02/19/2014 03:38 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2014

American Exceptionalism and Reality

Do you think we're exceptional, we Americans?

You may have heard talk over the years about American exceptionalism, which is a way of considering America to be the moral guardian of the world, a country that does things differently (and better) than others, often driven by religious conviction.

We're not quite like that any longer but the old-fangled idea of exceptionalism continues.
I think we are exceptional -- and a lot of other countries are, certainly -- but I also think America is exceptional in ways that are different from those who proclaim that we've lost or need to reclaim American exceptionalism.

A thought-provoking article in The Atlantic, "The End of American Exceptionalism," by Peter Beinart explores this idea, and says that its not weakness or a lack of focus that has led to this state of affairs, but a change in our attitude.

If exceptionalism was based on the idea of a Christian nation doing its best to be a beacon for the world, American exceptionalism is no longer that. We're still a deeply religious country, but not one to want the church (any church) to tell us what to do. As Beinart writes:

"For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. [...] Today's conservatives often cast themselves as defenders of this religious exceptionalism against Obama's allegedly secularizing impulses... But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity ... is an artifact of the past."

It doesn't mean that younger Americans are less religious -- it's that they've become anticlerical, since they equate established religion with intolerance, and today's generation wants to be more inclusive.

I find this quite interesting, as someone who has written about how social attitudes shift. In Pendulum, which I wrote with Roy H. Williams, we explore the 40-year cycles of social change, when people move from thinking in terms of "me," or individualism, toward "we," or community and inclusion. We're in an era now of inclusion, a "we" cycle in the Pendulum.

Beinart sees this even in our attitude toward engagement with other countries: "... Young Americans are far less likely than their elders to endorse this exceptional global role. They want the U.S. to do less overseas; and what America must do, they want done more consensually." They want others to weigh in.

This isn't to say that America is not exceptional: it is (and the U.S. still attracts more immigrants than any other nation, by a long shot).

The idea of American exceptionalism as something that makes us the greatest country in the world, and all others far behind, is a little outdated. We are still a great country, but what makes America great is not that it does things so differently from every other country, that it shakes its religiously powerful fist and bows others to its will, but that it welcomes so many different points of view to arrive at a notion of an America that transcends a simple label.