modern nation-state, political theology

Exceptionally Unexceptional: The False Notions of American Exception and America’s Special Grace

American triumphalism, an exaltation of American exceptionalism, is nothing new. Also so is what “Spengler” at the Asia Times seems to do, he or she has put out another spectacularly uninformed and underwhelming article.

Noting Spengler in this instance I think is akin to speaking of James Dobson. This is not meant as a legitimation of either, but the recognition that they and their speech ought to be de-legitimatized. Dobson doesn’t have much of a clue when it comes to theology, and astute Spengler is not, but people end up quoting both anyways because they seem to voice what others are thinking, or like to think, or want to think. For instance, Spengler wrote that one article on Black Liberation theology, the one that couldn’t seem to grasp what Liberation theology is, much less say something intelligent about it. However others in their realization that they knew nothing of Black Liberation theology, latched onto Spengler like a new born puppy desperate for a suckle. And I’m understating it here. John Goodman as Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski and his famous line comes to mind: “Forget it, Donny, you’re out of your element!”

So what of American exceptionalism and special grace? It doesn’t exist. And since it doesn’t exist, there is nothing to be triumphal about.

Well, we can’t be exceptional in practice. That sort of idea is only supported by a delusional memory that ignores so much, like the killings and overall mistreatment of Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese, European immigrants, Africans, African Americans, and the list goes on. Ambiguity is the word we’re looking for — positives and negatives. Just like everyone else.

So why are we superior? I didn’t know we were. The methods that we have used to move into a position that “leads” the world (i.e. tells others what to do) comes from a history of bullying, the collapse of Europe, and the willingness to do whatever it takes for wealth and control. In a word, colonization.

And to kick the dead horse some more, for grins and giggles, George Carlin skewers this notion of delusional history:

So I can only assume, America is exceptional on principle, or more specifically, the notion that America has been specially graced comes from an ideology. And because there hasn’t been a newer testament added to the canon, it seems that Spengler is resigned to using flawed logic, wikipedia definitions, and a thorough misunderstanding of the founding of America.

For all its flaws and fecklessness, America remains in the eyes of its people an attempt to order a nation according to divine law rather than human custom, such that all who wish to live under divine law may abandon their ethnicity and make themselves Americans. The rights of Americans are held to be inalienable precisely because they are a grant from God, not the consensus of the sociologists or the shifting custom of a particular historical period. Ridiculous as this appears to the secular world, it is embraced by Americans as fervently as it was during the Founding. Even worse for the secularists, it has raised a following in the hundreds of millions in the Global South among people who also would rather be ruled by the divine law that holds their dignity to be sacred, than by the inherited tyranny of traditional society.

If America has been given a special grace, it is because its founders as well as every generation of its people have taken as the basis of America’s legitimacy the Judeo-Christian belief that God loves every individual, and most of all the humblest. Rights under law, from the American vantage point, are sacred, not utilitarian, convenient or consensual. America does not of course honor the sanctity of individual rights at all times and in all circumstances, but the belief that rights are sacred rather than customary or constructed never has been abandoned.

…To love America is to acknowledge its special grace, namely that a nation founded not on ethnicity, language, or culture but rather upon the sanctity of individual rights will prevail, while the remains of traditional society are borne away by the current. Those who love America and seek to emulate her, including hundreds of millions of new Christians in the Global South, well understand her uniqueness. To demand success of every leftover of traditional society must succeed is an expression of envy against America’s special grace.

Apparently, the bestowment of special grace on America comes from its recognition of divine law, which isn’t traditional culture, but maintains itself through the centuries… wait, what? That sounds like a tradition. Lets start farther back. The idea that America started as a Christian nation has been debunked by plenty of historians, even ones that are Christians with good historical reputations. Most of the angelic founding fathers were deists, enlightenment deists at that — ones who put forth nature as divine, not a Christian god. To assume the words used back then have the same definitional meaning, or were used with the same understanding as evangelical Christians today is uninformed at best. Go read Richard Hughes, Myths America Lives By, if you still do not get it. He explains it very simply.

But, it is said, America comes from a Judeo-Christian context, and that is clearly different. No, again, it comes from a mixture of enlightenment beliefs which forms its own civil religion through the language of Christianity.

For example, rights language — that humans have an inalienable right — is not a Christian notion. Now, saying people are created is a Christian notion, however, combining rights to pursue happiness with an appeal to divine authority isn’t exactly a Christian idea. In fact, it could be easily argued that Christianity stands somewhat against such an idea. Christianity doesn’t use rights language, hell it doesn’t even get that far up the philosophical ladder because it has a more foundational understanding called the imago dei, the image of God. We, every human being (not just land owners who could then vote), being created in the image of God, find their source in the Trinitarian God. The “right” to do something is not even in the picture; rights are about claiming something so we can do it. Rather, in Christianity, people have been claimed by God and therefore have inherent worth. To be claimed by God turns the notion of rights on its head. Instead of seeking out boundaries to let us do what we want or think we should have, God institutes a move that orients people towards helping one another. This Christian anthropology does not claim rights, our worth and the community of believers around us has been given by God.

Still unsure about Enlightenment appropriation of theological language to set up a civil religion allowing people to worship any idol they want, as long as its in the states shrine? Go read William Cavanaugh’s “The Empire of the Emptry Shrine” if you’re still not understanding the way the Enlightenment used and abused Christian language. (This is where room was created for some actual Christians to be involved in the founding of the United States of America, for those of you who are objecting that a few Christians were participants and signers. Which is indeed true, but we can’t claim a traditional foundation on of a few people here, nor use the few Christians involved to baptize Enlightenment language into Christianity.)

This nation was founded on the individual rights of white, male, slave holders to own slaves. Slaves were people who were not deemed human, but interestingly, God seemed to tell the slaves they were indeed human. Try listening to a spiritual sometime. But let us not be swayed by such insignificant, little details! After all, they were nice slave holders. The entire key to the article is in the title, “America’s Special Grace.” This is importantly not God’s special grace, but America’s claim that it is bestowing special grace on itself, as America creates its own anthropology. In short, we have selectively moved ourselves into salvation through our own salvific means.

The supreme irony of the article is that Spengler “argues” (or simply sings the praises of Enlightenment civil religion) for a triumphal liberation through enlightenment rights language, championed by a “unique” country, America. However, if the argument was turned about, claiming that the salvation of peoples of the global south is to be found in the liberation provided by Jesus, Spengler could have even sounded a lot like Father Tissa Balasuriya in The Eucharist and Human Liberation. And this is the ironic point, by switching salvific means from Jesus to America, Spengler makes the colonizer the savior by draping rights in theological language, but can only do so by hiding the ambiguity and ultimate abusive relationship of siding with the colonizer.

Therefore, to invalidate Spengler and American exceptionalism is turn the world right-side up and back in line with the grain of the universe. It is to reject American civil religion in favor of a necessary, Christological liberation, and not just for those in the global south who need to know their inherent worth so as to move out from their abusive situations, but for everyone. Even the gnostic, global north.

H/T to Halden for the heads up on the new Spengler article.

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3 thoughts on “Exceptionally Unexceptional: The False Notions of American Exception and America’s Special Grace

  1. Pingback: Civil Religion is :P « flying.farther

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