Exceptionalism

It’s hard not to think about patriotism from Memorial Day through Labor Day.  The central holiday of the patriotic season, Independence Day, brings on the most patriotic of presentations and songs.

I love this country.  I love the freedoms we enjoy, as guaranteed by the organizing document of our Republic.  I love the land, and its people, from so many nations and backgrounds, yet all united in their admiration, their respect and their love for the great American experiment.

I love my country.

But I wonder if some of my fellow citizens have taken that love to a level that might be just a little beyond where it ought to be.  I’m not talking about patriotic pride.  I’m talking about a concept that has been around for a long time, but appears to be crystallizing into a divisive philosophy: American exceptionalism.

American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is fundamentally different from and even superior to other nations.  I don’t quite get that, since people from other nations are people, too.  Certainly, there are repressive and oppressive regimes across the globe.  But there are also very democratic nations, as well.

Perhaps much of this came from the great immigrant influx of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when so many people made the United States their destination, seeking a better life with more opportunities for success.  Many of those people were fleeing from antiquated systems of government, like the oppressive monarchies of many of the western European countries, with their class structures and aristocracy, or like Russian feudalism.  Some were fleeing economic conditions brought about by natural disasters, like the Irish Potato Famine.  Whatever the reason, they were coming to America, to borrow a phrase from Neil Diamond.

I’ve also wondered if some people might have misconstrued some of the lyrics to the wonderful patriotic anthem, America the Beautiful.  According to stories, the poem on which the song was based was written by Katherine Lee Bates in the late 1800’s, based on imagery she captured during a cross country excursion.  It became popular soon after it was written, was modified a few times, and was finally woven into the fabric of the national tapestry around 1913.  The 1913 lyrics are the ones best known by most people.  But most people only know the first stanza. Some may know the last.  But few know the two in between.

Here are the words to this wonderful song.

America the Beautiful 

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,

Whose stern impassion’d stress

A thoroughfare for freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved,

And mercy more than life!

America! America! May God thy gold refine

Till all success be nobleness,

And ev’ry gain divine!

O Beautiful for patriot dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam,

Undimmed by human tears!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

I wonder how many people construe the phrase “God shed his grace on thee” as past tense, that God had already done it, given the United States his stamp of approval.  But if taken in parallel to the next line, “God shed” is not talking about history, but is rather a prayer, a plea for God to bestow his grace on the nation.

In the second stanza, where some people have put forth the idea that the United States is (or more likely was) perfect in its form and function, Miss Bates pleads to God to “mend thine every flaw.” She doesn’t declare it to be flawless.  Apparently, she understood that as a nation, we are not perfect.

In the third verse, she again pleads, “May God thy gold refine.”  Apparently, she still considered America a work in progress.

On what can a person base the notion that the United States is better than any or all other nations?  Certainly not on educational performance or attainment.  In a study reported by Pearson in 2012, the US ranked 17th among a field of industrialized nations.  Finland was number one, South Korea number two.  The UK, Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Japan, Denmark and the Netherlands were among the countries that outranked us.

We can’t claim the best medical care, either.  The author of a 2010 New England Journal of Medicine opinion piece discussing the United States’ 37th place in the World Health Organization’s ranking of health care systems wrote, “It is hard to ignore that in 2006, the United States was number 1 in terms of health care spending per capita but ranked 39th for infant mortality, 43rd for adult female mortality, 42nd for adult male mortality, and 36th for life expectancy. These facts have fueled a question now being discussed in academic circles, as well as by government and the public: Why do we spend so much to get so little?”

The US ranked 6th in a field of more developed countries in terms of lowest unemployment rates in 2015.

I believe in the greatness of America.  I know we have accomplished much: we have defended other nations from tyranny as in the Second World War; we are usually the first people to respond to disasters in other parts of the world; we send tremendous amounts of aid to needy people all over the world; we have been the incubator for many of the greatest inventions in modern history.

But people in other countries love their countries, too.  The idea that we are so far superior to so many other nations is divisive and counterproductive to global relations.  When people think that Americans look down on them, the conversation will not be a discussion among equals.  It starts with defensiveness and degenerates from there.

I always chafe when I hear people decry someone who is a realist, who is accused of “apologizing for America.”  That is perhaps the utmost expression of my issue with exceptionalism.  The honest to God truth, though, is that we have made mistakes that have hurt other people.  We would be far better served to admit it and make amends like good neighbors.  Taken as a lesson from the realm of faith, there is no forgiveness without repentance.

God has not placed his stamp of approval on any nation, because all nations have their faults.  But that means that we should all the more adjure God not to forget us, but to mend our flaws, refine our gold, and shed his grace upon us.  We are a great nation among many great nations.  Among nations it is much like it is among citizens of any country: our greatest strength can only be experienced when we join together in purpose.  Leadership is not about dictating our terms to everyone else, but working together for a common good, or as Katherine Lee Bates expressed, “and crown thy good with brotherhood.”  If America can become better at extending the hand of fellowship and brotherhood within our borders as well as beyond them, then that is one measure of exceptionalism that will fill me with pride.  God knows we need a renewed spirit of brotherhood in these troubled times.

God bless America…

…please.

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