By Nathan Schilt, 28 October 2019 | Recently I read with interest Lindsey Painter’s “Why I Reject American Exceptionalism.” Despite her deep concerns that history and current events portend a dystopic future for America, I continue to strongly believe in American exceptionalism, regardless of what political figures, parties, or ideologies seem to be in control of the various levers of government.
American exceptionalism cannot be defined simply by a snapshot of what historical myopia labels odious or unfair at a given point in time. Painter asked, “Is America still great in light of what’s happening on our southern border?” If one only sees America in the light of what some believe is happening at the southern border, of course the answer is no. But, the eye sees what the mind tells it to see.
It always strikes me as curious how “unacceptable” conditions, laws, and policies, which stayed largely out of sight when the Left was in charge, have become the object of moral high dudgeon and self-righteous hand-wringing now that Donald Trump is president. Has the moral calculus changed—or is there simply a flexible standard for moral outrage, depending on who is in power?
I have completely despaired of the possibility that the current occupant of the White House might, in his demeanor and rhetoric, someday rise to the level of his office. But America is so much more than Donald Trump. It is grounded in a rich, complex past—completely unique in world history. Terrific thinkers, from Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America) to Samuel Huntington (Who Are We?), call us to dig beneath the fleeting joys or frustrations of contemporary political and cultural battles if we would understand and appreciate the tapestry of which we are a part—a tapestry that has been woven largely, though often imperfectly, from the values of Western Civilization embedded in America’s founding documents, culture and legal principles.
To the past we owe debts that can never be repaid. And we keep faith with that past by stewarding a future to which we must bequeath the best of who we are and what we have inherited.
Painter writes that “[American exceptionalism] has become synonymous with the belief that America and the people living in America … are superior to other countries and the people living in them.” My conviction that America is the greatest country in the world—not having lived anywhere else—is not at all a put-down of other countries. Should mothers be embarrassed by Mothers’ Day cards that say they are the world’s best mom? Those who celebrate the great, exceptional gift of music—even Richard Wagner’s works—are not oblivious to the fact that music has been used to accompany and reinforce great evil. (See, for example, Great Conductors of the Third Reich: Art in the Service of Evil).
Perhaps, like former First Lady Michelle Obama (“For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country…”), many can only be proud of America when the causes they believe in are winning.
I am well aware of the darker aspects of our country’s history such as slavery, the Indian Removal Act, and Japanese internment—evils which America as a nation has thoroughly repudiated. I am equally well aware of the dark history of both national and global socialism during most of the Twentieth Century. Today’s control of media, academia, and the Democratic Party by intolerant neo-socialists causes me deep concern that national and/or global socialism could easily return with a vengeance.
I was recently in Central Europe, where I visited the House of Terrors in Budapest, the Doheny Street Synagogue, Eagle’s Nest, and Nuremberg—places where memories of the atrocities committed by Communist and Nazi socialists are preserved as a memorial and warning. These were high-minded idealists who, like many of today’s socialists, believed the purpose of the individual was to advance the compassionate, humanitarian objectives of an enlightened government, with control over not only production and distribution of material resources, but education and culture as well. The individual was only important as a member of a group that advanced the greater good.
As long as there are people who reject the principles of personal freedom, private property, and the rule of law, believing the State, rather than the individual, is the most important unit in society, we are in danger of repeating the evils of Twentieth Century collectivism. There is no ideological or political “safe space” in our sinful world. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed, the capacity of humans for hatred and evil is not defined by religious, national or political boundaries; “the dividing line between good and evil runs through every human heart.”
Today’s self-proclaimed “progressive” Christians seem to me to reject Solzhenitsyn’s insight. Like Pharisees in their temple of self-righteousness, they thank God that they are not as other Christians. Their hearts are pure; their sentiments, and the political conclusions they draw from them, are true and righteous altogether. They see no need for reading and listening to intellectually diverse sources for facts or perspectives that may challenge their conclusions.
The immediate impetus for Painter’s rejection of American exceptionalism seemed to be information she learned about conditions at the border for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants: nursing babies torn from mothers; children held in cages; deprivation of soap, toothbrushes and running water; people held for weeks at a time in 55-degree temperatures, without appropriate clothing or blankets, etc. Extraordinary claims require solid evidence from credible, unbiased sources. Where is the link or citation to an authoritative source?
The broad sources of information I utilize lead me to believe that those descriptions have been vigorously disputed by knowledgeable individuals in positions to know the facts. If I believed those allegations to be true, or in any way reflective of government policies, I too would be outraged, though I would not conclude that my patriotic sentiments toward my country are therefore unwarranted. In fact, one of the things that makes America exceptional is the freedom it affords citizens like Painter and me to recognize, repudiate, and try to correct perceived injustices within the framework of the rule of law.
Government statistics indicate that fewer than 20 percent of asylum seekers actually qualify for asylum, and less than 30 percent of non-authorized border crossers even try. Doing justice to these issues requires consideration of many facts. Yet the mere suggestion that such a discussion is important simply confirms, in the minds of anti-border enforcement activists, that those who question their views are racist and/or xenophobic. Recognizing moral ambiguity, and entertaining the likelihood that well-intentioned utopian policy fixes will be attended by negative trade-offs, are irrelevant distractions for some. For a thoughtful, nuanced analysis of these immigration issues from someone who is generally left of center, check out this link.
Are all of us on the Right who disagree with progressives on prioritization of guiding moral principles for political policy really the straw man extremists that so many on the Left make us out to be—lacking in both humanitarian and Christian sentiments or principles? Why not allow that most conservatives probably do not fit the Procrustean bed into which so many progressives seek to force conservative Christians who disagree with their political views? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to enter into respectful dialogue than caricaturing and demonizing us?
It is justifiable to condemn right-wing attempts to advance public policy agendas in the name of religion. Yet some left-leaning activists do the same when it comes to their policy preferences. I happen to think that both left-wing Christians like Jim Wallis and right wing Christians like Jerry Falwell, Jr. take God’s name in vain when they enlist Scripture and Jesus to advance earthly political agendas. Neither, however, makes me embarrassed to be a Christian.
I recognize that those who disagree with me about policy seem to generally share my principles in the abstract—belief in personal responsibility, respect for personal liberty and private property, compliance with the law, respect for authority, charity, kindness, etc. These are part of our shared biblical world view. But when it comes to the application of those principles to life and politics, we prioritize them differently—often in ways that strike others as inconsistent, irrational, or hypocritical.
The fact that in some situations I give higher priority to personal liberty and respect for the law than those on the left shouldn’t mean that I care less or that I therefore forfeit a legitimate claim to be a Christian. It simply means I care differently, and have reached different conclusions, trying to follow the same God that Christians on the political left try to follow. Politically conservative Christians increasingly find themselves under attack by their left-leaning brothers and sisters, who say they value tolerance and diversity, but can be quite narrow-minded and intolerant toward political opponents.
“Beware!” my brother Clarence, a retired pastor, used to caution, “we do most of our sinning when we are right”—especially when others don’t seem to recognize, or be willing to act on, what we believe is right! Condemnation of Christians who oppose the political positions we embrace runs counter to the reality that we all worship, and try to serve in diverse ways, a very big, gracious God. Writer Anne Lamott wisely quipped, “You can safely assume, when it turns out God hates all the same people you hate, that you’ve created Him in your own image.”
Jesus was not a political activist. He gave everything. In living and in dying, He emptied His life of self—without any government program or enabling legislation. He never hinted that His followers should, in His name, resist or try to reform the oppressive, sexist, racist political structures and institutions under which the Roman world, especially Jews, suffered. If that was His mission, He was an abject failure, as there was, on a macro level, just as much injustice, oppression, and misery when He left the world as when He entered it. He revealed the Kingdom through personal acts of love and mercy. He did not advocate for anything like materialistic egalitarianism or distributive justice. He said things like: “Foxes have holes; the birds have nests…” and “Who appointed me judge or divider between you?”
Conscripting Jesus to advance our political values is not only terribly divisive, it substitutes a gospel of righteous indignation for the Gospel of love. This truth is readily apparent in Adventist Today articles that venture into partisan political battles in the name of Jesus, and also frequently—and disturbingly—in the comments attending them. Are we so confident God is on our side that we can use social justice passion to turn Christianity into a political group—and then define who is in and who is out by whether they endorse the particular values espoused by leaders in our group?
I would hope that all American Adventists—particularly AT conversationalists—can, regardless of political persuasion, demonstrate in our dialogue and personal interactions that the America we claim as our home is indeed exceptional. Let’s not surrender pride in our American identity to the darkness we see in the country. Instead, let us illuminate and enlarge the best in what historian Michael Medved likes to call—without a hint of irony or exaggeration, because he doesn’t compare America with utopia—“this greatest nation on God’s green earth!”