There’s this idea out there called “American Exceptionalism.” You may not have heard the phrase before, but you almost certainly encountered the ideology. It’s basically the idea that the U.S.A. is inherently different than all the rest of the countries…. And, for many people, it means that we are different in a way that is better. And this belief is so ingrained, so widely accepted, that to even question the doctrine of American Exceptionalism is almost a non-starter for presidential candidates. We have a long period of primaries and elections and debates ahead of us…. I dare you to try to find one candidate who doesn’t whole-heartedly profess that America is the greatest nation in the world. To suggest otherwise is to be labeled “unpatriotic” or even “traitorous,” and it is a political death sentence. The first scene from HBO’S “Newsroom” (that they don’t allow me to embed) touches on this taboo.
But the anger and offense at suggesting that the United States is NOT, in fact, the greatest country on the planet (and, indeed, in the cosmos) is not limited or reserved for those few folks running for office. If you criticize the U.S. online, you will be served to an all-you-can-eat buffet of “Love it or leave it!” It is scandalous to even suggest that we are not the best, but that makes sense…. We have been groomed to believe that “Our ______ is the best” since we were very young (fill in the blank with whichever of “Our” thing you want…. Family, School, Church, Sports Team, City, State, Country, etc…). But just like the kids in schools who stand on the bleachers cheering “We’re number one,” most of the people cheering have never actually spent any significant time in one of the schools to which they are professing to be superior. And though simple “school spirit” seems harmless enough, when that same “spirit” spills over into nationalism, things can get dangerous. The Germans have the word “Sonderweg” which refers to a “special path” that is set out for them, and the Japanese used the term “Yamato-damashii” to refer to a “Japanese Spirit” that is mostly understood in contrast to a Chinese way of thinking. But those ideologies almost seem quaint now…. Of course, they LOST the war.
And don’t get me wrong–I don’t think there’s anything wrong with believing that the U.S.A. is the greatest country in the world…. But I think there’s something REALLY WRONG with creating the kind of culture where dissent from that view is met with such alarm and accusation and anger. And it gets even more messed up when people bring God into it.
But this way of seeing our country has been a long time coming. It started as early as the Puritan idea of “A city upon a hill” and the American Revolution, it has been going strong for centuries, and it got another kickstart during the Cold War. I mean, come on! We had “Manifest Destiny!” We had “The American Dream!” We were this new kind of country, this grand experiment, that finally got it right…. at least closer to “right” than anyone else had come. And there was proof–We had all kinds of cool stuff, our team was undefeated (for a while)–God must have been blessing us, right? Because (it was thought) nothing this big happens without God’s approval. God IS on our side. America IS that “City on a Hill” that the Puritans dreamed of.
And this is why I believe it is so hard for so many conservative Christians to process the Supreme Court ruling for marriage equality. Their nationalism has gotten so tangled (or managed, really) up in their religious beliefs that when something like the SCOTUS ruling happens, this cognitive dissonance sets in, and they believe there must have been some sort of coup d’etat that needs to be remedied. It’s like a whole part of the Church at a certain level of consciousness discovered the theodicy at once. It’s like, “Wait…. God is in control, and something bad just happened…. So that means either God ISN’T in control, or Marriage Equality being the law of the land was ordained by God…. Or maybe America isn’t God’s favorite?!?!” Unfortunately, the mental stress caused by the cognitive dissonance is too much for many conservative Christians, and they throw their hands up in the air and declare that it must be the “end times.” Jesus must be coming back soon, y’all.
But these beliefs–especially mixed with a lack of insight and a distain for intellectualism–can be so very dangerous. Imagine if Americans had the same sort of expectation of an assumed understanding of White Supremacy as they have with expecting that everyone here believes in American Exceptionalism. But really, there’s very little difference. Here’s the hard truth: If you look closely at its history, you find that there is a very fine line between “Americans are the best!” and “White people are the best!” America has a long history of declaring, “That’s not what America looks like!” And you multiply that times God’s Sovereignty and divide by a City on a Hill, and you got yourself an even more powerful (and dangerous), “That’s not what GOD SAYS America is supposed to look like!”
And every step away from “The Norm” has been a painful process. And that’s where things get really racist and sexist gross, because “The Norm” has always been white people. White men, to be exact. Who speak english. And are Christian. And straight. Native Americans? You’re either going to worship our God, or we’re going to kill you. Irish? That’s not what America sounds like. Asian? Mexican? I guess, but you better learn the greatest language in the world! What’s that, Ma’am? You say you want to VOTE?!? Don’t you have some dishes to wash? Negroes? Tell you what–You and four of your friends will get to count for three votes…. Deal? Muslims? You want to build a WHAT in my neighborhood?!? And now we have those stubborn Gays, daring to think that America looks like them too. And every time we allow a new group to become “What America looks like,” it is painful for the group who is “The Norm”…. even if that group was just welcomed in recently themselves. We tend to forget.
So here’s the way I see it: The reason that giant oak trees are so strong is not because of their rigidity…. It’s because when it starts getting windy, the tree is able to bend and sway. And this country is like that–at least it has the capability to be like that. If there’s one thing that’s great about this country, it’s our ability to change. To learn from our mistakes. To progress. Even the Statue of Liberty is not standing there, rigid and unchanging…. She is taking a step forward. She is progressing. She is moving from the old way into something new. And I know new can be frightening, but it’ll be okay. In fact, I think that saying to the LGBT community, “You ARE what America looks like” might be just about the most American thing we could do. We have a long history of expanding the definition of what America looks like…. And I’ve got some news for you: If there’s anything about America that is even CLOSE to the actual Church that Jesus started, it’s that the understanding of who gets to be “part of the group” is constantly expanding.
Very nicely done! I couldn’t agree more, which obviously means you must be right. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’m having trouble putting my thoughts into words, so maybe I’ll just leave it to you. Amen!
I believe Bernie Sanders has had the hutspah to suggest other countries lead us in many areas. Universal health care, guaranteed paid sick leave, free advanced education to name a few.
1st, I love your rant in the paragraph about “The Norm”. I’m sure you enjoyed writing that. A friend emailed me your link a few days ago and said we are cut from the same mold. I had a similar blog post during the Olympics last winter after my pre-teens started up the “USA” chant. And you’re right, dissent is viewed as unpatriotic (unless it is dissent about President Obama). Thanks for posting – I’m hooked.
PS – I’d like to post a link to your site from my blog undercrust.blogspot.com. Please let me know if this is OK. I never link without permission.
Totally cool by me, Charley. I appreciate it!
I’m heading to check out your blog right now….