By Ricki Pepin
American Exceptionalism. The very term evokes highly charged emotions backed by two very distinct schools of thought diametrically opposed to one another:
Traditionalists declare that America marches to a different drummer, its uniqueness seen through its history, size, geography, political institutions and culture. Progressives and many college professors reject this view, vigorously decrying America as an imperialist, bully nation with class-based and race-based inequalities. Which one is true?
Rather than adding yet another opinion to the mix, let’s search for principles in our founding documents, ask some questions and define a couple of terms. Learning from history, so as to repeat the good and not the evil, involves more than memorizing dates and dead people. Some key questions need to be honestly answered, such as –
- Who were the people involved?
- What motivated them to do what they did?
- What methods did they use to achieve their objectives?
- Did it work?
- Was it ethical?
- Should it be repeated?
- Should it be avoided?
In 1620, the Pilgrims landed in America and penned the Mayflower Compact, stating their unique purpose for this new nation – “Having undertaken [this voyage to America] for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith…” Please note, they did not establish America as a Muslim, Buddhist, or pluralistic nation. They founded it under God, for His glory, to advance the Christian faith. This was an exceptional objective.
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson, the principle author of the Declaration of Independence, agreed with the Pilgrims’ objective when he used the phrase “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God” as the foundation for American law and government.
The first part of this phrase – the laws of Nature – is also known as Natural Law. Other civilizations (such as the Romans) used Natural Law as the basis of their legal system, so this was not an exceptional idea. Cicero, a prominent Roman statesman and political philosopher (106 BC), declared, “Natural Law is so understandable, so common-sense, so reasonable that you need no one to interpret it for you.” In other words, man was the final arbiter of Natural Law.
What does make America exceptional is the second part of that phrase in the Declaration of Independence – The laws of Nature’s God. The short definition of this term is – “the moral law…contained in the 10 Commandments written by the finger of God.” (Webster’s 1828 Dictionary).
Sir William Blackstone, whose Commentaries on the Laws of Englandwere widely read and studied by the founders, said it best – “Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator…it is necessary that he should in all points conform to…[the] law of his Maker… These laws… are the eternal immutable laws of good and evil…[and are] superior in obligation to any other… no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this…”
Simply summarized – American exceptionalism is two-fold:
- Its purpose – established for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.
- Its legal foundation – the laws of Nature AND Nature’s God – relying on God as the ultimate authority, not man’s reason alone.
Believing in American exceptionalism is not arrogance, but upholding it is an ongoing battle. Who is winning in the conflict of ideas and ideals – man’s “reason” or God’s law? In the natural world, no animal aborts their young before they’re born. Only humans do. Abortion violates both Natural Law and the Laws of Nature’s God (Exodus 20:13). In the animal kingdom, no creature naturally mates with one of the same sex. Only humans claim this un-natural act to be natural. Homosexuality violates both Natural Law and the Laws of Nature’s God (Romans 1:26-27). Wake up, America! What have we allowed in this exceptional nation under the re-definition of “choice” and “tolerance”?
Push back! What would adherence to this exceptional standard – the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God – look like in our families, in our communities? Would obeying God’s laws, rather than man’s (unreasonable) “reason”, bring life rather than death, healthy families rather than broken ones? Would teaching this standard to our children and grandchildren bring them a clearer sense of right and wrong? Could it create a hunger to discover the purpose for their own lives as Americans, as Christians?
American exceptionalism…arrogance or a tradition worthy of pursuit?
Something to think about.