God's plan--God has done that with nations since the dawn of time, and he is doing it throughout the world. We are no more important in God's sovereign plan than anybody else. There is nothing exceptional about us before God.

(6) This notion of God's blessing in our 'American Exceptionalism' becomes theological Pelagianism applied to the national politic and human history. God blessed us because of who we made ourselves. We acknowledged Him and therefore He granted us pride of place. It is offense to anyone with a Biblical doctrine of sin and the gospel.

(7) America's pride in her exceptionalism will be her undoing. Mounting this pride and excusing because we see ourselves as uniquely 'under God' puts us at odds with the character of God who cherishes humility.

All that said: I am proud to be an American. I am grateful to God for privileges he has afforded me as an American and even through being an American. But let's not mix the kingdom of man with the kingdom of God. The right doesn't like it when the left does it in their economic and socialistic policies, but shame of the right for doing the same thing with American Exceptionalism.

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