Being American is more than a demographic circumstance. It's also an idea. But once again, we're embroiled in an intense discussion of exactly what the idea is.
National Review Online opened a discussion on "American Exceptionalism" based on a cover story by Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru. Resolved: This nation has achieved a level of freedom and prosperity for more people than any other nation in history, due in no small measure to the self-reliance and religiosity of its people. Some respondents took exception to the whole idea of "exceptionalism," claiming that it's based on myth-making anyway and we'd be much better off if we stopped thumping ourselves on the back and paid attention to the inequality festering under our noses. Others agree that the American ideal is exceptional in principle but murky in practice.
Meanwhile, the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") raises the stakes. Given that America is exceptional, then the dynamic that made her so is fighting for its life, and not for the first time. During the late '60s, high-profile political assassinations, race riots, campus takeovers, and rising war casualties dominated the news, followed closely by political scandal, a threatened impeachment, a presidential resignation, an oil embargo, stagflation, and an administration that allowed its citizens to be captured and imprisoned for over a year by upstart religious fanatics in Iran. If ever a nation seemed in decline, it was America just a generation ago.
And before that, we survived a bloody civil war, a century of labor conflict, and a period of socialist and anarchist agitation that culminated in the Socialist Party candidate for president winning almost 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912. This road has always been rocky.
Born of an idea instead of a geographical and cultural evolution, America will never be able to define what she is, once and for all. The ideas keep shifting; voices fall silent, more voices chime in. Both ends of the political spectrum gave up on American exceptionalism a long time ago: the far right because of its co-option during the "War of Northern Aggression," and the far left ever since Woodrow Wilson and FDR abandoned social experiments to pursue foreign wars. But most of us are still in the argument, and it boils down to this: Is America exceptional for what she has been, or for what she can be?
During the National Review discussion, former editor John O'Sullivan pointed out that America is both an idea and a culture; a political philosophy and a history. One side stresses idealism and the call to an ever more just society. The other stresses practical results and staying with policies that have worked best for the greatest number. Each side accuses the other of self-serving motives, and at least some of those accusations are true.
Full disclosure: I believe that the best arguments, most realistic perceptions, and soundest testimony of experience are on the right. But there are Christians on both sides, and to remain faithful, they can't over-invest in either. God ordained three institutions: the family, the state, and the church. With the state encroaching onto territory that should belong to the other two, it's right and proper to resist. That tide has been turned before, and it can be again. But "the king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He will" (Proverbs 21:1). America is exceptional. She is also in the hand of the Lord.
Activists, whether looking to the future or the past, put too much faith in the state. Isolationists seek refuge within the family. Of all God-ordained institutions, the church is often the one overlooked-and yet, interestingly, the only one that will last. Christians hold dual citizenship, and the visible church is the diplomatic outpost for our farther country. Not always safe, and not always trustworthy, but eternal. In our zeal to redeem the culture, we must not neglect what God has already redeemed.
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