‘American Exceptionalism’ Under Attack

One thing that progressives and secular humanists have in common is their disdain for the belief in “American exceptionalism.” This belief has been fundamental to how Americans have viewed their country from the beginning. It is the belief that America’s role in the world is unique, idealistic, and constructive of a greater world good.

American leaders as different in their religious views as James Madison, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams all supported the inculcation of Judeo-Christian values by public education. In 1789, the day after the establishment of the 1st amendment, Congress passed a resolution calling for a day of national prayer. From the historical evidence it is clear that Jefferson’s “Wall of separation between Church and State” had a number of openings to allow Judeo-Christian moral instruction to pass through. Historian Paul Johnson stated it this way: “The Founding Fathers saw education and religion going hand in hand.” The Northwest Ordinance, which promoted the settlement of the frontier west, stated: “Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government… and the happiness of mankind… the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Those means throughout most of American history included moral training based upon Judeo-Christian sources.  From our beginning as a nation our leaders took note of the symbiotic relationship between religious faith and stable government. Washington wrote: “Of all the dispositions and habits which led to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports.”

But more than the recognition that the survival of a democratic society depends on a highly moral citizenry was the acceptance of the grander theme of “American exceptionalism.”  The earliest examples of this belief come from colonial times. John Winthrop’s use of Biblical language, promoting “…a city on a hill” that would provide and enlightened example for the world or William Penn’s “Holy experiment” in religious toleration acted out in Pennsylvania.

John Adams, America’s second president, linked the two beliefs together in writing: “One of the great advantages of the Christian religion is that it brings the great principles of the law of nature and nations, love your neighbor as yourself, and do to other as you would that others should do to you…” Even America’s most famous skeptic Thomas Jefferson said that America was “the world’s best hope” and during a very dark period of the American Civil War Lincoln used similar language saying that America was “the last best hope of the earth”. Modern Presidents like JFK and Ronald Reagan both promoted the theme of “American exceptionalism.” The belief in “American exceptionalism” played a key role in America’s struggle for independence.  On this topic Paul Johnson writes: “America had been founded primarily for religious purposes… There is no question that the Declaration of Independence was, to those who signed it, a religious as well as a secular act…”

“Progressives“ scoff at the notion of America as a Christian nation. In one sense they are correct. Faith and especially the Christian faith is a matter of individual choice. The great reformer Martin Luther said it best over 500 years ago, “As a man must die by himself, he must believe by himself.” Part of the belief in “American exceptionalism” means promoting religious toleration as well as all the other basic human rights that Americans believe in.

Christians are not a nation of believers, they are believers that inhabit many nations. But what is historically certain is the claim that the Judeo-Christian, moral-spiritual value system has been the basis of America’s, dominant culture from the beginning.

Starting in the 1960s, there began an ongoing attack on the belief that America has a special mission to perform in the world beyond a material or secular function. In the 60s and 70s America transitioned from the most admired country in the world to the most repudiated. The disaster we call Vietnam served to fuel an angry counterculture led by left-wing radicals.  The new radicals were hybrids, half Marxist, half hippie. These were the naïve Greta Thunbergs of the 60s and 70s whose utopian visions were boosted by LSD. Those who lived through this period can well remember the popularity of large wall-posters featuring Marx, Mao, Castro, and Che Guevara. The ideological pedigree of the left-wing movements of this period are even more certain. The “Black Panthers” were Marxist-Leninists, the “Weathermen” followed the teachings of Leon Trotsky, the “Free Speech “ movement found inspiration in Mao.

In their attack today “progressives,“ are still emphasizing a materialist agenda with big government as the only agent of change. “American exceptionalism” implies a purposeful creator and secular humanists flee from divine purpose as the ultimate outrage. The problem with downsizing America’s purpose and values is it leaves little scope for motivating a nation to resist hateful ideologies and authoritarian governments in the future. The leadership of totalitarian systems are full of implacable men who believe in implacable certitudes. Marxism and Nazism had no problem motivating millions of people to die for their cause. ISIS and the Taliban have no problem motivating suicide attacks. The English philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “Rationalism and anti-rationalism have existed side by side since the beginning of Greek civilization…” What this means for the future of the world is that there will always be challenges and revolts against the humane and civilized conduct of human life.  A civilization has to have something at its core to believe in beyond the mundane.

The “progressives” are busy chipping away at the confidence of a great nation to play a meaningful role in the future of the world and by undermining the belief in “American exceptionalism” they are leaving us with a superficial value system that can neither protect ourselves or improve the life of  the world.

William D. Howard is a freelance writer who had a long career as an educator. He holds degrees in philosophy and history and has traveled widely in over 40 countries.

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