11/29/2011 03:45 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2012

What Is American Exceptionalism?

What is American exceptionalism? Is it merely the commonly held theory that America possesses measurable outcomes that make it vastly superior to other nations? Does the emphasis on liberty, freedom, individualism and laissez faire capitalism suffice?

Is America a "shining city on the hill," as many within our political discourse maintain? I find this type of interpretation problematic for four reasons.

First, it justifies imperialism. Manifest Destiny easily falls into the jurisdiction of American exceptionalism.

Second, such claims of divine providence come with an expiration date as the examples of British, Ottoman and Roman exceptionalism bear witness.

Third, it minimizes any appreciation for history, opting instead for a highly edited narrative that is neatly delineated between good and evil, right versus wrong.

Fourth, American exceptionalism, as it is defined in the contemporary context, is inadequate for the challenges that confront the nation.

American exceptionalism has been condensed to rhetoric and symbolic gestures. If one does not support simplistic claims of preordained superiority or fail to place one's hand over one's heart during the playing of the national anthem, he or she is viewed as not loving America in the same manner as those who subscribe to such beliefs and rituals.

But there is a trend developing that suggests a decline in the notion of American exceptionalism as it has been widely accepted. According to a new Pew Research poll, 49 percent agreed either mostly or completely with the statement: "Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others."

In 2002, 60 percent agreed. In 2007, 55 percent agreed.

Claims of exceptionalism cannot be measured simply because they are asserted loudly and often. Shouldn't a true gauge of exceptionalism include how America deals with its challenges?

If that were the standard, it is easy to understand the results of the Pew poll. The cacophony of political ideology emanating from both sides is hardly an example of exceptionalism.

The Congressional committee charged with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions was unable to reach a consensus. The impasse lies between the charges levied against Republican opposition to the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts and Democrats appearing unwilling to accept more than modest spending reductions.

The failure to reach an agreement will likely begin a yearlong political fight to maneuver around the automatic cuts to a broad range of military and domestic programs that would go into effect in 2013.

American exceptionalism can have no real benefit if it is simply a slogan to mask unbridled vainglory. But America is exceptional, not for utterances or rituals, but for its inception.

America is a nation, based on an idea. It was an idea beautifully articulated by the Declaration of Independence -- the creed that holds the country together.

But the Declaration sets a high bar for the country. One of America's great challenges has been the incongruence between what it has committed on paper and its ability to implement those goals in a meaningful way to all its citizens.

America is exceptional in that it has built-in -- albeit unintentionally -- mechanisms for those not originally included in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution to move the nation closer to the goal of forming "a more perfect union."

I doubt Thomas Jefferson would have been able to realize that the descendents of the slaves on his Monticello plantation would base their civil rights movement, in part, on his immortal words: "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal."

There are myriad reasons that America is exceptional, but beating one's chest declaring moral superiority and adherence to meaningless rituals are not among them.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at

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