Everybody needs a break now and then, so while I go visit our friend Fr. Nick at his parish on Long Island this week, let me help you prepare for our national holiday with my column from three years ago:
The concept of “American exceptionalism” has almost as many definitions as there are commentators on it. I have long been fascinated by the term, whether its first best use was by Alexis de Tocqueville or Josef Stalin, both of whom are candidates for credit. Some would assert that the only exceptional aspect of our country is that it is ours, which is thus the same thing that makes any country exceptional. While I could not endorse any particular theory, it seems sufficiently commonsense to acknowledge that there is something authentically exceptional about our nation.
My first candidate for the ground of exceptionality would be our form of government, the Constitution, and that this form of government is the first and defining characteristic of the country. Ethnicity, culture, and geography all contributed to our nation’s earliest self-understanding and establishment, but did not even then, much less do they now, define what makes the United States of America, the United States of America.
Lest anyone think that the USA was simply the first of a historical generation of nations to be born of revolution and coalesce by constitution, one need examine the suggested “other examples.” The French staged a revolution with the express intention of emulating what they saw in our society, but “Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality” quickly descended into tyranny and bloodshed by committee. We are all aware of how the Russian and other so-called “revolutions” played out, pursued as they were in the names of ideologies that led to domination by ideologues. Many Latin American nations claim their own “George Washingtons” who nonetheless failed to manifest not only his executive virtues, but also and especially his virtuous relinquishing of executive power. Anybody familiar with the European Union’s huge phonebook-size assemblage of regulations knows it is a “Constitution” in name alone.
I think what lies at the root of the current mocking of American exceptionalism is a rejection of the possibility that anything can be an exception. There is a desire to subordinate the character of USA to a rule, and by that rule to take away any privilege or responsibility that would belong to a truly exceptional nation.
Both privilege and responsibility are eliminated by the tyranny of false equality, which refuses to admit not only any exception, but also the possibility of authentic difference. The reality of difference is manifest in the differences between and among human beings and all the creatures of the earth. Good and evil, true and false, reality and fiction, beauty and disorder are truly and clearly different. The only way to deny or suppress these differences is to erect a false equality through authority and power. That authority and power is necessarily in opposition to the author of all these differences, our Creator.
My willingness to accept that the United States is exceptional among nations is rooted in my belief that among human beings there are lives that are exceptional. That belief is founded on my acquaintance with the perfectly exceptional man who is God, Jesus Christ. His immaculately conceived mother, the Virgin Mary, is not only an exception to the rule of original sin, but also a model of and invitation to acceptance of the privilege and responsibility that comes with freedom from the rule, with being an exception.
The inherent difference among human lives is reflected in the differences of the societies they erect. The true differences between good and evil, true and false, between God and everything else, undergird a world where every human soul is called to be exceptional in a way that he or she is uniquely capable of being. This is the foundational freedom that can be suppressed but not eliminated, as it inheres in our very souls. Better than anywhere else or in any other time, this is the freedom that has until now been both provided and protected in our exceptional nation’s exceptional Constitution.