Vail Daily column: Taking exception to ‘American exceptionalism’

Jack Van Ens
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Jack Van Ens

Russian President Vladimir Putin questions America’s insistence on its exceptional character. In a Sept. 11 New York Times opinion piece, Putin resented Barack Obama’s nationally televised speech earlier this month. The president mentioned American exceptionalism at the end of his talk as a reason the U.S. should militarily strike Syria’s chemical weapons dumps if diplomatic overtures fail.

Putin fired back, “ … I would rather disagree with a case (President Obama) made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is ‘what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.’”

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” cautioned Putin. “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Using “exceptional” to describe our nation, President Obama saluted the U.S. as the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. This marks an extraordinary achievement.

Unfortunately, the expression “American exceptionalism” has become synonymous with “national superiority.” Putin’s wrong when indicting our president for promoting this meaning. President Obama rejects the notion that God especially favors the U.S. and authorizes us to act like a global cop.

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Unfortunately, this is how some past presidents expressed America’s exceptional heritage. They assumed God preferred the U.S.’s national mission to spread world-wide Judeo-Christian morality. Ronald Reagan reminded listeners of “some divine plan” that gave the U.S. special status. Reagan promoted American exceptionalism, quoting Pope Pius XII who declared, “Into the hands of America, God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.”

George W. Bush uttered similar sentiments about favored national status in 2004, “We have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom.”

Historian Bernard A. Weisberger, former editor of American Heritage Magazine, warns against this “kind of nationalism-on-steroids that carries with it imperial swagger, the itch to crush dissent at home, and a defiant statement to the world that we’re free to ignore what Jefferson called ‘a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.’ Rebranded as ‘Manifest Destiny,’ it was used to justify unnecessary invasions of Canada and Mexico, the eventual establishment of colonies in the Pacific and a period as the de facto suzerain (indirect controller) over the weak governments of the Latin American nations of this hemisphere.”

Obama, however, wasn’t bragging the U.S. is a cut above other nations. The president found our enduring constitutional democracy exceptional. Why? People were granted the power to create government through voting, rather than allowing monarchs and aristocrats to call the shots.

In April 2009 at Strasbourg, while celebrating NATO’S 60th anniversary, President Obama responded to a question about whether the U.S. is “uniquely qualified to lead the world.” “I believe in American exceptionalism,” answered the president, “just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” We’re not always going to be right, he added, “all have to compromise and that includes us.”

The Bible points to a beneficial version of national exceptionalism and cautions against distorting it. God selected the ancient Hebrew nation as a funnel through whom he poured goodwill to the world. Repeatedly, the Hebrews misconstrued this special selection as a sign of superior status. They acted as if God elected them for premier status rather than as the world’s servant nation.

The president recently endorsed this “servant nation” theme: “Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional,” President Obama told world leaders at the annual meeting of the U.S. General Assembly on Sept. 24. “In part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.”

For centuries, ancient Hebrews believed they were God’s chosen few. After the Babylonians sent a Jewish remnant into exile, Persian King Cyrus, the ultimate outsider to the Jews, rescued them. He allowed them to return to their homeland to rebuild Jerusalem and erect a new temple. This gentile Persian King Cyrus unwittingly became God’s instrument.

Hebrew prophetic literature includes this startling declaration: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nation’s before him” (Isaiah 45:1). Outsider Cyrus acts as God’s agent on behalf of Jewish insiders.

Ironic, isn’t it, how history shows another outsider, Vladimir Putin, questioning American exceptionalism? Perhaps God speaks through Vladimir Putin to blunt an aggressive, threatening, ill-conceived version of American exceptionalism.

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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