By Rubel Shelly
In my opinion, the United States of America is a wonderful, though imperfect, country. One could even call it exceptional in many ways among all the nations of the world, but I refuse the designation “American exceptionalist.”
An American woman can love her country and be deeply patriotic because she appreciates its uniqueness and marvelous history. She might point to such things as its abundant natural resources and favorable climate. More likely, she would talk even more about the freedoms of speech, press, and religion. There is the protection under law its citizens enjoy.
She could reference its incredible generosity through churches, nonprofits, and humanitarian agencies. She could add comments about education, advanced health care, and the like.
She would be no less patriotic to admit to the United States’ many faults—ranging from its mistreatment of Native Americans and African-Americans, to its inability to bring justice to all its citizens without partiality, to greed and corruption in high places. And this doesn’t preclude her right to bring up issues of drug abuse, human trafficking, sexual abuse of children, and a host of other problems. In fact, it is not beneath her to be irritated by the slights she has had to suffer occasionally simply because she is female in this wonderful, exceptional, and blessed country.
In the case of this hypothetical female who loves her country, attends parent-teacher conferences at her child’s school, and votes in both local and national elections, there is one other issue of greater importance than all the rest. She is a follower of Jesus Christ who is respected by all who know her for the practice of an authentic faith.
I know a great many people who fit the description of this godly lady. Males and females across this great nation love its strengths and lament its weaknesses. More than that, they do what they can to correct the faults they see by being honorable as elementary school teachers, lawyers, company executives, community volunteers, physicians, facilitators for Alcoholics Anonymous, safe drivers, mortgage payers, responsible parents, and otherwise law-abiding citizens.
Some of the people I know who fit the category of patriots and good citizens have, however, overstepped the bounds of good theology and responsible citizenship to embrace an idolatrous “American exceptionalism,” which is a heretical notion that fosters the idolization of a human creation and hinders Christ’s mission through his church.
Has God blessed America? Indeed! And many of the prayers and sacrifices made by our forefathers have explicitly been offered in gratitude for our bounty and blessedness.
Has the Christian faith blessed America? Undoubtedly! In spite of the injustice countenanced by churches in the toleration and defense of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans, it was largely the pulpit influence of an African-American Baptist preacher that rallied citizens from all backgrounds to begin dismantling segregation and racial discrimination.
An Important Distinction
Please bear with me as I attempt to explain the distinction between people who hold America to be exceptionally blessed and those who are American exceptionalists. The difference is hardly a matter of mere semantics!
It is the difference between true and false faith. It is the difference in living one’s heavenly citizenship as a humble, grateful, and patriotic American and living a form of nationalism that is typically regarded as arrogant, triumphal, and belligerent.
What I have described above as “patriotism” is—for the sake of distinction in this discussion—second-order exceptionalism. That is, it is an attitude that allows a Christian to acknowledge the biblical truth that every positive gift in human experience comes from God.
God is light, love, and perfect goodness. Thus any vestige of his intended shalom for those who have been created in his image should be acknowledged with glad humility. Life, health, food, strength to work, profit from labor, freedom to pursue worthy goals, personal or (even more especially!) pervasive prosperity—all these are God’s gifts and deserve to be acknowledged as such.
Second-order exceptionalism sees and addresses the pains others bear. For persons who are not blessed with good health or prosperity, there is compassion that leads to charity. Knowing—to quote Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount—that God makes the sun rise on both evil and good people and gives rain for both the righteous and the unrighteous, second-order exceptionalists do not judge the suffering to be either “getting their just due” or themselves superior in their more prosperous situation.
Equally important, second-order exceptionalism not only counts blessings but also names the evils it sees. Failing to keep a treaty with Native Americans 200 years ago was wrong, and human slavery is evil not only in today’s India but was equally so in America’s history. As present-day vestiges of corporate greed ravage the environment or when personal hatred spawns violence, people are held accountable. There are laws written on the human heart that tell all people everywhere certain basic things about fairness and justice.
What I will call first-order exceptionalism is either an excess of the second-order variety or, more likely, a heresy trying to disguise itself in the form of the other. It does not grow out of Lockean-Jeffersonian basic human rights, but arises from unchecked desire that becomes sin and, in turn, brings death.
First-order exceptionalism has at least the following identifying features:
1. It embraces some form of chosen-nation status for the United States of America.
In its distinctly theological form, it claims the United States is the “new Israel” of Old Testament land and prosperity prophecies, and Americans are God’s “chosen people.” In nontheological contexts, it is the political ideology of “manifest destiny” that allows appropriation of territory and enslavement of people.
2. It presumes that God has commissioned the United States of America to take the lead in doing his will among persons on planet earth today.
Thus the spreading of democratic ideals, the protection of American interests around the world, and various forms of international intervention (e.g., spying, disinformation campaigns, war) tend to be presented in biblical terms or under biblical metaphors.
3. It links patriotism directly to the Christian religion.
Thus individuals or nation-states standing with the United States are judged to be good and just, whereas those who stand against us are evil and untrustworthy.
There has always been a strong current of what political scientists call “civil religion” in America. By definition, civil religion refers to a type of sociopolitical affirmation of religious or quasi-religious tenets in the public square.
For example, who is not familiar with the use of the word God on coinage (“In God We Trust”) or in oath-taking (“. . . so help me God”) or in the Pledge of Allegiance (“one nation under God”)?
There is often a combination of political-religious references on July 4 or Memorial Day. Politicians and their parties regularly exploit—and the term exploit is deliberately chosen here—pulpits, religious figures, and voting blocs (e.g., Evangelicals, born-again Christians).
Personally, I am skeptical about the use of the American flag in church properties. From Richard Nixon’s use of Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell’s use of the Republican Party to Barack Obama’s use of Rick Warren, the slippery slope from civil religion to first-order exceptionalism is an all-too-easy glide.
There can be no doubt about the motive of a politician; he or she sees a collective bound together by common ideals and wants its endorsement and votes. Religious leaders need to check their motives as well; one’s “15 minutes of fame” in front of TV cameras or in newsprint can be very seductive.
Although generally skeptical of human powers in the movement’s early years, heirs to the Stone-Campbell Movement seem to have become vulnerable to the temptations associated with both civil religion and American exceptionalism. Generally pacifist and with its leaders occasionally even opposed to voting or serving on juries, some of the early influences that created a heady optimism about the “restoration of the ancient order” seem later to have linked their Christian hopes directly to America’s flag.
The utopian dreams of 18th- and 19th-century politicians were echoed by Alexander Campbell and others. The novus ordo seclorum (Latin: “new order of the ages”) hailed on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States—overseen by the approving eye of Providence or “nature’s god” and founded in 1776—was central to Campbell’s postmillennial eschatology. But I must leave historical analysis to the historians and not go down that road in this brief essay.
More directly to my purpose here is to warn against a confusion of the United States with the kingdom of God in this election year. In this incredibly polarized sociopolitical climate, I am pleading for Christians to exhibit the middle ground of what I have dubbed second-order exceptionalism. Many on the “political left” can see only America’s national sins and angrily deny that there is anything exceptional about this country; many on the “political right” respond with a rhetorical power play that enumerates our exceptional blessings and angrily dismisses those who dare to name our national sins as unpatriotic, anti-American, or even godless. So . . .
• Love our country and celebrate its values of democracy and freedom—but do not mistake American values for Christian theology.
• Know that sound theology has room for patriotism—but do not paint the cross in colors of red, white, and blue.
• Feel free to embrace the ceremonies of flag and loyalty to country—but refuse the heresy of America as the New Israel or deifying the nation.
• Pledge allegiance to flag and country—but be fully aware that such allegiance is conditional, for covenantal loyalty to God supersedes any covenant with men or human institutions.
• Display the symbols of patriotism as you choose—but do not turn sanctuaries into war rallies or political rallies.
• Support and vote for candidates whose views most align with your Christian sensibilities—but do not try to impose distinctly Christian ideals by civil statute.
• Hold and represent your political views with the sincerity and passion you deem appropriate—but do not make them into “tests of fellowship” within the community of faith.
• Know that the mission of God in the world is engagement of the church—and do not put political or nationalistic agendas on par with that mission.
• Evangelize your neighbors with the gospel of Jesus Christ—and do not make the mistake of allowing heated political debate to become an obstacle to communicating the faith.
An “Americanized Christianity” that blurs the distinction between a nation’s calling and God’s mission to the world is fatal to the gospel. The pendulum swing of liberal religion has been to the social gospel, and the countermotion of conservative religion has been to nationalism—what I have characterized as first-order exceptionalism.
We would do well to remember that our citizenship is in Heaven, and we must give ultimate loyalty to God—not to party, politician, or country, for that would be nothing less than idolatry. As sojourners in this world, we acknowledge the realities, ambiguities, and contradictions of the public square.
Our first order of business is to preserve our integrity as Christ followers and to extend his influence by teaching and influence, not by coercion. As we work for the common good, we affirm and thank God for whatever advantage our basic rights and freedoms have afforded us in this constitutional republic. We also acknowledge that we will sometimes share the fate of those who have suffered for following Christ in hostile contexts.
Rubel Shelly is a distinguished professor of philosophy and religion at Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee.