essay #2 – the fallacy of american exceptionalism

During the week of February 16th, 2015, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani questioned President Barack Obama’s love of the United States, in large part due to what Giuliani perceives as a primary focus on criticism: “…from all that I can see of this president, all that I’ve heard of him, he apologizes for America, he criticizes America… I believe his initial approach is to criticize this country, and then afterwards to say a few nice things about it.” (FoxNews.com, 2015) While some of the rhetoric can be categorized as partisan mudslinging, both reactions to what Obama said point to a troubling precedent – reasoned, balanced criticism of cultural ideals is inappropriate, and doing so brings into question one’s appreciation and dedication of the ideals. Christians should take umbrage with hubris that ignores the broken and imperfect nature of the world, and instead look to hold both the good and the bad in mind together. However, these issues are nothing new – they are, in fact, illustrative of many of Reinhold Niebuhr’s ideas about Christian Realism. A more balanced and reasoned solution can be found through the work of Paul in Acts.

Deeply seated in the United States is the concept of exceptionalism, which Alexis de Tocqueville referred to as a perception that America is qualitatively different from any other nation because of the ideas it was founded upon. As GK Chesterton noted, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence…” (Chesterton, 1923). A foundation on creed as opposed to a birthright means that while any individual may become American by adhering to the values espoused by American creeds, conversely by rejecting those tenets, someone may become just as un-American (Lipset, 1996). However, if someone still espouses American ideals, yet is willing to criticize those same values it does not permit a simple dismissal of the criticism. Instead, it forces a strict adherent of American exceptionalism into cognitive dissonance, and given for many the sheer importance of American exceptionalism, may cause significant distress. This is why, when Obama has suggested that America has a share of faults, individuals like Rudy Guiliani have been so vociferous and critical, completely rejecting Obama’s remarks as un-American.

However, Niebuhr, who himself was proponent of a more nuanced view of American exceptionalism, argues that this rejection is sin, where “man is ignorant and involved in the limitations of a finite mind; but he pretends that he is not limited. He assumes that he can gradually transcend finite limitations until his mind becomes identical with a universal mind. All of his intellectual and cultural pursuits, therefore, become infected with the sin of pride.” (Neibuhr, 1996, pp. 178-179) This pride has been on clear display, as a myriad of individuals have been critical of Obama’s remarks, but perhaps none more than Giuliani, who continued to argue against Obama’s departure to unwavering American exceptionalism. When coupled with other polemics around Obama’s upbringing and affiliations with Islam and Communism, this pride inevitably creates division of the perceived good and evil in the world that has only increased since the rise of extremism and terrorism post September 11, 2001. Niebuhr, though writing in his time about the Soviet Union, warns against this pride in a way that is still valuable today. By eschewing a more modest and circumspect perspective on American, Niebuhr feared that the nation would be destroyed, “directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle [of conflict]; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.” (Niebuhr, 1952, p. 174)

This poses a difficult question – how does one provide reasoned response to the critique of national policy, yet do so in a way that does not inflame polemic arguments? A helpful response can be found in Acts, as Paul speaks to the scholars on the Areopagus.

When Paul entered Athens, he found himself apoplectic – the word used in the Greek, παρωξύνετο, connotes a seething anger at the level of idolatry that he noticed (BibleHub.com). However, from the perspective of the typical person in Athens, the statues represented the culture at the time. Many Roman emperors desired to continue Greek traditions in an idealized form, and continued to strengthen cultural institutions like the Areopagus (Wilson, Nigel, Editor, 2006).

Paul may have been incensed and viewed the Athenian culture as idolatrous, but he did not launch directly into attacking the Athenians. Instead, he engaged with the population in the ἀγορᾷ, or town square, busy with people learning the news of the day and engaging in thoughtful dialogue. Paul eventually caught the attention individuals who felt it wise to bring him to the Areopagus and who expressed an interest his countercultural ideals. The Areopagus was comprised of the elite of Athens, and so by engaging the public in their space, Paul managed to present his case to those who had greatest influence on the culture (Wilson, Nigel, Editor, 2006). Moreover, these were individuals who had interest in this dialogue, spending “their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” (Acts 17:21, English Standard Version).

Paul’s address to the Areopagus is defined primarily by his knowledge of the Hellenistic culture, noting where he and the crowd can agree, yet providing a thoughtful critique of where they disagree by appealing to the crowd’s intellectual curiosity. Paul begins his statement by complimenting them for their religiosity – something that Paul clearly shares with the people. This allows for a commonality with his audience, reducing initial tension caused by the audience being engaged by a new idea. Secondly, Paul refers to the statue dedicated to an unknown god. This acts as a good entry to explaining Jesus and the resurrection, which he does elegantly and succinctly, referencing Hellenistic literature in order to connect further with his audience.

Towards the end of the address, Paul begins his criticism of the Areopagus audience and their idolatry, expressing that “we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or

stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29). Paul is far from enraged, but certainly gets the point across. He also seems to have been received well – when the audience disagreed, they focused on the resurrection, not idolatry. Finally, Paul explains the consequences of not listening to his critique. Now that Athenians have the appropriate knowledge of Jesus and the resurrection, they could not claim ignorance, and would not be spared the need for repentance.

Paul’s address illustrates Niebuhr’s encouragement for balanced perspectives, and is helpful for a modern critique as well. In Luke’s description, nearly 70% of the discourse is related to how Paul makes a connection with his audience, while 30% of the time is spent on Paul’s critique. Given Paul’s apparent fury about the circumstances in Athens, his was a calculated and reasoned approach. The audience’s response went as well as one may expect – some people thought Paul’s remarks were laughable, while others wanted to learn more and eventually changed their perspectives. That seemed to be acceptable to Paul – Luke writes that after the encounter in Athens he left, with apparently little else occurring. In the end, Paul is more focused on helping the Areopagus audience understand where God fits within their worldview, and subsequently provides a reasoned basis for change. It is worth noting that Paul did not question he Athenians’ commitment to their gods – in fact, he compliments them on their religiosity – but he does explain how he believes their commitments are misplaced. Furthermore, Paul does not seem shaken by the apparent mockery by some of the audience. He simply worked with those who wanted to learn more, and eventually left when it was time.

When an ideal is so coveted that it cannot be criticized nor be adhered to by every person who adopts it, it is dangerous, as Niebuhr warns us over and over again. Many of the most trying moments in human history are borne out of ideals that were not debated by those who disagreed in a safe space. President Obama must be willing to bear criticism for his beliefs and at the same time find common ground with his critics. However, those who disagree must also respect an alternative perspective, and provide space to debate freely. If his critics do not provide that space, it sets a dangerous precedent towards sinful pride. Paul, one of the greatest evangelists for early Christianity, was willing to be mocked for what he believed and found common ground with those who did things that incensed him. Herein lies the irony of American exceptionalism – that a temporary and imperfect institution of human creation could be less able of managing criticism than the forever and perfect Creator.

Immediately questioning someone’s appreciation of the nation simply because of a disagreement in perspective, as in the case with Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama, sets a dangerous precedent towards sinful pride that will do more to destroy the nation than to help it. Instead, thoughtful dialogue as Paul demonstrated at the Areogapus can allow individuals to make reasoned decisions. While not everyone will immediately agree, it allows for individuals to find common ground. This common ground, at the core of democracy, is the truly exceptional part of America, and by fostering that space in all that is spoken; it will allow America to continue as a leading nation.

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