Questions About American Exceptionalism Essay

Oliver Laric
Sun Tzu Janus, 2012
24.2 x 40 x 29.7 cm
Plinth: 80 x 32 x 29 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin

This series was guest edited by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and editorial board member Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. – Eds.

The paired posts in this series were developed in connection with a workshop supported by the three-year Luce Foundation funded project “Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad,” directed by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.

The larger project addresses American religious exceptionalism as it is manifested in the pivot point between domestic and foreign policy, in particular the ways in which distinctive understandings of religion enable different American religion policies “at home and abroad.” American religious exceptionalism is and has been realized, of course, through a variety of channels including, among others, the perennial political project of distinguishing good religion and bad religion, the jurisprudence of the First Amendment, and the work of religious communities themselves. To interrogate the religious politics of American exceptionalism at home and abroad, as this project does, is then simultaneously to question the naturalness of particular productions of binaries such as “religion/not religion,” “Christianity/not Christianity,” establishment/disestablishment, as well as to try to push beyond the institutionalized scholarly division of labor of the modern American academy. An important, and perhaps not yet fully understood, aspect of American exceptionalism is the notion that religion in America stands apart from the “universal tendencies of history, the ‘normal’ fate of nations, the laws of historical mechanics” (Rodgers 1998).

Enabling the inside/outside work of US religious exceptionalism is the common claim that Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity and its cultural effects, is not religion, a claim that both distinguishes and naturalizes Protestant Christianity. Protestantism in its various forms can apparently choose to appear not as a religion but rather as the natural antinomian evangelical essence of America—having gotten rid of all that “religion” stuff, facilitating polemics against heathens, Communists, Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and so on. These legal, political, ethnographic, and sociological processes contribute to powerful (though always shifting) distinctions between inside and outside, domestic and foreign, self and other, even civilization and madness (Foucault 1965).

The one-day workshop which produced these essays focused on “Theologies of American Exceptionalism,” asking participants to expound on an exemplary text (a link to those texts is found in each essay). These ranged from what might usually be regarded as explicitly religious texts, such as John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the Arabella and Khomeini’s Last Testament, to judicial opinions, such as that of the US Supreme Court articulating the doctrine of conquest, literary reflections on the Great American Novel, explicitly political engagements with theology, and academic writing on capitalism, consumption, and excess. What followed was an intense discussion of the deeply ambiguous heritage of US exceptionality, both in terms of the stories Americans tell themselves and the stories others tell of them, of what they do at home and what they do abroad—of those excluded and those in charge,—of whether and how the US is or ever was new and innocent—of revolution and the exception,—and of the credibility of the rule of law. Perhaps reflecting the current political climate, much of the discussion, while not centered on the US presidential election, elaborated on the indeterminacy, elusiveness, and provisionality of the US project. Lingering questions concerned the nature and status of sacrifice, sovereignty, and supersessionism in the American context.

These essays are offered not as a summa on the subject but as an opening bid to a conversation. The authors welcome responses.

Paired essays

Constance Furey on John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”
Matthew Scherer on Stanley Cavell, “Finding as Founding”

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan on Johnson v M’Intosh
M. Cooper Harriss on C. E. Morgan, Foreword to Faulkner’s Light in August

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd on Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart
Lisa Sideris on Robert Paarlberg, The United States of Excess

Noah Salomon on Noble Drew Ali, “A Warning from the Prophet in 1928”
Spencer Dew on The Last Will and Testament of Imam Khomeini

Shaul Magid on Arthur Cohen, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition”
Stephanie Frank on the “Introduction” to Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty

Is the culture of the United States significantly different than that of Europe? This, for Lipset, is the question of American Exceptionalism. In this collection of previously published essays, readers learn of the difference between conservatism in Europe and America; the weakness of the individual state governments and the strength of individual rights; the feeble grip of political party discipline; the extreme inequality of wealth in the; American’s comparatively light tax burden; and the unusual patriotism and optimism of Americans.

American exceptionalism is a “double-edged sword.” What is meant by this? The nation’s uniqueness stems from “The American Creed,” so fervently embraced that Americans can scarcely comprehend a truly traditional nation such as Great Britain. This creed has five elements: “liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez- faire.” These elements sustain a liberal social order for which Lipset has the greatest admiration.

Yet Lipset acknowledges that the central passions arising from this creed can become dangerous. Populism and anti-elitism engender disrespect for authority, declining discipline in schools, and low electoral turn outs. Individualism unleashes an emphasis on achievement that makes crime a temptation for those prevented from pursuing accepted means of advancement. Exalting the self-made person, Americans look down on the weak and underprivileged. The creed enshrines individual rights, but such rights can become anticommunal, as the proliferation of deadly weapons shows.

Thus, while he sees American exceptionalism in very positive ways, Lipset recognizes that in it also lies the source of most of the nation’s problems. His writings on this subject are thus of immense value, for they help illuminate the special vulnerabilities that arise from the nation’s strength. Readers interested in American exceptionalism should consider Seymour Martin Lipset essential reading. Because it is an assemblage of earlier writings, however, the book often deviates alarmingly from its announced topic. The fascinating essay on the history of left-wing intellectuals is a case in point.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. April 29, 1996, p. 13.

Commonweal. CXXIII, September 13, 1996, p. 38.

Foreign Affairs. LXXV, March, 1996, p. 135.

Humanities. XVII, July, 1996, p. 4.

The Nation. CCLXII, May 6, 1996, p. 28.

New Statesman and Society. IX, March 29, 1996, p. 33.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, February 11, 1996, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, February 5, 1996, p. 75.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 29, 1996, p. 7.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, April 7, 1996, p. 4.

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