Vail Daily column: What’s America’s exceptional trait? |

Vail Daily column: What’s America’s exceptional trait?

Jack Van Ens

Every person possesses inherent dignity. Our republic stands on this revolutionary principle. This is our nation’s exceptional trait because it shapes the American dream.

Working through natural laws, God gave this gift to each person. Reflecting on Earth’s creation, a Jewish poet anticipated America’s exceptional trait, declaring, “God said, ‘Let us make man (humankind) in our image.’” (Genesis 1:26) God bestows on us inherent worth, a precious quality.

Having this exceptional trait conferred on us, we pursue the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Such work widens the circle of common good for all.

Patriots saluted Old Glory after the Revolutionary War, defining our nation by a new narrative. In previous centuries, Europeans assumed their identity was determined by their rank on the social ladder or the amount of property they owned.

In contrast, patriots felt in their bones that America possessed an unusual identity. It was rooted in personal self-worth rather than worth determined by familial heritage or property owned.

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Nebraska’s Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, former president at Nebraska’s Midland University and holder of a history doctorate from Yale, insists that defining citizens by self-worth is our national unofficial creed. “We aren’t a nation rooted in blood. We aren’t a nation based on ethnicity. … America was an idea that was about something much bigger than what tribe you came from,” he said.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln affirmed America’s exceptional trait. One month prior to signing the Emancipation Proclamation, which recognized slaves as persons rather than property, Lincoln sent his Annual Message to Congress on Dec. 1, 1862.

He identified the United States as “the last best hope of earth.” Lincoln exuded confidence in America’s exceptionalism that stretched our global influence as the “world’s best hope” for promoting and preserving personal dignity

Unfortunately, such hope is frequently splintered and this exceptional trait corrupted when personal worth is based on wealth, family status or national superiority measured by military might. Such hope shrinks when politicians say that our nation’s No. 1 obligation is to take care of itself first.

Many Americans mistakenly believe the American dream consists of owning more than previous generations and regarding prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing. Our president and Prosperity Gospel evangelists assure us that God’s benefits are golden.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Roman Catholic commentator Peggy Noonan shatters this heresy that affirms America is great because of its assets. She corrects fake news about American exceptionalism. “But the American dream was not about material things — houses, cars, a guarantee of future increase. That’s the construction we put on it now. It’s wrong. A big house could be the product of the dream, if that’s what you wanted, but the house itself was not the dream.

“You could, acting on your vision of the dream, read, learn, hold a modest job and rent a home, but at town council meetings, you could stand, lead with wisdom and knowledge and become a figure of local respect. Maybe the respect was your dream” (The Wall Street Journal, “What became of the American Dream?” April 8-9, 2017, p. A13).

Our nation observes Flag Day in mid-June. It’s time we raise Old Glory to wave over our nation, proclaiming a narrative that bequeaths hope and dignity to each citizen. We are not defined by our bank accounts or lineage. We are precious to God and worthy as citizens in a world of alliances that foster common good.

Preserve and promote this national trait that confers exceptional dignity on each person. Such acts make America great again as the “world’s best hope.”

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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