05/21/2012 01:43 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2012

American Exceptionalism, Except for...

This week I heard two strikingly different meanings of American exceptionalism, one from a congressman, and one from high school musicians.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colorado) on May 12: "I don't know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America, but I do know this, that in his heart, he's not an American. He's just not an American." Coffman issued a written apology Wednesday evening. "I misspoke and I apologize," the statement began. "I have confidence in President Obama's citizenship and legitimacy as President of the United States." Then Coffman defended his intent. "I don't believe the president shares my belief in American Exceptionalism. His policies reflect a philosophy that America is but one nation among many equals. As a Marine, I believe America is unique and based on a core set of principles that make it superior to other nations."

Conservatives often deride Obama over remarks he made in April of 2009, in which he said that he believes in American exceptionalism, "just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Obama added, "We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional."

Obama also said that he is, "enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world." And he hailed America's, "continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity." He frequently relates his own story when talking about the exceptional opportunities open to all people in this country. Exeptionalism with no exceptions is Obama's vision of American exceptionalism.

This past Tuesday night, between Rep. Coffman's first and second public statements, I attended the spring vocal music concert at Mason City, Iowa, High School, where over 300 students in 10 ensembles in this public school of just over 1000 students sang. It was a wonderful evening of truly outstanding students singing college-level music. These choirs consistently receive superior ratings. Exceptional? Yes. But what I saw as even more exceptional is that all youth are included, not for the sake of being better than somebody else, but for the sake of building community. More than half the students in Mason City are on free or reduced lunch programs. This is not a privileged community where students can afford private lessons. Anyone can be "chosen" to sing. One large choir open to all students in grades nine through 12 is split in half and each can meet only every other day.

Rather than singing only national songs to emotionally stir the audience, I heard the music of a diverse global community in the heartland of America. The director said, "We ask students 'What are composers from different parts of the world trying to say that we also feel?' We look for similarities first in order to appreciate the differences." That's inclusive exceptionalism with no exceptions.

The concept of "American Exceptionalism" goes back to the question about the very origins of the nation. Republicans have argued that the president fails to understand that the country was divinely inspired, based on the Declaration of Independence's assertion that citizens were "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."

American exceptionalism often includes the concept that the United States is different from other countries in that it has a specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy. (And for some that includes by military means.) Although the term does not necessarily imply superiority, many conservatives have promoted its use in that sense. To them, the United States is like the biblical "shining city on a hill." This sense of "chosen-ness" leaves little place for all others. Are they unchosen? Is this American exceptionalism, except for all the rest of the world?

Senator Albert J. Beveridge, speaking on the floor of the Senate after his return from a tour of the Philippines in 1900 while the United States was waging a war of subjugation against the Filipino independence movement, said, "God...has made us master organizers of the world...He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world." When I used that quote in my seminary classes a few decades ago students would gasp in unbelief. Today they nod their heads, saying that's what many people in this country believe.

American exceptionalism is a dangerous posture in the world and betrays the very democracy it would export:

On college campuses this fall, hundreds, if not thousands, of students will be restricted from registering to vote because of new voting laws passed by Republican-led legislatures in states during the past year. Democracy except for...

Democracy (the core of "American exceptionalism") except for those who find it hard to have the ever-more-narrowly-defined requirements for voter ID: elderly, low-income, African-American and Hispanic voters. A "chosen people"...except that legislators are defining who the chosen ones are. We are challenged to work toward inclusiveness without exception.