01/07/2011 10:49 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Bad Faith of American Exceptionalism

I was getting my 10th grade school picture taken as the second plane hit. I still have the shirt I was wearing. When I came back to the classroom, someone had written "World War Three" on the board. A girl I didn't know very well was crying in the corner, alone.

My generation has, at a relatively early age, been faced with the reality of our vulnerability, not just as individuals, but as a country. We have faced the existential crisis of seeing clearly what American exceptionalism does not mean. And we have been charged with moving ourselves and the future of this country forward in light of the void where our false sense of security used to be. The struggle to come to terms with this, and to learn how to fall asleep without assurances has been one of the primary tasks of our collective act of defining ourselves. We must comprise an America that is heroic, just and moral, and that is fully aware of its fragility.

The recognition of your own finitude, your own vulnerability, confronts you with a choice. You can accept the fact that the monsters of extremism, corporate exploitation, and social injustice are real, and you can live in a way that will help protect the vulnerable, recognizing that you number among them. You can stand up and impose justice upon the void. Or you can pull the blankets over your head and tell yourself that you're special.

Fundamentalism, of any kind, is the refuge of a coward. It is the denial of one's share in the darker corners of the human condition. And the greatest threat to the exclusivity and exceptionality of a coward is a tear in the blankets under which he is hiding.

Certain voices in our media and even our government are making a lot of money sewing up torn blankets. Recently, Glenn Beck called for drawing "a line in the sand" to "decide who we are, and what we are capable of," adding, "I will not accept that America's best days are behind her, that there is no such thing as American exceptionalism."

The arteries of our communications are clogged with such voices howling about a mythical good-old-days. They may want their country back -- meaning, run by white, right-wing Christians. They may want their Jesus back -- meaning, stripped of his call for social justice. But most of all, they want their power back. They want their false sense of control over the future back. They want the assurances of their mother as she tucked them into bed that everything will be all right. But such a worldview, such exceptionalism at the expense of truth, is a luxury we can no longer afford. It is purchased with the exclusion of the weak and the denial of our own weakness.

We must develop a counterpoint to the bad faith of this kind of exceptionalism. We must develop a faith in ourselves as we really are, with all our strengths and weaknesses; a faith in our country, despite the long struggles for justice we have yet to win; and for many of us, a faith in a God who does not support the prerogatives of the privileged, but challenges us to risk our security for the weak.

American greatness is not a given. Our destiny is no longer so "manifest." Drawing a line in the sand -- making a last stand against a clumsily defined enemy -- is not the way forward. We cannot wall ourselves in and shoot at the shadows. We must stand up as vulnerable, imperfect people and cross whatever lines are already drawn between us and the less fortunate, between ourselves and those whom some would call enemies. If we are to be an exceptional people, it must be because we are an accepting people -- a people with the humility to include our own normalcy in our identity, and to stand up anyway in the midst of difficulties and do what's right.