AUTHOR: Richard Barager | POSTED: 01/21/11 7:02 PM
CATEGORIES: Politics and Society, Uncategorized
There is a scene in my novel Altamont Augie wherein the story’s main character and his adversary debate the concept of Manifest Destiny, which can be thought of as a special case of the more fundamental concept of American exceptionalism, a topic much in the news of late.
I think it is fair to say that religious skeptics tend to dislike the idea of American exceptionalism, while citizens of faith tend to embrace it. Some have even speculated that virtually no atheists believe in American exceptionalism. If true, I find this a troubling state of affairs, both for America and for her atheists.
Though the United States is, unlike much of Europe, still a predominantly religious nation, the demographics of atheism are trending up, at least according to a study done in 2007 by the Barna Group #mce_temp_url# and discussed in a Washington Post article#mce_temp_url# that same year.
“A study released in June by the Barna Group, a religious polling firm, found that about 5 million adults in the United States call themselves atheists. The number rises to about 20 million—about one in every 11 Americans—if people who say they have no religious faith or are agnostic (they doubt the existence of a God or a supreme deity) are included. They tend to be more educated, more affluent and more likely to be male and unmarried than those with active faith, according to the Barna study. Only 6 percent of people over 60 have no faith in God, and one in four adults ages 18 to 22 describe themselves as having no faith.”
These numbers suggest that in the future, America will need to reconcile the religious skepticism of its growing ranks of unbelievers with the vital national concept of American exceptionalism. Either atheism is compatible with American exceptionalism or it is not. I would argue that it is, and that it must be. For if it is not, given the above polling data, an inevitable dilution of our national identity—and vigor—will occur. It is unnecessary for this to take place. Atheists should be given permission to openly embrace American exceptionalism in a way that is philosophically and intellectually palatable to them.
But is it possible to believe in the core set of American values known as American exceptionalism without believing in God? Does such a thing as American exceptionalism actually exist? And if so, what tangible proof is there of it?
American exceptionalism does exist, and the most compelling proof of it is the current number#mce_temp_url# of first generation immigrants living in the United States: 38.5 million people. It is a staggering number, by far the most in the world. No other country even comes close; Russia is next, with 12.5 million. That immigrants from all over the world choose overwhelmingly to come—often while enduring great personal hardship—to a single country makes that country, by definition, exceptional.
And it has always been so, from the time the phrase was first coined—by a Frenchman, no less.
“ The situation of the Americans is therefore entirely exceptional, and it is to be believed that no [other] democratic people will ever be placed in it. Their wholly Puritan origin; their uniquely commercial habits; the very country they inhabit…”—Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Page 430.
So what is this immigration magnet we call American exceptionalism? It is sometimes easier to say what it is not than what it is—it is not permission to ignore international standards, nor grounds for claiming all American wars are just, nor a Divine right to do as we please—but here are three well-respected definitions that have tried to do the job.
1. “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived.”—G.K. Chesterton. What I Saw in America. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1922. Page 4.
The creed he is referring to is The Declaration of Independence, specifically the first sentence of the second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” For Chesterton and many others, this is the essence of American exceptionalism.
Next is a more secular definition of American exceptionalism, from an entire book about it.
2. “Born out of revolution, the United States is a country organized around an ideology which includes a set of dogmas about the nature of a good society…the nation’s ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.”—Seymour Martin Lipset. American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Political commentator Dennis Prager has distilled the creed of American exceptionalism onto the face of a coin. He calls his insightful thesis the American Trinity. Here is a summary of his transcript#mce_temp_url# on it.
3. “…There it was in front of me my entire life, the American values system on a coin: E Pluribus Unum, In God We Trust, Liberty…
“E Pluribus Unum: from many, one; meaning that we don’t care where you are from. We don’t care about your blood origins, your ethnic origins, your racial origins, your religious origins…you work with us to make America, you are one of us…
“In God We Trust: America is founded on the notion that God is the source of values. That’s why the Declaration of Independence says that we have inalienable rights, but they’re not from humanism, and they’re not from great thinkers; they are from God…
“And third, the third of our American Trinity, is Liberty…Notice equality is not part of the American Trinity…We are all born equal…Where you end up, that’s your business…
“That’s the American Trinity…E Pluribis Unum: from many, one; Liberty, not necessarily equality; and In God We Trust: God is the essence and basis of our values.”
So is American exceptionalism a set of God-given values inextricable from a belief in God, or a man-made ideology suitable for skeptics and believers alike? The answer depends on one’s belief or disbelief in God, but practically speaking, it may not matter.
The way to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable tenets is for atheists to concede that American exceptionalism exists and that it is of value. Much as with the planet they live on, atheists do not have to believe that God is American exceptionalism’s source, as long as they believe it is real, precious, and deserving of their loving and loyal stewardship.