Talk of American exceptionalism has “gone viral” according to James Ceaser, Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. I heard Ceaser speak on Monday at Princeton University, where he accepted the Association for the Study of Free Institutions’ newly renamed James Q. Wilson Prize for Exceptional Scholarship. Ceaser’s talk on Monday was based on his recent essay “The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism.”
America has long been understood as exceptional at least in that it is a statistical outlier in many respects -- including, as Ceaser noted at the outset of his speech, America’s high rates of philanthropic activity. However, being a statistical outlier is not the same as having an exceptional national character or mission.
Republicans have embraced the notion of American “exceptionalism.” Mitt Romney, speaking at the Citadel last fall, proclaimed that:
America must lead the world. . . . I believe we are an exceptional country, with a unique destiny and role in the world. . .
Democrats, on the other hand, reject claims of exceptionalism, thinking that thoughts of a special mission have led America into foreign misadventures and slowed the development of a strong social safety net. President Obama rejected the validity of claims to American exceptionalism when he said on a foreign trip:
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
. . . that is, America is exceptional only in the sense that all the kids in Lake Wobegon are "above average" -- not at all.
As Ceaser noted, one reason for suspicion of claims of exceptionalism is that such claims may be taken to presuppose that America has been appointed to a special role in a divine plan for humanity. Thus, claims of exceptionalism are seen as disguised “God talk” that doesn’t have a proper place in a pluralistic democracy.
Ceaser argued that most arguments for an exceptional role for America have not been religious. Of course, the Puritans and others did suppose America had been divinely chosen for special purposes. However, most accounts of American exceptionalism offered throughout America’s political history don’t rely on claims of a special appointment by God; religious arguments have had a smaller role than most suppose in shaping the notion of a special American mission, Ceaser explained.
Throughout America’s past, the notion of an exceptional place for America on the world stage has been championed by secular thinkers. To pick but two important examples: Thomas Jefferson -- who excised all Jesus’ miracles from his own version of the New Testament -- argued that America had a special role in history by leading the world in the establishment of a political community based on the rights of man. George Bancroft, the nineteenth-century statesman and historian, articulated a highly influential theory of progressive improvement of society in his History of the United States that explained America’s special place as the world’s most advanced democracy. As Ceaser writes, Bancroft’s secular account of America’s special role is an important intellectual source for views in the Democratic Party today.
We thus can defend an account of America’s exceptional character without religious presuppositions -- and we don’t need to be embarrassed by charges that defending America’s exceptional character is to slip “God talk” into political discourse.
America is an exceptional country -- not merely a statistical outlier, but a country with a special character and exceptional virtues. Not least among those virtues is the generous, philanthropic disposition of her citizens. Remembering America’s exceptional character is fitting for this upcoming Memorial Day weekend -- and for the debates between now and November.