Over on Facebook, a theologian friend posted a question asking (I paraphrase) if others thought that American exceptionalism was a sin. Lots of interesting answers followed, many in agreement, clarifying why they thought it might be a sin, with more leaning towards yes. If reading these words sets you off – in either direction – hold on, that is part of the point.
One of the commenters pointed towards it being a sin because it is a lie. That makes sense to me, at least in the way that I see and understand American exceptionalism, because at its root the sin of pride is poised to leap in and co-opt, thus leading us further astray. Someone else pointed out American exceptionalism in the light nationalism, mentioning Gaudium et Spes. They also noted that St. John Paul II warned us about excessive nationalism; he certainly saw the fruit of evil that came from such a position.
This all has me thinking because excessive nationalism, which is not to be confused with patriotism. I am worried about what grows out of such exceptionalism, and it seems like a runaway train to me today. My biggest problem with American nationalism is that is seemed rooted – as I mentioned earlier – in excessive pride. Also, maybe it is just me, but it seems inherently disordered through the lens of faith because God has loved each and every one of us into being, so how could one country be full of people who are superior? However, while our way of life offers us many gifts, I do not think that this is it and that everything else is flawed in some way. How arrogant is that?
As God’s people I do think that we need to keep asking ourselves questions like this, so that we are engaged with the dynamism of our lives in Christ. If we can’t see – or even be willing to see – that a position infused with the exceptionalism sort of mindset is one that risks our humanity, then I fear we are lost. The idea that we are unlike any other and without equal implies a hierarchy that is not true. It is not a big leap from this point of view to great sins such as racism, sexism, and prejudice.
Another challenge of the position is that we reduce humans, denying them of their dignity, to a “group” that we oppose. Whether it is someone denigrating all “conservatives” or putting down “liberals” as if their was but one group-hive mind among them all is ridiculous at best, and sinful at worst. That’s bad enough, but the nationalism loads up all kinds of generalizations that are simply not true – and those are lies. And we know who the purveyor of all lies is, right? Some big contemporary lies might be that all Mexicans are flooding our borders to take advantage of our way of life is a lie, all Muslims belong to a death cult intent on destroying our way of life, all Black citizens in addition to being lazy welfare users also want to kill our police. We could all go on and on with examples, each one uglier than the next.
Are there truths in some situations? Yes, but no all can be all anything and it is a challenge of sin to think this way. Similarly absurd would be the notion that all Americans are the best people in the world and our way of life is completely without fault. That is the exceptionalism we see so much of on parade lately, and that is dangerous territory.
This gets me back to my last post, about what we might choose. As people of God, in particular for those of us who are Roman Catholic, we are asked to live in ways so that all may be one in Christ. Instead of slicing and dicing, choosing either or, we are invited to live holistically and in service to the other. That is not so easy to do if you are inclined to pigeonhole the worth and the unworthy, the good and the bad and so forth. For about the 804,482th time I refer to Anne Lamott’s great line, illustrated in the image below.
So tell me readers, what do you think? Is American exceptionalism a sin? If so – why? If so – why not? In the end, I’m left thinking that sin easily springs forth from this mindset. for the reasons I mentioned and more. I’m curious in these days of so much talk of our nation’s greatness and failure how things look to you.
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