July 4th Macy's fireworks on the Hudson - Image courtesy of John Dalton (http://bit.ly/1qrnKum)

July 4th Macy’s fireworks on the Hudson – Image courtesy of John Dalton (http://bit.ly/1qrnKum)

This July 4th, like every other I remember, I’m going to a birthday party for a nation. But what makes this party unique from others is that the birthday girl—America—thinks she’s the fairest of them all. According to a 2013 Rasmussen poll, 59 percent of likely U.S. voters believe the United States is more exceptional than other nations. Just 27 percent disagree.

“On the Fourth of July, we don’t only celebrate the birth of our nation,” writes conservative columnists Ken Blackwell and Ken Klukowski. “We celebrate American exceptionalism—everything that makes the United States the greatest nation on earth.”

The term “American exceptionalism” is not a new one; it’s often traced back to Alexis de Tocqueville and the belief that our economic underpinnings were extraordinary. In recent years, however, the term has grown and evolved as American politicians have trumpeted it with increasing frequency. But is America better than other nations, and if so, is it something Christians should shout from their star-spangled rooftops?

AMERICA, THE GREAT
America is the most charitable country in the world. Each year, Americans voluntarily donate hundreds of billions of dollars to churches, non-profits and humanitarian agencies. We are one of the freest countries in the world. Americans can worship whatever god they choose whenever they choose, and no one here can force his wife to cover her face in public. Many living conditions are better in America than elsewhere. Unlike much of the world, clean water is a readily available commodity and the average wage is much higher than most of the world.

America is great. In our sinew and our spirit, we are a great people living in a great nation. That’s why countries look to us when drafting constitutions and forming governments. That’s why we spend so much time debating immigration, not emigration. This is a wonderful place to live, and many citizens of other nations are clamoring to come here while our citizens largely stay put.

The politically correct police might have us believe all countries are exceptional in their own way, but such assertions are thin and meaningless. They’re reminiscent of a scene from “The Incredibles” in which the mother says, “Everyone’s special” and the son replies, “Which is another way of saying no one is.”

EXCEPTIONALISM IS BAD THEOLOGY
Even though I believe America is exceptional, I am not an “American exceptionalist.” Why? Because the former is rooted in objective facts and the latter is built upon bad theology and is counterproductive.

“[Exceptionalism] has been adopted by the right to mean that America, alone among the nations, is beloved of God,” writes Richard Cohen of The Washington Post.

Many conservative Christians have long held that America has somehow achieved special standing with God. Working on a fundamental belief that obedience to God brings blessings and disobedience brings curses, these thinkers believe we’ve earned God’s blessings through historical obedience. This is rooted in several false beliefs, such as America being founded as a “sacred Christian nation” and the misapplication of Biblical passages addressing Israel to America.

Just as the America-is-a-dime-a-dozen paradigm falls flat in the face of facts, neither do these beliefs stand up to historical and hermeneutical scrutiny. As former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson points out in his book, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, the biggest problem of the religious right is not tonal or strategic, but theological.

This theology has many effects, most of them advantageous only for exceptionalist politicians. It keeps their detractors from saying “boo” about anything America does unless they want to be labeled “unpatriotic,” or worse, “ungodly.” After all, what God has built up, humans should not tinker with.

I love America, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else. But I also recognize the many difficulties in our country that aren’t so exceptional. We maintain a relatively high murder rate for an industrialized nation, and we have a high rate of prisoner execution. Our educational system is failing to compete with other nations, and continues to work against disadvantaged children in poor communities. An ideology that is constantly used as a tool to quiet those who want to deal honestly with our problems is a broken one.

UNMERITED FAVOR
The difference in believing America is exceptional and American exceptionalism is significant. Believing America is exceptional recognizes our blessings—like every good and perfect gift—come from God. It emphasizes God’s grace rather than America’s greatness. The latter assumes our nation has claimed favored status with God and often yields a don’t-you-wish-you-were-like-us attitude.

Why is this important? Accepting that America is exceptional due to God’s unmerited favor breeds the virtues of gratitude and humility. But a belief that America is the recipient of divine favoritism, on the other hand, breeds arrogance and triumphalism—an arrogance that robs one of any claims to being truly exceptional.

This July 4th, celebrate with gratitude, not with boastful entitlement. Let’s light fireworks, gather our friends and family, throw hot dogs on the grill. And most importantly, let’s bow our heads in humble gratitude to the grace-giver.

*AUTHOR’S NOTE: A version of this article first appeared in Relevant Magazine.*

44 Comments

  1. As much as we love our country, it will be no more when Jesus returns in glory. All the saints hailing from all the nations will be one. Good eschatology reminds us that our nation is a temporary reality, subordinate to an infinitely greater eternal reality.

    • After Jesus returns and the destruction of man’s governments takes place (Daniel 2:44), along with man’s corrupt systems (political, economic and religious), and God, the Father of Jesus, is a victor in the war of Armageddon against all his enemies, then Jesus’ millenial rule will take place from God’s kingdom or heavenly government.

      Jesus, as King, along with 144,000 co-rulers (Revelation 14:15; 20:4-6) will rule over all nations of the earth (Isaiah 11:1-10) and bring true peace and security to all meek mankind, along with many more blessings (Psalm 37:10,11; Revelation 21:1-4).

      Then will be fulfilled what is said in the model prayer that Jesus provided to us: “Let your Kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth” (Matthew 6:10). Mankind will have the privilege and blessing from God to live forever on a paradise earth.

        • @Gregory,

          The time to believe in something is when the evidence is clearly in front of you. Not sooner.

          The immoral, corrupting, primitive nonsense of Eschatological Armageddon is one of the worst, most destructive and nihilistic ideas ever created by mankind.

          Only the depravity of the religious could come up with such pathetic, destructive horror of Armageddon and the incoherent babble which surrounds its arguments.

          It is Despicable and immoral beyond all comprehension. Go ahead – Believe in killing all those innocent people for your personal benefit if you want to – it makes me sick – but keep your disgusting nonsense to yourself!

          Don’t call it ‘piety’! Don’t call it decent!
          Your religion is anti-human!
          Good grief!

  2. Two words: nailed it.

    Ok, more words: I was going to say I think of grilling out and enjoying a craft beverage with friends and family as we celebrate the collective choice for more liberty over more tyranny. I am reminded of certain words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, “The goal of America is freedom.” May we always choose more liberty and celebrate whenever it has broken free from that which enslaves.

  3. Michael Glass

    There is some truth in the statement that America is exceptional.

    *It has an exceptionally high murder rate, thanks to its gun culture and its Second Amendment.
    *It has a high rate of executions.
    *It stick to its customary weights and measures when most of the rest of the world has switched to the metric system.
    *It has a high infant death rate and a comparatively low life expectancy for a developed country.
    *It has a much higher rate of infant male circumcision than other advanced countries
    *It is more religious than other advanced countries (though this may be changing).
    *It is more powerful than other countries (though this appears to be changing).

    On the other hand, it is much the same as comparable countries in such things as:
    * Women’s rights
    * Opposition to female genital cutting
    * Rights for gays and lesbians
    * Uptake of new technology

    So America is both like and unlike other countries. This is not as exceptional as some would like or as unexceptional as others might prefer.

    • Oh my God! We don’t have the metric system! How rude of us.

      High infant death rate is due to taking in large numbers of immigrants who enter the country.

      Circumcision! The horror!

      • @Gregory,

        WHAT !!!!!!!!!??????

        Your sadism is shocking – I can barely keep up with your depravities.
        You say sarcastically, “Circumcision! The horror!”

        Gregory – let me educate your religion-marinated-addled old mind.

        The Clitoris is the sex organ of the woman.
        You SUPPORT THAT THESE CLITORI BE chopped off – removing them from little baby girls who have done nothing to you !?

        You don’t mind seeing little baby girls die of this infectious and painful procedure?

        You don’t mind destroying the sex life of a woman permanently by ripping off her clitoris in the name of god?

        You don’t mind inflicting THIS LIFELONG AGONY
        on millions of innocent baby infant girls
        WHICH IS A WORSE PUNISHMENT
        THAN YOU WOULD TREAT A COMMON SEX OFFENDER ???
        REMOVAL OF THE SEX ORGAN !!!!

        MILLIONS OF WOMEN SHOULD READ YOUR CRUELTY
        AND PONDER THE BOYS LIKE YOU WHO THEY RAISE WITHIN THEIR RELIGION!!!

        Simply shocking!

        Thousands of young girls die of genital circumcision, their little infant bodies are considered imperfect in the eyes of God
        and so a religious priest or Imam cuts off their clitoris.

        Shame on you!

        • Circumcision is done to males, not females. The abomination performed on females has been misnamed “female circumcision” in an attempt to whitewash it. Male circumcision, when correctly performed (as it is almost without exception in the U.S.), has extremely rare side effects, lowers the rate of STDs and penile cancer, and does not hinder sexual performance.

          • @Kelvin Smith,

            What gives you the right to do a completely needless and potentially deadly procedure on any child, male or female?

            If a man wants a circumcision when he grows up to protect him from certain things that is his business – NOT YOURS or the parents!

            Despicable.

            Why not cut off the feet to prevent fungal infections too?
            Disgusting logic of the religious.

          • @Kelvin Smith,

            Besides – what problem could a person such as yourself have with female circumcision? God demands it – so it must be good – correct?

            Oh, but you are not a Muslim? Why would that matter?

            “Faith” is still the operative nonsense!

          • Michael Glass

            Male circumcision is supposed to protect people against a host of illnesses, but the United States has a higher rate of HIV infections and a lower male life expectancy than many countries where circumcision is uncommon.

            I wrote was that male circumcision was more common than in most other advanced countries. That is simply a statement of fact; it is neither praise nor condemnation.

      • Only the religious could come up with something so offensive as the routine destruction of women’s bodies.

        Religion must die – or it will kill us all.
        Abandon this cancerous nonsense.

          • Wrong. Religion is Totalitarianism.
            Your usual suspects are Straw-men and NOT examples of Atheism:

            Stalin was a self-appointed intermediary (CZAR) between God and the religion of the state. He demanded FAITH in that religion including the miracles of Lysenko, or death.
            That is not Atheism – it is FAITH.

            Pol Pot was a Theravada Buddhist who ‘divined supernatural heaven’ of which he appointed himself leader and demanded allegiance as head of the religion of the state of Cambodia. He was against all education and science. What Atheist ever did that?
            That is not Atheism – it is FAITH.

            Hitler and his SS were sworn Catholics and Christians, hailed allegiance to the Fuhrer (father) under ‘God’, demanded faith in the divinity of the Aryan Race and demanded each Nazi wore the belt buckle which read ‘God on our side’ (“Gott Mit Uns”) or God With Us. Hitler’s first peace treaty was the Vatican Koncordat in 1933 where the church swore allegiance to Hitler and Hitler would choose the Bishops for Germany.
            Hitler’s hatred of Jews was founded on the writings of Martin Luther, he declared Christ ‘his model of the great soldier’ fighting against the evil of the Jews. (Mein Kampf) His favorite words of Jesus ended the Parable of the Minas; “Execute them in front of me.” – Jesus(Luke 19:27)
            That is not Atheism – it is FAITH.

            Emperor Hirohito, was the cult of the sun god – the sacrificial Kamikazes and the holy war of ‘sacred’ Japan joining the Axis Powers against the infidel America.
            That is not Atheism – it is FAITH

            North Korea is the most religious country on earth.
            Its current leader had a supernatural birth where the birds sang in Korean. All of the subjects must worship the Dear Leader who has supernatural powers or be executed.
            That is not Atheism – it is FAITH.

            However, there is no FAITH in the United States Constitution which remains the only godless constitution in the world.

            You show me an example where the non-religious
            democratic ideals of Benjamin Franklin,
            Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine,
            Voltaire and Lucretius spiraled into torture,
            brutality and dictatorship
            and ONLY THEN will we have a level playing field.

            Don’t slander Atheism.
            Disgrace is for the credulous, gullible faith-based nonsense
            which repeatedly spirals into human misery; The claims of the god-fearers and the obedient. Shameful abjection.

            Religion is a disgrace.

  4. The title of this piece…oh my.

    Yes christians, apparently you even get somthing simple like a national holiday “wrong”. And here is a know it all atheist born in the late 80s willing to tell you how.

  5. Very well done. Strikes a great balance between American exceptionalism and American awfulism. A kind of Anglican “via media” if you will.

    Which, of course, is guaranteed to piss both sides of. :-) Enjoy your 4th!

  6. “America is the most charitable country in the world. Each year, Americans voluntarily donate hundreds of billions of dollars to churches, non-profits and humanitarian agencies. We are one of the freest countries in the world. Americans can worship whatever god they choose whenever they choose, and no one here can force his wife to cover her face in public. Many living conditions are better in America than elsewhere. Unlike much of the world, clean water is a readily available commodity and the average wage is much higher than most of the world.”

    That depends which apples are being compared with other fruit. Scandinavia has a considerable higher standard of living than the U.S., Australasians are far more generous per capita than U.S. citizens and most other countries are free to worship whatever god they choose, it’s just that their god isn’t themselves.
    Contrary to the belief of many in the U.S., the average world citizens idea of a wonderful life is not getting a green card. The world is a big diverse place and pockets of tranquillity, prosperity and happiness are dotted all about, not just in the land of the sort of free (but subjected to a fair bit of propaganda) ;)

    • @A Smythe

      You are so right.

      As the article claims…”Each year, Americans voluntarily donate hundreds of billions of dollars to churches, non-profits and humanitarian agencies”

      Churches work tirelessly AGAINST humanity.
      Humanitarian non-religious groups like “Doctors Without Borders”
      have been effective IN SPITE OF the religions
      which infect the world at large.

      Meanwhile, the American policies in the Middle East
      and in South America have all been self-serving disasters
      and continuing burden on people worldwide.

      Worst of all, our abandonment of science
      in favor of Christian Bunk has permanently set us back as a leader in reason and practicality.

      We have become a more dangerous, more insecure and more foolish country
      thanks to religion.

      • Oh well I know the effects of those billions of donated money. Much of it ends up in the pockets of missions that harbor paedophiles, who rape, beat and molest the children of their fellow missionaries.
        And like blow flies are drawn to dung, the paedophiles find the conditions exactly to their liking, far away from any normal scrutiny. Where they can be the big white man, adored by sycophantic folks back home who just keep sending the money to fund it all.

        I know, I was one of the many victims and the churches don’t give a stuff, they just keep sending the money to ease their collective guilt.

  7. Tom Marshall

    Some countries claim God is behind them and others do not. Those who do use it as a basis for good or a justification for bad. Then there are those who do not, like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, or choose a more recent example that might be in the news, and I wonder which belief or nonbelief system is better. Personally, someone who believes in all people having value and a concern for the other person gets my support.

    A famous king once spoke about a season or time for everything under the sun. He understood this because he was an observer of the human condition. After studying history and the Bible I have learned that countries come and countries go because the people within those countries shift from gratitude to self-adulation. For some countries it may be a few hundred years, and for others a thousand like Rome, but the day will come because of the human condition.

    Jonathan is accurate in stating we should be grateful. Whether a nation claims God’s blessing or their own sheer determination, the nation will one day cease to exist because God brought it about, or if you are atheist, because nothing lasts forever. There is a season for everything. I think it’s time for a cold drink and a hotdog. Happy 4th.

    • @Tom Marshall,

      Well said, sir.

      “the day will come because of the human condition.”

      Our best defense is the US Constitution and its wise clauses.
      May that document be the law of our land forever.

      No other document in history protects humans from other humans with more insight and that is what I celebrate each independence day.

      THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION
      GOVERNMENT FOR, OF AND BY THE PEOPLE

      Not the flag.
      NEVER, EVER GOD!

  8. Jonathon, I am so grateful that I ran across your blog during the Southern Baptist Convention last year- a post about the Boy Scouts. Today, as many other days, your words hit home, exactly where I needed them. I have been struggling this Fourth. As I have opened my heart to the rest of the world, as I have realized that my life here is not necessarily a sign of God blessing me over other peoples, I have not known how to reconcile America and faith. I have attempted to communicate my struggle and fallen flat over and over. Your words not only answered my struggle but gave me freedom to celebrate the evening with joy. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I so appreciate the work you do. And that email I owe you about how your book impacted me is still in the works. :)

  9. I strongly disagree with the premise that “American exceptionalism” is based on economics. Rather, it is based on its political formation, and the fact that the United States is not defined by a tribal grouping or a location so much as by the political ideals enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. While there are economic aspects to the founding, the fundamental issues are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” “deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed,” “a republican form of government,” separation of powers/checks and balances, etc. The U.S. was the first country to define itself in this way, and maintains the longest-lasting constitutional form of government in the world.

    I don’t think Richard Cohen is a reliable guide to what Christians or conservative political thinkers believe. I don’t think any of them would say that America is the only nation that is beloved by God. Some might well say that it is uniquely beloved, signifying a different type or amount of divine favor, but not that others are uniformly rejected by God. The point is still arguable, but Cohen’s formulation is a straw man.

  10. Jonathan, American exceptionalism is just a modern version of “British Israelism,” also known as “Spiritual Israelism.” I learned about it when studying Pentecostal history in college because it’s the heresy Charles Parham bought into.

  11. “What many Christians get wrong on July 4th” is the same thing they get wrong on every other day of the year, they don’t think for themselves.
    They blindly follow leaders who look good or sound good and never question the validity of what they are hearing. And so the gullible swallow hook, line and sinker any old religious rubbish they hear and with their religious consciences appeased, but their brain in neutral and coast down the highway of life.

  12. Nanabedokw'môlsem

    It is well to remember that in World War II and earlier, German soldiers served wearing belt buckles that proclaimed, “Gott mit uns,” with some millions of the same likely taking that to be a statement of truth (at least until 1943 at Stalingrad).

    It is not always mentally healthy to assert that God is on ones side, and politically it reeks of arrogance and narcissism. Whatever happened to the concept of becoming modesty? Better to have a friend think more highly of one than one claims for oneself.

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