Who is Jim Wallis? He’s a liberal pastor, social activist, and spiritual adviser to President Obama.
Earlier this week, a short interview with Wallis was posted on LifeTree Café’s website. In it, Wallis stated that “America is not a Christian nation,” and has “never been a Christian nation.” He isn’t fond of the concept of American Exceptionalism, either:
“We are accountable to God’s purposes and God’s principles, but there’s no special covenant with America here…It doesn’t exist and to say so is really…a heresy. It’s not true and it’s very dangerous.”
I could write a book arguing Wallis’s statement that America is “not and never [has] been” a Christian nation. I’d bring up the writings of our Founders and their reliance on Divine Providence, and the Judeo-Christian values that built this country. I’d also include the fact that though our Founders were believers, they founded a country that welcomed all religions. But I won’t. For now I want to focus on the concept of American exceptionalism, a concept that Wallis either despises with a passion, or just doesn’t understand. Or both.
What is American exceptionalism, exactly? It’s the belief, first introduced by Alexis de Tocqueville, that our country—its people, its system of government, and its culture—is exceptional. It is qualitatively different from other nations in the world; not superior, but unique. It’s the belief that the ideas that make America great—liberty, individualism, egalitarianism, populism, laissez faire—are different, and give the individual the most freedom of any nation in the world. Quoting The Original Argument by Glenn Beck, it’s the belief that, “the hand of Providence brought together peoples of all colors and creeds to unite around a core set of universally shared values.”
Wallis is right in his assertion that there is no mention of America in the Christian Bible. There is no Biblical covenant between America and God as there is between God and Israel. But it can be argued that American exceptionalism doesn’t create a covenant that doesn’t exist—it acknowledges that God has blessed our nation. There’s a difference between falsely saying a covenant exists between God and America, and humbly acknowledging the blessings of liberty, which have been and continue to be so fruitfully enjoyed by Americans.
American exceptionalism isn’t believing we’re better than anyone else, nor is it putting our country above God. American exceptionalism isn’t a synonym for an inflated American ego, either. Also in The Original Argument, Beck states the importance of believing in America and her exceptionalism: “…American exceptionalism [is] the axis on which human freedom spins. If you don’t believe you are exceptional then who else will? If you don’t hold yourself to the highest possible standards, then how can you expect to accomplish anything great? If you are unexceptional then you deserve to be ruled by others.”
But the Founders and their successors believed that in America, the individual governs him or herself. And that’s what makes America exceptional.
Looking at the current state of our nation today, though, it’s not hard to see why people are losing faith in that exceptionalism. People are losing faith in America, and putting that faith in self-righteous leaders who claim to have their best interests at heart. Our economy is on the brink of collapse, leaders with integrity in Washington are a minority, moral values are turning upside down—I don’t need to list all of our country’s issues to illustrate how easy it is for one to argue that America as a nation is not as exceptional as she used to be.
But now, more than ever, American exceptionalism is needed. The belief in the exceptional ideas of America are needed as desperately now as one needs water on a sweltering summer day—because our country is dehydrated of hope, of belief in what America was intended to be, and we’re fading fast.
To say that America is exceptional is not to say that we’re superior. It’s to say that we’re blessed. We’re unique. And our system works—the system of government our Founders brilliantly crafted, not the perversion of it that corrupt politics has given us.
I believe that Americans who relied on the guidance of Divine Providence founded this country.
I believe that God amply blessed America at its founding, and continues to do so today.
Though she faces brokenness and discontent in her people, corruption and dishonesty in her leadership, I don’t believe America is superior; I believe America is still exceptional.
And if this be heresy, Jim Wallis, make the most of it.