The Failure of American Exceptionalism


December 28, 2012

Before the election, I received an email from Daniel, a dear person who served as an intern.  He wondered if “Romney’s statement about the 47%, and the subsequent statements both He and Paul Ryan have made about the ‘American Dream’ and people pulling themselves up out of despair,” is endorsing a sense of superiority based from the Christian Doctrine of Discovery (Doctrine).  I didn’t respond at the time because the best I could do was grumble like many others about how out of touch this wealthy white guy was, and yet I figured the answer must go below the surface of race, culture, and economic injustice.  So, I allowed the question to linger.  Well, lingering got me as far as the “fiscal cliff” debacle.

The fiasco of the “fiscal cliff” has made great fodder for the media and their pundits since the election.  So, to add my two cents worth, it may well be that the lack of Congresses getting along, finding places of commonality, and compromise is an indicator that Romney’s arrogant 47% statement could have been said by most any of the folk hanging out in Congress.  As the fiscal cliff talks unfolded, it became somewhat evident that the people whose work is to find commonality are instead living as if they know their way of thinking and acting are the only right ways of being.  This approach of living absolutes, based on knowing I and my community of like thinkers are correct and those other folk are missing the mark may very well be an aspect of the Doctrine of Discovery rising to the surface.

In an era of European Christendom, the Doctrine fashioned theological arguments holding Christian people and governments as the only people and governments endorsed by God.  Such thinking created a theological and political European worldview sanctioning Christianized European people as better than all others.  This thinking not only allowed European empires to develop a worldwide discovery movement that endorsed the subjugation of land and peoples who looked, talked, dressed, ate, and prayed different from themselves, but also embedded such thinking in many of the landscapes they conquered.  The North American landscape of which the United States claims is one of them.

As U.S. government and business developed and began looking different from their European homeland, so also changed the personality of the Doctrine.  The Christian theological argument of God sanctioning U.S. people and their government as better than all others slowly slipped below the surface (ready to re-emerge when necessary), and more secular jargon took its place.  This transition of Doctrine language is noticeable in three eras of U.S. development: In 1630 John Winthrop uses Mathew 5:14 (Jesus’ sermon on the Mount) to distinguish the future Massachusetts Bay community as the city upon a hill; In 1850, secular U.S. jargon begins to move to the forefront when John L. O’Sullivan claims it is the United States manifest destiny to “overspread and to possess the whole of the continent;” and by 2012 one must have the ear to hear the Christian influence in the popular terminology of American exceptionalism.  This reality means, from the moment of European arrival to the North American landscape, it has been difficult to raise a child in the U.S. and not have them believe themselves better than all others.

Recognizing U.S. citizens are raised from birth to believe they are exceptional to others, there little surprise Romney might believe his “job is not to worry about those [47% of the] people” who cannot be convinced “that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”  Nor should it be surprising a Congress, on both sides of the aisle, cannot find common ground, for they were raised to believe they are better than their neighbor.

I think Daniel is on to something.  And I think it is sad.  For even if Congress has come together on the fiscal cliff by the time of this writing (hopefully so…), they were unable to honor one another, unable to honor the people, and unable to honor the landscape of their birth.  Sadly, they have adopted a belief that they (and like thinkers) are exceptional and not prone to mistake, and therefore not called to find middle ground unless forced.

Of course, the Congress arises from the people and as such, their problems are our problems.  At some level, we who are U.S. citizens must admit we believe ourselves exceptional and that we are wrong.  We must let go of Doctrine of Discovery values, and, from the grassroots up, rethink that which we have traditionally accepted as normal and just.  In rethinking, we surely will not get it right or be just every time, but we can create an atmosphere where rethinking is normal and where being wrong is okay.  Should we do so, we just might create a landscape where the voice of all is valued and the need of a scapegoat is something of generations past.

© David B. Bell 2012


  1. David, I think both of you are on to something. We in the US always make the mistake of assuming that everyone in world thinks the way we do. We are all to often a selfish, self-centered society in a world that is increasingly becoming global. It always strikes me that those who have more than enough to supply their needs want, or think they need, more let themselves be deluded that if you don’t have enough to survive then somehow your are deficient or lazy. Having known many good people who are struggling and work 3 or four jobs at time and still finds the time and the funds to help others. Those people are not lazy nor are they somehow deficient. The fact that congress feels it is an imposition for them to work during a holiday when an economic crisis is around the corner tell me that these very wealthy individuals have lost all sense of commonality with those who elected them. I guess what I want congress to understand is we didn’t elect them to be pompous, irresponsible public servants. We elected them to do a job and if that means compromise than so be it. They are not our dictators nor are they leaders but simple representatives of the people in their districts. They are nothing special, or shouldn’t be, just capable of doing their job. And doing their jobs is something they haven’t done for a long time. Thanks for your posting



    1. Thank you Ruth for taking the time to read this and your thoughts!
      I agree, folk have the tendency to think others think like themselves or if they do not, they should. There is a need for folk to begin understanding themselves and their neighbor as uniquely created and as such bring a special perspective to the landscape about them. When folk choose to honor their neighbor, there is a chance the need to be right drops by the wayside in favor of the want to be in relationship with their neighbors unique perspective. Peace…


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