American Exceptionalism – What Makes America Different?
What is American Exceptionalism? Five decades after America gained independence, French political analyst Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on the exceptional character of the United States and gave us a great snapshot of what makes America different. Unlike other nations that were defined by ethnicity, geography, common heritage, social class, or hierarchal structures, America was a nation of immigrants bond together by a shared commitment to the democratic principles of liberty, equality, individualism and laissez faire economics.
American Exceptionalism – A Religious Foundation
The principles of American Exceptionalism comprise the “America creed,” which, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.” There, the theological pegs of our Union are established in four explicit references to the Judeo-Christian God.
The Declaration of Independence opens by acknowledging “the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God.” It goes on to refer to the “Creator” who endows man with “certain unalienable rights.” It makes an appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the world,” and closes with an expression of trust in the “protection of Divine Providence.”
The last reference is particularly striking, considering the deistic leanings of the Declaration’s main author, Thomas Jefferson. In deism, God is a neither a Protector nor Provider; He is a distant, detached Creator who refrains from interfering in the affairs of men.
Nevertheless, in the dust-up to the Revolutionary War, Jefferson wrote, “We devoutly implore assistance of Almighty God to conduct us happily through this great conflict.” And near the end of that conflict, he warned, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God?”
Forty years after Jefferson penned the Declaration, he made note to a friend: “We are not in a world ungoverned by the laws and the power of a Superior Agent. Our efforts are in His hand, and directed by it; and He will give them their effect in His own time.” And this from the man who is considered one of the least religious of the Founders.
Although Jefferson is the patron saint of secular elites for his famous “wall of separation,” it was never his, or any of the Founders’, intention to denude the public square of religious influence. It is quite telling that over 30 years after Jefferson coined that phrase, the keen political observer de Tocqueville remarked: “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions.”
Even the least religious of the Founders, Ben Franklin, issued this stirring appeal during an arduous debate in the Constitutional Congress:
In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for Divine protection.... All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of Superintending Providence in our favor...have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance?.... God Governs in the affairs of men [Daniel 4:17]. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice [Matthew 10:29], is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?
American Exceptionalism – A Special Heritage
American Exceptionalism is grounded in the Founders, and the founding document they authored, which gives testimony to the religious, and uniquely Judeo-Christian, character of the United States of America. Today, numerous religious symbols on edifices in and around the nation’s capital add their voices to that testimony.
Images and representations of the Bible, the crucifix, Moses, and the Ten Commandments exist in engravings and sculptures at the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the Capitol building, the Library of Congress, the White House, the World War II Memorial, and the Arlington National Cemetery. At the Supreme Court, the Ten Commandments are displayed in no less than three places: over the East portico, on the Court doors, and over the Chief Justice’s chair. But there is one witness to America’s religious heritage that many people carry in their purses and wallets: the one-dollar bill.
Centered on the back of the dollar bill are not the words, “In man we trust,” “In science we trust,” or “In the state we trust”; but “IN GOD WE TRUST.”
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