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Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Who’s exceptional?

Jack R. Van Ens
Vail, CO, Colorado

What’s “American exceptionalism?” Where does this praise for America’s strengths originate?

Puritans who settled Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Company believed their journey to the New World was a noble experiment. Divine destiny, they confessed, propelled it forward. Their Puritan pastor in England, John Cotton, bid them traveling mercies in a farewell sermon delivered in 1630 at Southampton’s port. He identified these travelers with God’s Israelites who sojourned to the Promised Land long ago. Cotton reminded his people of their exceptional character and charter for freedom.

In his sermon “God’s Promise to the Plantation,” Cotton preached from a text in which God speaks directly to the Israelites, as Cotton did to the Puritans. “I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and I will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more” (II Samuel 7:10).



Historian Sara Vowell disavows this divine insistence that the Puritans, similar to biblical Israel, are a cut above other nations, like filet mignon is superior to a shank roast. “The Old Testament Israelites are to the Puritans what the blues was to the Rolling Stones — a source of inspiration, a renewable resource of riffs. What Cotton is telling them is that, like the Old Testament Jews, they are men of destiny. And, like the Old Testament Jews, God has given them a new home, a promised land. And, like the Old Testament Jews, God has printed eviction notices for them to tack up on the homes of the nothing-special, just folks-folks who are squatting there” (The Wordy Shipmates, p. 2).

Dripping with such sarcastic insights, Vowell irks conservative pundits. She denies Puritans their special status as God’s favored few. Conservatives remind Vowell what they claim history makes clear. The ancient Jews defeated their enemies in the Promised Land, just as Puritans triumphed in the New World over Native Americans.



Today, some Americans use similar phrases with biblical overtones to indicate America’s superiority. They identify our nation as “God’s chosen people, whose citizens are His elect children.” Some invoke Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, as did President Ronald Reagan when he added the adjective “shining,” noting how our nation basks as “city on a hill” for all the world to see U.S. exceptional strengths.

Other politicians assert the U.S. is the “last best hope of Earth.” We stand head and shoulders above other countries as the “leader of the free world.” They claim we are the “indispensable nation” God uses to spread liberty worldwide.

President Barack Obama objects to this false theology that conservative talk show hosts parrot. In April 2009, the president attended in Strasbourg NATO’s 60th anniversary. He answered a question about whether he believed in “American exceptionalism” that assumes our nation is “uniquely qualified to lead the world.”



Without resorting to circumspect language or jingoistic hooey, President Obama answered, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” He didn’t bluster that America is always right. Better that “all have to compromise, and that includes us,” he concluded.

Conservative commentators told the president to park such unpatriotic drivel in the cavity where we stuff turkey dressing.

Shelby Steele, senior fellow at Stanford University’s right-wing Hoover Institute, fumed in an editorial, “Obama and the Burden of Exceptionalism” (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 1, 2011, p. A17) how “Once in office his ‘hope and change’ campaign slogan came to look like the ‘hope’ of overcoming American exceptionalism and ‘change’ away from it.”

President Obama joins Thomas Jefferson in correcting the habit of giving divine sanction to U.S. policy.

Closing his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1805, Jefferson saw our nation reflecting ancient Israel’s status in a new light. “I shall need, too,” Jefferson humbly admitted, “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power.”

Then Jefferson showed how great bounty demands exceptional responsibilities and solemn obligations: “I ask you to join with me in supplications, that He (God) will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.”

No national chest thumping. No militaristic hubris. No exceptionalism defined by superiority.

At our Thanksgiving tables let’s offer gratitude to God who elects people from many nations — ours included — who pursue justice, aid the helpless and strive for peace in exceptional ways.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores.


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