The Two American Exceptionalisms
It's always interesting to see what people learn from their experiences.
At the Republican National Convention last week, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shared a brief glimpse of what it was like to grow up in a deeply segregated Southern city before the Civil Rights movement...to be a child in a community where she couldn't go to a movie theater or most restaurants, or even eat a hamburger at Woolworth's.
Those experiences could have warped her for the rest of her life, but they didn't. Her parents, she says, taught her to look beyond the entrenched cruelties of her daily life to the wonderful possibilities available all around her in what was, for all its faults, "the most successful economic and political experiment in human history." Amid bigotry and segregation, Rice managed to hold on to a firm belief in American "exceptionalism." She grew up determined to be a part of uniting the people around her -- not dividing them, not hating them, not punishing them for her childhood sufferings.
All of which inspired her, during her speech, to make a remarkable -- but, sadly, not altogether accurate -- statement about America.
"Ours has never been a narrative of grievance and entitlement," Rice said. That may have been mostly true in the past. Today, though, she's painting with rather too broad a brush.
You can actually find a lot of both grievances and entitlement-thinking in America's courtrooms today. It's at the heart of attacks on everything from marriage to school vouchers, from public prayers to religious markers in government cemeteries.
Nearly all of these cases -- the kind that come across the Alliance Defending Freedom desks every day -- come down to tying the legal system in knots, rewriting (or ignoring) the Constitution, and trampling more than 200 years of American history and often thousands of years of accumulated wisdom...all in the interest of gratifying the personal vendetta someone has against religion.
It comes out in so many ways. In the determination of one atheist to get a nearly century-old cross removed from one rocky crag miles from the nearest highway in the middle of the Mojave Desert. In the efforts of a few tax-paying parents to outlaw school vouchers, lest other tax-paying parents have the option of seeking out better education opportunities for their children. In the panicky efforts of educators in schools nationwide to block any child or young person from saying a prayer, or singing a Christian song, or wearing a T-shirt with a Bible verse on campus.
It comes out, perhaps most of all, with those pressing the homosexual legal agenda. For these, it can never be enough that those whose personal or religious convictions disapprove of homosexual behavior leave those who practice such behavior to their privacy. Instead, in courts and legislatures coast to coast, those who disapprove are being told they have to approve, and approve out loud, and financially underwrite homosexual relationships -- that they must teach their children to embrace homosexual choices -- that the very laws and definitions of marriage that humans have practiced for millennia have to be revised or destroyed...
...all to accommodate the preferences and assuage the unquenchable "grievances and entitlements" of those who resent what the Bible says about homosexual behavior.
What we have in America today, in effect, are two kinds of "exceptionalism." One is the kind political candidates (conservative ones, at least) like to speak of, that recognizes the unusual blessings and opportunities that, up to now, have always been within reach of those blessed to be raised in this country.
And then there is the other kind -- the kind that says freedom is for every group "except this one." Or that "my group deserves exceptional latitude -- exceptional tolerance -- exceptional indulgence and promotion from the law and culture and community."
Ultimately, those two kinds of exceptionalism are mutually exclusive. Children growing up today amid that second kind are not learning, like Condoleezza Rice, that America is bigger than its bigotries and greater than our grievances. What they're learning is that "the squeaky wheel gets the grease."
And religious freedom gets the short end of the stick.
Alan Sears is a former federal prosecutor who held various posts in the Departments of Justice and the Interior during the Reagan administration. He is president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom (www.alliancedefendingfreedom.org), an alliance-building legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.