It’s been a few weeks since the National Prayer Breakfast, where President Obama made his remarks that various religions, Christianity included, are liable to extremist abuses. But the remarks still reverberate, particularly on the Right. From there, for instance, Rudy Giuliani recently challenged Obama’s patriotism and complained that Obama is not an American exceptionalist. “With all our flaws,” Giuliana said, “we’re the most exceptional country in the world. . . . I’ve never felt that from him.”
Despite Giuliani’s insinuations, President Obama has labeled himself an American exceptionalist. He has said, “I believe in American exceptionalism,” though not one based on “our military prowess or our economic dominance.” Rather, “Our exceptionalism must be based on our Constitution, our principles, our values, and our ideals. We are at our best when we are speaking in a voice that captures the aspirations of people across the globe.”
Obama has made even more circumspect remarks about American exceptionalism. He has said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Though that’s a letter perfect statement of a proper patriotism (each person honoring his or her country just as we honor our parents without assuming others don’t also consider their own parents superior), it would no doubt give critics like Giuliani the heebie-jeebies. They want America to be understood as uniquely superior.
Actually, something like Obama’s exceptionalism may be understood as theologically defensible. It claims no eschatological role for America. But the stronger (dare we say extremist?) view of American exceptionalism is decidedly objectionable. Abraham Lincoln, of blessed memory, took a misstep of this “stronger” sort when he declared that America is “the last, best hope of mankind.” Lincoln’s view was echoed by Ronald Reagan, who declared, “In a world wracked by hatred, economic crisis, and political tension, America remains mankind’s best hope.”
On the contrary, Jesus Christ is humanity’s last and best hope. And the social, political locus of that hope is not any nation-state, but the church. Lincoln and Reagan, in that light, promulgated something of a heresy. As we move closer to the another presidential election and the culture wars again heat up, we may be hearing much more of this heresy. Beware.