American exceptionalism is the belief that “America is the greatest nation in the world.” A belief often repeated by former president George W. Bush, current president Barack Obama and future Republican presidential hopefuls. In fact, U.S. presidents religiously end their speeches with “God bless the United States of America,” which is not really a plea but a given. American exceptionalism is rooted in assumed divine selection.
The belief that America is superior to all other countries is shared by a vast majority of Americans. A Fox News poll, for example, found, “A large majority of American voters believe the United States is the best country in the world.” A USA Today/Gallup poll reported, “Americans widely agree that the United States has a unique character because of its history and Constitution that sets it apart from other nations as the greatest in the world.”
The Pew Research Center’s 2011 Political Typology survey revealed, “Across all political and demographic groups, large majorities say that the United States either ranks among the greatest nations or stands above all others.”
And not surprisingly, the Pew Center’s survey showed, “Evangelicals [white, non-Hispanic Protestants] are most likely to think that the U.S. is the best country in the world.” (1. “Fox News Poll: America Weaker but Still Greatest Country in World, Voters Say,” May 6, 2011; 2. “Americans See U.S. as Exceptional; 37% Doubt Obama Does,” by Jeffrey M. Jones, Dec. 22, 2010; 3. “U.S. Seen as Among the Greatest Nations, But Not Superior to All Others, June 30, 2011; 4. Ibid; “Patriotism God Gap: Is the U.S. the Greatest Country in the World?,” by Tobin Grant, Christianity Today, Aug. 5, 2011)
American exceptionalism finds its divine selection in Jesus, who reportedly said to his followers, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid . . . Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14-16) The “Founding Fathers” believed their god led them to a new land, “of milk and honey,” to create a nation like “a city set on a hill.” And they let their “light” and their “good works” shine.” Ensuing waves of pioneers believed a godly “manifest destiny” called them to expand westward to the Pacific Ocean. They and their descendants also let their “light” and their “good works” shine.
Tragically the “light” and “good works” of the “Founding Fathers” and their heirs depended on multitudes of native Americans being cast into “outer darkness.” Similarly, the true “light” that illuminated their pathway and “good works” spelled “deep darkness” for millions of enslaved black persons, many of whose descendants still live in the shadows of America’s white-controlled hierarchy of access to the “light” and “good works” of economic, political and legal power. American exceptionalism and Christocentricism (the belief that Jesus is the only true “light” of the world) are two sides of the same imperialism.
It is not about American exceptionalism but about American exemptionalism. American exceptionalism breeds arrogance and exclusion that allow the truest believers to remain oblivious to the reality and truth and rights and humanness of persons who are different. The assumed uniqueness, rightness and superiority—and power—of ethnocentric and Christocentric Americans exempt them from reality. From truth and aspirations and need beyond their own. From commonly legislated and accepted international laws. From Golden Rule-like empathy that is the heart of humanness and global community.
American exceptionalists are lost in the “darkness” of their own “light.” And anyone who dares to challenge their delusionary exceptionalistic “light” and “good works” with reality, like U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning and shoe-throwing journalist Muntader al-Zaidi, is portrayed by America’s corporate-controlled guardian media as emotionally disturbed and cast into prisons of “darkness.” Similarly, Professor Ward Churchill and Rev. Jeremiah Wright are two who have paid a severe price for their courage to make a cause-and-effect connection between the horrible 9/11 attacks against America and U.S.’s imperialistic foreign policy in our name.
One might think Christians would provide a prophetic voice of justice and intervening action here. Think again. Most mainline and evangelistic Christian Churches, and their leadership, serve as chaplains of the status quo, rather than as real “peacemakers” who risk joining the “blessed . . . who are persecuted for righteousness sake,” as Jesus is recorded as teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5:10) Those Christians who do confront oppressive political and corporate forces are likely to be persecuted by their own denominations. American exceptionalism, blessed by Christocentricism, is unable to tolerate national soul-searching. For mainline Christianity, liberal as well as conservative, it is often not about speaking truth to power but about providing the Invocations and Benedictions for those in power. It is not as much about keeping in the good graces of a just god as it is about staying in the good graces of those with economic and political power.
In a piece (“They Died in Vain”) on the recent unnecessary tragic helicopter deaths of 30 American special forces members and 8 Afghan soldiers, former Army officer and longtime CIA analyst Ray McGovern throws a different “light” on “most men and women of the cloth [in] . . . the Establishment Church.” He writes, “I added ‘institutional church’ into the military-industrial-corporate-congressional-media-institutional church complex coined above because, with very few exceptions, the institutional church is still riding shotgun for the system—and the wars.” (CounterPunch, Aug. 8, 2011)
American exceptionalism serves as a powerful propaganda and recruiting weapon for corporate war profiteers and their power-seeking and –maintaining political marketeers. Belief that “America is the greatest nation on earth” helps to lay the patriotic foundation for creating an unending “war on terror” against people anywhere. Those who oppose are then demonized as “terrorists” for resisting their country and resources being dominated and controlled by the “light” and “good works” of the divinely chosen “city set on a hill.” American exceptionalism dehumanizes those who stand—and happen to get—in the way, turns them into “Islamic extremists” and accommodates and supports their oppression. This distortion of other people’s reality does not provide national security, as the American flag-lapel-pinned politicians declare, but creates more enemies and potential 9/11s. Americans are not exempt from the consequences of American exceptionalism. The terrible and unwarranted sacrifice of American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan attest to that.
A classic example of America’s “light” and “good works” is sounded in the second inaugural address of former president George W. Bush, who said about his administration’s unnecessary pre-emptive criminal war against non-threatening and defenseless Iraq, “By our efforts, we have lit a fire . . . and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.” (The New York Times, Jan. 21, 2005) The “light” and “good works” of that “untamed fire of freedom” darkened the sky and scarred the land of the whole of Iraq—killing well over a million innocent human beings, uprooting some four million more, triggering severe sectarian violence to this day, decimating the country’s life-sustaining infrastructure and leaving an unstable government in its wake.
That so-called “untamed flame of freedom” is a delusion of American exceptionalism. Recently Moqtada al-Sadr, powerful Iraqi Shi’ite cleric, told US troops to get out of his country with, “Enough of this occupation, terror and abuse. We are not in need of your help. We are able to combat and defeat terrorism, and achieve unity . . . We are not in need of your bases, your experience.” He said, “So go forth from our holy land and go back to your families who are waiting for you impatiently.” As reported, “Sadr and his militia members have vowed to assault any American force that remains and have already been attacking American troops with rockets and bombs.” (“Leave Iraq or face attacks, cleric tells US,” Associated Press, The Boston Globe, Aug. 10, 2011) He also warned American troops: “They will be treated as anyone who stays in Iraq, as a tyrannical occupier that must be resisted by military means.” Nor did he exempt American-approved Iraqi political leaders: “The government which agrees to them staying, even if is for training, is a weak government.” (“Cleric Warns U.S. Troops To Leave Iraq,” AP, The New York Times, Aug. 8, 2011)
The Bush administration’s “untamed flame of freedom” has taken ten years and still has not reached “the darkest corners of” Afghanistan. Perhaps the failure to connect with the minds and hearts of the Afghan people is due to the “light” and “good works” of American special forces on the ground who kill Afghan civilians in the darkness, and American drones overhead that kill them from a great distance.
Sadly, American exceptionalism prevents most U.S. citizens from being emotionally and spiritually able to put themselves in the shoes of the Iraqi and Afghan people. American exceptionalism encourages an obliviousness that prevent most citizens from trying to understand what it would be like for the United States to be controlled and continually violated and victimized by foreign boots.
A glaring example of the exemptionalism created by American exceptionalism is President Obama’s reported directive which will “ban . . . visas for people who the State Department finds have been involved in human rights violations.” He plans to create “an Atrocities Prevention Board—made up of officials from the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and other agencies—aimed toward forming an early-warning system of potential genocide and other politically driven humanitarian catastrophes.” Obama’s presidential directive betrays even more American exceptionalism: “. . . the visa ban will fill in gaps, White House officials said, by expanding the grounds for denying entry to include war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations like prolonged arbitrary detention, forced disappearances, slavery and forced labor.” (“Obama Takes Steps to Help Avert Atrocities,” By Helen Cooper, The New York Times, Aug. 4, 2011)
The exemptionalism of American exceptionalism. Never mind the war crimes committed by the Bush White House against Iraq and Afghanistan. Forget about the long American-held and-tortured prisoners at Guantanamo Bay detention center, denied due process. And about the abuse of prisoners detained without charge at America’s Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Don’t think about the Central Intelligence
Agency’s unlawful secret extraordinary extrajudicial renditions program that has made thousands of people disappear into “black sites” and other prisons in numerous countries, and forced to undergo torturous “enhanced interrogation techniques.” (See “The Rendition Program“)
Never mind the Pentagon’s recently disclosed “secret war in 120 countries,” with U.S. Special Operations forces “waging a secret war in all corners of the world”—directed by “A rising clandestine Pentagon power elite . . . without the knowledge of the American public.” (See Nick Turse, “A Secret War in 120 Countries: The Pentagon’s New Power Elite,” TomDdispatch.com, Aug. 4, 2011) Just ignore the estimated 1000 U.S. military bases around the world caretaking the imperialistic “light” and “good works” of “the city set on a hill.”
Never mind President Obama not only refusing to prosecute the Bush administration for war crimes, but hallowing and continuing and intensifying them. Certain of the violators of human rights and their accommodators are already in the country—in the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, in certain boardrooms, and even in pulpits and pews. The power of American exceptionalism is seen in the widespread failure of citizens to see though the hypocrisy of Obama’s “Steps to Help Avert Atrocities” and the atrocities committed by certain of these very government officials and agencies.
A subtle seductive aim of self-serving political and corporate exponents of American exceptionalism is to normalize war. Even toys for children can be used to promote this end.
Hence, a recent NBC National News segment on “Making a Difference” covered the giving away of some 5000 toys to the children of military troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Featured are three sons and their father, Chris—and the mother and wife, a First Lt. serving in Afghanistan, who initially appears in a photo holding an oversized rifle and dressed in camouflaged fatigues and hat. Anchor Brian Williams introduces the story with, “When an American serves in uniform, that is half the sacrifice; the other half is at home, especially for their children. Like the ones you’re about to meet, who often go months waiting for a parent to come home.” He then says, “Tonight Anne Thompson reports on some folks who bring joy to kids who could use some.”
The story shows many of some 5000 children of military families lining up at a large outdoor fairgrounds in Virginia Beach, and then enjoying rides, slides and treats and anticipating a special toy giveaway at the end. The toys are piled high under big tents, which leads Anne Thompson to say, “Under the tents it looks like Christmas.” She reports that the toys are given by the Toy Industry Foundation (TIF), and distributed by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. The TIF representative then comments, “What better way is there to release some of their stress than with a toy.”
“Some of their stress?” At a climatic point the segment shows the featured three sons saying goodnight to their mother in uniform, whom they look at and talk with on a computer. First 5-year-old , Aiden says goodnight, waves a kiss and hugs himself for her. Then 6-year-old Jacob does the same. Finally 13-year-old Colin repeats the same ritual. Their “goodnights” are later followed by their mother wiping tears from her eyes as her face fades from the computer.
The three brothers are then interviewed by Anne Thompson, who observes to the TV audience, “Jacob and Aiden don’t quite grasp the danger.” But,” she continues, “Colin, the big brother, finds it difficult being away from his mother.” Sitting between his two younger brothers, tears began to appear in Colin’s eyes. The one little brother looks at him and says, “Colin, it looks like you are going to cry.” His other little brother turns to him and says, “Why are you crying?” Thompson says to Colin, “Do you miss your Mommy?” Colin nods “yes,” and with that his struggle to maintain his composure breaks down and he cries more openly, the tears streaming down his face. One of his little brothers looks at him in surprise and says, “I never heard him do that before.” (Aug. 8, 2011)
Anne Thompson addresses Colin’s reality this way: “It’s a fear, a worry [father] Chris can’t make disappear. But toys can help.” Her words set the stage for the boys’ father, who says, “It gives them that little distraction, that enjoyment of getting something for no other reason than they’re just a kid.” (Aug. 8, 22011)
There is no exemption for American victims of American exceptionalism. Just dehumanizing wars. And separation. And lasting physical and mental wounds. And death. And tears.
The tears of 13-year-old son, Colin, actually represent the “light” of global humanness upon which real “good works” for all depend.
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.