Is America exceptional and perhaps even divinely ordained for peculiar purposes? Across four centuries, many Americans across the political spectrum have thought so. In the last decade, many on the Left have denounced this notion for supposedly fueling America's aggressive War on Terror.
Conservative author and King's College President Dinesh D'Souza debated American Exceptionalism with long-time Religious Left activist Jim Wallis on April 7 at Grove City College, a private Christian liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. An immigrant from India, D'Souza sees America's specialness as obvious. An old-time street demonstrator against the Vietnam War, Wallis predictably sees Exceptionalism as a pretext for U.S. imperialism.
Several times citing his own current Lenten fast against proposed Republican federal budget cuts, Wallis extolled "God bless the world" over "God bless America." The only "documented" exceptional nation was ancient Israel, he insisted, noting that Jesus "shattered all nationalistic expectations." Christians must prioritize The Church over nation, Wallis said, and they should acknowledge that all nations l have access to God.
"There is no divine mandate for American Exceptionalism," Wallis declared, denouncing nationalism as "idolatry." He professed his own love for America's geographic beauty, "diverse" cultures, food and "values." But he lamented: "I don't love when we violate those values…acting like an empire." And he regretted that many Americans advocate a "kind of exceptionalism" that creates "self-delusion" and "disasters."
In Wallis's caricature of American Exceptionalism, "it's wrong to torture, except for America, it's wrong to discharge nuclear weapons, except for America, it's wrong to violate Just War, except for America." Such exceptionalism generates "entitlement," "self-importance," and "pride." America is "blessed" by geography and history but "not for exceptional geopolitical privilege."
Responding to Wallis, D'Souza recalled his visiting Indian mother's surprise about "adopt a highway" signs in America, befuddled by America's renowned affinity for volunteerism and associations. D'Souza also noted that immigrants to India may eventually become Indian citizens but they will never become Indians in the sense that immigrants to America may become Americans. America's founding Christian principles transferred the divine right of kings to the divine right of the people. They also elevated historically despised commercial trade to a sacred calling, creating an unashamed "entrepreneurial society." America's victories in World War II and the Cold War created a world "globally integrated by trade." The result has been tens of millions of Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, Indonesians and others translating their chronic poverty into middle class status, in the "greatest anti-poverty program ever known."
"We should be jubilant," D'Souza announced about the triumph of American free trade. "American foreign policy has made the world much better." America has uniquely sought both self-interest and global improvement, from which much of the world has gained. American ideas about "self-determination" are now influencing the Middle East, he noted. There will be no utopia, but American predominance in the world is infinitely better for the world than all the likely alternatives, such as Russia or China. "Thank God for America," D'Souza concluded.
Wallis countered that Christians outside the U.S. don't believe in American Exceptionalism. "We shouldn't think that we're better than everybody else," he intoned, citing American sins like racism and the need for social reform. D'Souza responded that reformers like the Civil Rights movement are themselves products of America's unique identity. Martin Luther King appealed to Thomas Jefferson's declaration about human equality.
Citing the usual historical litany of U.S. interference in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, Wallis complained of America's overthrow of "elected governments" and recalled nuns raped in El Salvador by America's ostensible friends. D'Souza criticized Wallis's "Garden of Eden" standards and said America usually must choose between "bad and worse." Wallis hailed "youthful protesters" in Egypt who overthrew a U.S.-backed regime, while D'Souza reminded him of similar protesters who overthrew the Shah only to be murdered by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
D'Souza readily granted that American self-criticism is intrinsic to American democracy while warning against "self-flagellation." Wallis decried "powerful" corporate interests that manipulate U.S. foreign policy. D'Souza advocated a U.S. foreign policy guided not by "philanthropy" but enlightened self-interest. Wallis urged U.S. policies more purely guided by liberal humanitarianism.
Mostly D'Souza and Wallis seemed to talk past each other. D'Souza rightly insisted that America's self-understanding is uniquely based on the Declaration of Independence and by its entrepreneurial spirit of constant self-improvement. Wallis would not directly dispute this obvious point, instead insisting American Exceptionalism breeds arrogance, which Christians must denounce as sin.
Seemingly Wallis's 40 year campaign against America as global hegemon will not relent for a mere campus debate. America's history, religiosity, and unparalleled power make it indisputably unique. Many religious Americans for much of 400 years have understood their nation to have special responsibilities, which typically include service to God and humanity, not global conquest.
As a pacifist, Wallis doubtlessly views all of America's wars as sinful. And as D'Souza mentioned, Wallis's utopian vision is based on Eden before the Fall. But however implausible their expectations, religious utopians themselves are intrinsically part of America's special identity. And whether he admits it or not, Wallis's expectation of America to sacrifice itself for the world is deeply exceptionalist.
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