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American Exceptionalism

In her debate tonight, Governor Sarah Palin endorsed "American exceptionalism:--she invoked the Puritan ideal of a "city on a hill"--a New Jersualem.This is a topic on which we at dotccommonweal are prepared to debate--in fact, we have debated in the past. Any new thoughts about the use/advisability/ helpfulness of the image?

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Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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"If anything, it has reinforced my belief in American exceptionalism. One of the things that happens when you live overseas is you realize how special America is our values, our ideals, our Constitution, our rule of law, the idea of equality and opportunity. "Barak Obama, in an interview with Time,8599,1834309,00.html

Mark--In reading the interview you cited, I think Barak Obama has a realistic view of the role America plays in the world, as well as the unique nature of our fundamental freedoms as compared to most. I think he is prepared to guard those freedoms, but in a different way than John McCain. The hawkishness of McCain/Palin cannot be overlooked, and frankly it is damaging and unnecessary, and I'm prepared as a voter to try something new!

I still can't get over the fact that she attributed the phrase to Ronald Reagan. So much for John Winthrop. But she seemed quite pleased with herself.

This whole American exceptionalism/manifest destiny is deeply rooted in the American psyche. It no doubt has its origin in Puritan American Protestantism and is the shadow side of the distinction between church and state. The state itself is called to a higher purpose.I saw Ahmadinejad on Larry King and while I wouldn't hold him out as a shining counter-example he did raise an interesting point when Larry King asked why the world hates Iran or something like that. He answered Who is the world Larry. Do you mean the US and its Western allies - is that the world. There are many countries in the world that support us.It was a subtle point but drove home the larger issue of politicians or people inovking 'the world' to justify positions. Inother words the downside of this whole American exceptionalism is that it can make people draw false universals.

The fact that Commonweal exists is evidence that there are some who believe that Religion, Politics and Culture are related.

Nancy;Yes but what is the nature of the relationship? To skcetch it out boradly enought to reach a consensus is pretty tough.The devil (and God) are in the details.I think that this is still a work in progress.

There was a fairly brief discussion on Vox-Nova titled "Obama and American Exceptionalism, and I am going to borrow from what I said there . . . .I was certainly educated, as a Catholic, to believe that the Catholic Church was the one true Church and that America was extraordinarily special among nations. As much as possible, both themes were woven through all academic subjects. For example, I was taught to read with the Faith and Freedom Readers (published by Ginn). We sang patriotic songs in glee club. History and geography classes were used to promote both Americanism and Catholicism. Math and spelling were the only two subjects I can remember that didnt promote Americanism and Catholicism. (It would have been so easy to have a Faith and Freedom type speller. I wonder why we didnt.)I would suspect that most Americans, myself among them, believe in some version of exceptionalism, if that means we think of America as the greatest country on earth and the leading promoter of freedom and democracy and the last best hope.I think it would be odd for any presidential candidate to make the case that America is just another country, with a lot to be proud of and a lot to be ashamed of, and that when we sing "God Bless America" or "America the Beautiful," we're going way to far in assuming God's special blessing on the United States. I would find it difficult to give up the idea of American exceptionalism, and I hope that if Barack Obama is elected, he will be able to restore the waning reputation of America throughout the world. Of course, if McCain is elected, I am going to have to give up the idea of American exceptionalism, since I am going to move to Canada.

American Exceptionalism is an ideal we are called to live up to, not just congratulate ourselves for.The best moment for Palin in the debate was when she stopped winking and talking like a hick yer sure darn tootin' on steriods long enough to agree with Biden that we should do something about the suffering in Darfur.I was also relieved to hear that, however much Palin wants to be a VP in the mold of Dick Cheney, Eminence Grise of the Bush Administration, she noted that McCain (no fool he) was going to give her some tasks, like advocating for special needs children. Perhaps she can find some way to exhibit American Exceptionalism in that role. If not, she can certainly do no real harm.Long shot prediction with maybe some wishful thinking mixed in, but I can certainly envision a scenario after a McCain victory when Palin "resigns" and someone qualified to be president is installed. While Palin didn't have to use her lifeline last night, she's clearly not up to the Big Job.

Yes. She's a combination first lady = vice president. Then again, I suppose so was HRC.Jean, did it look to you as if she had notes?

Biden said some pretty bizarre things last night.Like on what the role of the Vice President is according to the Constitution - he was wrong.Like on the rights accorded by civil unions are outright "in the Constitution." No matter what you think of civil unions, this statement is odd, sounding like it's from an 8th grade civics paper.Like his statement on Hezbollah and Lebanon which was flat-out wrong.Where does he get his genius reputation? I'm not seeing it.

Speaking of the debate, I know my view is idiosyncratic, but I was struck by two things: One, the welcome focus on policy issues like finances and health care and war and peace, and avoidance of those hot-button culture war topics. Two, when they addressed gay rights, civil unions, gay marriage, Palin agreed with Biden and the Dems positions. Again, is she is more states rights than religious right? And is the religious right going to overlook this? I think it's a sensitive but also savvy move, in that the polls show gay issues giving the GOP little traction.PS: Jean, to paraphrase the old SNL skit, it seems McCain has withdrawn from Michigan. What are the feelings of frustrated Michiganites? (Michigonians? Meshuganeh? Oh, and which one of the two referred to "Bosniacs"?! That was good.)

Did abortion come up at all? I didn't hear it.

Biden brought up Roe at the very end, almost wedging it in there as he spoke about his record on the Judiciary Committee. But Gwen Ifill gave no opening (I think she's great, as is Jim Lehrer, but there are those who will acuse her of bias due to her forthcoming book on politics) and I didn't note any other reference to abortion. It was a very meaty debate on issues that you refer to in your post above this one, though I think (my subjective perception) that Biden came across as very crisp (surprising) and very well-versed (not surprising). Palin wore thin, very thin, for me, but that's likely a matter of taste. She survived, and stopped the bleeding somewhat. That seems to be, in the conventional redundancy, the general consensus.

I think the polls show you're not in the minority.

I haven't seen numbers or much commentary yet. I just go by the tabloids at the newsstand: "No Baked Alaska," says the Daily News!

Obama, McCain, and Palin are the epitome of "American exceptionalism" (that is not meant as a slight against Biden--but he is a fairly typical senator who followed a relatively typical path to where he is) .. but truly: where else but in America could the leading candidates for the nation's two highest offices include a member of a minority racial group--many of whose members' ancestors were once owned as "property" by the majority racial group ... a man who had so often challenged his own party that the other party seriously considered offering him its VP spot back in 2004 ... or a young woman with relatively little experience but a strong "narrative" to her life story (although some people criticize Palin for that inexperience, her rise is a uniquely Americanm event--a relative unknown would never be able to rise so quickly in most other countries)

One of the greatest things that happened in the last few years was the gathering of former Secretary of States from both parties urging dialogue and engagement with the rest of the world, against the isolationists, God is with us from Chaney/Bush and the fundamentalists. That same group called recently for talks with Iran.We have to stop clamoring to make Christianity the religion of the state. All it does is make people convert so they can get political jobs, power and influence.

While Sarah.Palin might be carrying the torch for American exceptionalism. I daresay James Madison is spinning in his grave.

David,Bosniak is a transliteration of the term the people of Bosnia use to refer to themselves, so Biden's use of it was correct. But it is the kind of correctness that can annoy others, who think somebody one does not need much knowledge in order to understand the issues. I suppose that is one of the problems of American exceptionalism -- we stand out because we represent the inherent rights of every person in the world, but we are held back by those think individuals cannot stand out among Americans.Wikipedia lists two terms for the people of Michigan: Michiganian and Michigander. (is Jean a Michigoose?) But how does Joe Biden refer to himself, as a delwarite or a delawarian?

Jim McK, thanks for correcting my snarky ignorance. I will not attempt to parse the proper name of Delaware dwellers. On the other hand, it comes from the name of an Indian tribe--or is it one we confered on them? I don't know how one makes the plural in the Iroquois. Though Biden might...

Oh yeah, then there was this line from Palin, which took me aback a bit:"You mentioned education and I'm glad you did. I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and God bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right?" Is that a threat or a blessing?!

The notion that the U. S., or any other particular nation, is the "exceptional" nation is pernicious. In religious terms, it smacks of blasphemy. In political terms, it runs counter to any reasonable aspiration for a just international order. Think about it. Doesn't this notion amount to the claim that there is a prima facie presumption that American goals, porrposes, and/or interests are always deserving of preeminence?

I thought I heard Obama refer to the "city on a hill" the other day.Cathy: I thouight she had notes.

David, I too was surprised by the "her reward is in heaven" line. Mostly because I thought it was a perfect setup for Biden to come back with, "Maybe, but under Barack Obama we'll see that teachers see some rewards while they're here on earth as well!" She followed it up with generalizations about how she wants to help working people, though -- the whole I'll-just-repeat-what-he-said tactic -- so it probably wouldn't have worked. But she did seem to be asking for it.

Bernard said: The notion that the U. S., or any other particular nation, is the exceptional nation is pernicious. In religious terms, it smacks of blasphemy. In political terms, it runs counter to any reasonable aspiration for a just international order. Think about it. Doesnt this notion amount to the claim that there is a prima facie presumption that American goals, purposes, and/or interests are always deserving of preeminence?Yes. It's the peculiar form that American nationalism takes that make its holders think that they aren't nationalists. America doesn't have a monopoly or copyright on the value of democracy. And while everyone might love their mother, someone who seriously thinks that their mother is the best mother in the world and is a hope to all other people who want good mothers is something else.

"... although some people criticize Palin for that inexperience, her rise is a uniquely American eventa relative unknown would never be able to rise so quickly in most other countries."True! And Mencken would have had a field day with that story were he with us today. He might have pointed out that one of the "exceptional" things about America is that people with a good streak of hucksterism and very little else are able to make it here, where elsewhere they'd be laughed off and ignored.I thought the whole exchange over legal rights of gay couples was close to unintelligible on both sides. Joe Biden a genius? I don't know any card-carrying Democrats who think that. Lord, a reporter has Biden on video saying that when the market crashed in the Great Depression, President Roosevelt went on TV and explained everything to people. He's got a big heart, and that saves him from foot-in-mouth a lot.What you call people from Michigan depends on where you live. There are Downstaters (who live in the Lower Peninsula), Westsiders (who live in the Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo axis and are mostly extremely Dutch and extremely Republican), Detroiters (which could be just about anybody in urban southeast Michigan) and Yoopers (who live in the Upper Peninsula). And then there are "people who live in the Thumb." Michiganians hate being called "Michiganders," but I will admit to being a Michigoose when I say stupid things.Wouldn't it be "Delavarians" from Delaware, a la Glasgovians from Glasgow?Anyway, yes, McCain has pulled out of the race here. Dems are exulting, but I think the GOP understands that if MCain has to put his money where he's got a chance.

Folks from Glasgow are called Glaswegians.

We are so "exceptional" that we made three thousand lives at the WTC sound like the holocaust while we repaid that with the killing of hundreds of thousand of Iraqi and Afghanistan lives. Basically, because W, Rumsfeld, Chaney, Neuhaus and a few other neocons were pissed off. And still going. It repeats history. The Muslim invasion of the seventh century was nowhere as bloody as the Crusades were. Jesus said "take up the cross." Subverting Christians turned it into a sign of conquest. There are some basics missing, don't you agree?

Jimmy Mac, I'll be a Michigoose! If you google (which is sometimes helpful to see which phrases are in common parlance, if not actually correct), I got 62 "Glasgovian," 1,140 "Glasgowian" and (ta da) more than 315,000 "Glaswegian" hits.Does that mean people from Delaware are Delawegians?

First, I thought the factcheck on nPR this morning was revealing and balanced and unlike some posts here only willing to point out one side's gaffes( the kind of inane partisanship I disdain.)I though Palin looked like she had notes, that abortion really didn't come up (But I think what was asked was what most Americans are thinking about, not Commonweal readers), that Palin ndid reaonable but convinced me she's weak on gravitas.As to "exceptionalism", I think we enjoy much here in terms of freedom and many of us have better prosperity than folks elsewhere. But "shining light on a hill" seems a bit jingoistic to me.

Jean Raber said: "The best moment for Palin in the debate was when she stopped winking and talking like a hick yer sure darn tootin on steriods long enough to agree with Biden that we should do something about the suffering in Darfur."That was actually the low point for me. I know Senator Biden was just trying to show off his foreign policy knowledge and all that, but I hope he really doesn't want to send American troops back into Lebanon and into Sudan. Talk abut provoking the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians all in one fell swoop.

David, I too was surprised by the her reward is in heaven line.That's actually a biblical reference. It's an allusion to Matthew 6:19-20:;&version=9;19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: 20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal

So Palin's remark obviously was just a way of saying, "Teachers are doing the Lord's work." ("Doing the Lord's work" is another common religious saying.) What's surprising about it?

MAT, I can understand why some people might have seen that exchange with trepidation, especially since the "war on terror" has expanded to three fronts--Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.I see Darfur, however, as a truly humanitarian effort, and one for which there is ample evidence that should persuade us to act on the matter in some way; it's not a trumped up cause with fake intelligence about WMDs.Both Palin and Biden seemed to be talking about a joint effort with allies, and providing air support, though Ifil initially asked if they supported "boots on the ground" support. I also give Palin credit for supporting a divestiture of her state's interests in the region, which she hopes the Alaska legislature will pass.If they talked about entering Lebanon in the same question, I missed it. There are some true horrors that have happened there, but I don't think a military action there is a good idea at all.

The history of the phrase - City on the Hill - is significant for what it caused, created, and left behind. Best book on this subject:A City Upon a Hill By Larry Witham Buy this book Barnes& - $24.95 Books-A-Million Google Product Search Borrow this book Find this book in a library Pivotal moments in U.S. history are indelibly marked by the sermons of the nation's greatest orators. America's Puritan founder John Winthrop preached about "a city upon a hill", a phrase echoed more than three centuries later by President Ronald Reagan in his farewell address to the nation; Abraham Lincoln's two greatest speeches have been called "sermons on the mount"; and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" oration influenced a generation and changed history. From colonial times to the present, the sermon has motivated Americans to fight wars as well as fight for peace. Mighty speeches have called for the abolition of slavery and for the prohibition of alcohol. They have stirred conscientious objectors and demonstrators for the rights of the unborn. Sermons have provoked the mob mentality of witch hunts and blacklists, but they have also stirred activists in the women's and civil rights movements. The sermon has defined America at every step of its history, inspiring great acts of courage and comforting us in times of terror. A City Upon a Hill tells the story of these powerful words and how they shaped the destiny of a nation. A City Upon a Hill includes the story of Robert Hunt, the first preacher to brave the dangerous sea voyage to Jamestown; Jonathan Mayhew's "most seditious sermon ever delivered," which incited Boston's Stamp Act riots in 1765; early calls for abolition and "Captain-Preacher Nat" Turner's bloody slave revolt of 1831; Henry Ward Beecher's sermon at Fort Sumter on the day of Lincoln's assassination; tent revivalist/prohibitionist Billy Sunday's "booze sermon"; the challenging words of Martin Luther King Jr., which inspired the civil rights movement; Billy Graham's moving speeches as "America's pastor" and spiritual advisor to multiple U.S. presidents; and Jerry Falwell's legacy of changing the way America does politics. A City Upon a Hill provides a history of the United States as seen through the lens of the preached wordsProtestant, Catholic, and Jewishthat inspired independence, constitutional amendments, and mili-tary victories, and also stirred our worst prejudices, selfish materialism, and stubborn divisivenessall in the name of God. Another great resource is: The Blessings of Liberty of Charles Heath.\Both of these tell a detailed story of folks starting prior to Winthrop, then JFK, Martin Luther King, Reagan, George W. Bush, and how Evangelical Christians have co-opted this phrase since Reagan's time. Some of the results of this "call" have not been ideal or even positive - history of triumphalism; justification of racism, slavery, torture, etc.

Jean Raber: But unless the UN Security Council approves our presence there, with or without allies, it would be illegal under the UN Charter and I don't think China is going to allow that any time soon. I actually believe Senator Biden that he is committed to international law, etc. I think he was just trying to make a point to display his knowledge of international affairs and the like when he said that. Anyway, they speak about Darfur frequently in the UN General Assembly and Security Council - they will continue to make progress with diplomacy as they have been. And you're right - the Senator's recommendation to send Americans back into Lebanon was in response to a separate question, not on Darfur.

Got a hit offline citing Andrew Sullivan re Palin's stand on Alaska's divestiture in Darfur. Here's the WaPo story on her position. Looks like her administration was first sympathetic but opposed divestiture because it wouldn't make much difference. In April Palin's administration reversed its position to support divestiture. Public Radio News indicates that the bill died, but is likely to be resurrected in the legislature. MAT, I don't know if Biden was showboating on foreign policy. I wouldn't be prepared to say that his answer advocated circumvention of the U.N. Charter or diplomatic efforts. The official Obama policy on Darfur:"As president, Obama will take immediate steps to end the genocide in Darfur by increasing pressure on the Sudanese and pressure the government to halt the killing and stop impeding the deployment of a robust international force. He and Joe Biden will hold the government in Khartoum accountable for abiding by its commitments under the Comprehensive Peace Accord that ended the 30 year conflict between the north and south. Obama worked with Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) to pass the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act in 2006."I could find no foreign policy statement that indicated an Obama administration wants to send Americans back to Lebanon.Source: doke, enough from me on this thread. Off to make Saturday night pancakes with Michigan maple syrup and bratwurst and continue our DVD viewing of political related movies. Toight: The Sean Penn version of "All the King's Men."No arugula eatin' East coast libersals we! (Or maybe that was on another thread ...)

This may be too late in this thread to get much notice, but Andrew Bacevich, Commonweal contributor and author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism," has this column at The Huffington Post: (H/T Paul Raushenbush at Beliefnet:

Stuart - Thanks for the citation, but I am actually quite familiar with the origins of the phrase. I was surprised to hear it at that point in the debate because the very concept of earning "rewards in heaven" sets up a contrast with earthly rewards, suggesting that the latter are less reliable and less noble. That suggestion is certainly on-message for Christ, but when it comes to policy discussions, earthly rewards are a far more relevant subject. Nevertheless, I don't question the truth of Palin's statement, or her intentions in referencing holy writ -- what I said above was that she seemed to be setting up a perfect comeback for Biden, something along the lines of, "If Senator Obama and I are elected, we'll see that deserving teachers are rewarded right here on earth too!"

Another good book dealing with the concept of A City on the Hill is this:In Cities on a Hill (1987) Pulitzer Prize-winner Frances Fitzgerald explores this often eccentric, sometimes prophetic inclination in America. With characteristic wit and insight she examines four radically different communities a fundamentalist church, a guru-inspired commune, a Sunbelt retirement city, and a gay activist community all embodying this visionary drive to shake the past and build anew. Frances FitzGerald here gives eloquent voice and definition to a quintessentially American impulse. It is a resonant work of literary imagination and journalistic precision.

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