American exceptionalism has been much in the news of late. All the presidential hopefuls lining up against Obama seem to want to reaffirm it, and not the least of their grievances is Obama’s apparent apparent reluctance to extol it.
The problem, as Obama Knows, is that there is a fine line between exceptionalism and chauvinism. America is distinctive for lacking a formal class structure, and Americans are generally more upwardly mobile than people in much of the rest of the world. But we are no longer the land of unlimited opportunity, and moving on up in America has always been largely a matter of chance and circumstance. We value rugged individualism and reward self-reliance—to the point of social Darwinism, some would argue. We were founded on the principle that “all men are created equal,” but people of color were excluded from that formulation at the time of our founding. We are still struggling with that legacy. The right to own private property has long been considered especially American—so much so that we tend to equate the fulfillment of that right with the “pursuit of happiness.” The American educational system, once second to none, can no longer claim even second place. On the world stage, we have long touted the right of self-determination, but the Vietnam and Iraq Wars called that commitment into question.
As a child of the fifties and sixties, I always thought that what truly put America on the path to exceptionalism was the so-called “Establishment” and “Free Exercise” clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Acutely aware of the religious strife that had torn Europe apart for centuries, our founding fathers had the wisdom, as Jefferson himself termed it, to erect a “wall of separation between church and state.” To maintain otherwise is to do violence to the text: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In the America I grew up in, these two provisions were generally understood to mean that religion should be a private and not a public affair. I remember when then-Senator John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, was running for president. Some worried that he would allow the canons of the Church to trump all other considerations. He reassured the nation that he could compartmentalize his faith and act in the best interests of all Americans, not just Catholics.
Whatever his shortcomings, Obama seems capable of such compartmentalization. So many of his critics, by contrast, seem virtually pharisaical in their public professions of faith. Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum have all been pandering to the religious right for potential votes. Should one of them get elected, the debt for that support will come due. The last thing America needs right now is an evangelist in chief.
Despite what the religious right would have us believe, America, in its most fundamental sense, is not a Christian nation. Our founding fathers were sons of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. The prevailing religious sentiment of the time was deism. Deists put their faith in the “laws of nature” and believed in “Nature’s God,” not a personal God who intervenes in human affairs. They conceived of God as the “great clockmaker” who set up the universe to run according to rational laws and principles and who expects us to use our God-given reason in governing ourselves. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were products of this prevailing sentiment and not divine revelation.
Someone needs to remind our born-again politicians and their supporters that even Christ drew a distinction between the secular and the sacred, counseling his followers to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Our founding fathers were wise enough to ground our republic in a consensus of humanistic values and ideals that owe as much to ancient Greece and Rome as to our Judeo-Christian heritage. America was founded as a secular humanistic nation. That was an inspired choice. It set us apart from European history, making America truly exceptional. --EFP