Is America Exceptional? An Independence Day Meditation
by Col. John Eidsmoe
Today we frequently hear that term in the media and academia, sometimes derisively, seldom defined. It refers to the belief that there is something special about America, something that makes America different from, and perhaps better than, other nations. Americans of older generations have grown up believing America is the greatest, the best, the wisest, and the kindest of all nations, and as Commodore Stephen Decatur said in an after-dinner toast,
“Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”
What about that? Is America exceptional? Is there anything that makes America special, other than that we live here?
Some Christians, albeit a small minority, believe patriotism is pagan idolatry. As Christians, we owe allegiance only to God, and love of country is pagan state-worship. Some refuse to salute the flag because they will salute only God. On the other extreme, some get so wrapped up in the flag that they can't see God. Where should we stand — on one of these extremes, or somewhere between them?
Here are some thoughts that might be helpful:
First, God has ordained civil government. That is clear from Romans 13:1-6, Daniel 2:21, and many other passages of Scripture. And that applies not only to the government of the United States and not only to Israel, but to governments in general. God established civil governments to preserve order, to punish and restrain evil, and to reward and encourage good. We all need civil government.
Second, God has a plan for each and every nation. Each national government serves God's general purposes of preserving order and decency, but God's plan for each nation is different. God used Israel to receive and preserve the Written Word, the Bible, and to bring forth the Living Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. He used various nations like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome to discipline Israel. He used the Greeks to develop the koine Greek language in which the New Testament was written. He used the Pax Romana, or Roman peace, to enable the spread of Christianity.
God uses different nations differently at different times (yes, I know I used the word different or differently three times in the same sentences; I did that for emphasis, and counting this parenthetical phrase, it's five times). For several centuries after the fall of Jerusalem, North Africa was the center of Christian scholarship and leadership. Then, the center of Christianity moved northward to Rome and eastward to Constantinople. A thousand years later, Germany led Christendom into the Protestant Reformation, and later, God used the British Empire to spread Christianity throughout the world. During the 1800s, the center of Christian activity moved across the Atlantic to the United States, and America has been regarded as the world's leading Christian nation. But will it always be so? Not necessarily.
Third, Christian culture may be different in different countries. The doctrines of Christianity are absolute and unchanging, but the expression of those doctrines may vary depending upon the culture, language, background, and historical customs of the people. Christian culture may take on a different appearance in Scotland, or in Russia, or in Korea, or in Kenya, or in El Salvador.
And so, every nation should treasure its unique heritage and culture, and should be mindful and grateful for the ways God has worked through the history of that nation.
Every nation, then is exceptional. And that includes America. But is America exceptional as every nation is exceptional? Or can we say that America is exceptionally exceptional?
I believe we can. Let us look at some of the ways America has been and still is a blessing to its people and to the world.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed." Other nations are founded upon a racial or ethnic identity, a language, or a geographical area. But America is founded upon a belief system.
And what is that belief system? It is the conviction that God has given two special blessings to mankind, Christianity and liberty, and these two special blessings belong together.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the French observer who traveled throughout America in the 1830s and wrote Democracy in America, "The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other; and with them this conviction does not spring from that barren, traditionary faith which seems to vegetate rather than to live in the soul." He added, "In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country."
Most of America's founders were Christians, although a few were not. But Christians and non-Christians alike recognized in the Declaration of Independence that Americans are entitled to their independence by the "laws of nature and of nature's God," that "all men are created equal," and that they are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," that to "secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," and together they appealed to the "Supreme Judge of the world" for the rectitude of [their] intentions," placed their "firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence," and pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor." This Declaration, at once theological, philosophical, and political, established the nation and served as a model for freedom-seeking people throughout the world.
Just as the Declaration of Independence established the nation, the United States Constitution established the government. The Constitution is based on two fundamental concepts: (1) a high view of God and His Law; and (2) a low view of man and his nature.
The Framers recognized the people are, as the Bible describes them, sinners, that they are ambitious, proud, and corruptible. For this reason they need government; but also for this reason rulers cannot be trusted with absolute power. So they designed a government with limited, delegated powers, in which the federal government has only those powers delegated to it by the people through the Constitution, and all other powers are, according to the Tenth Amendment, reserved to the states or to the people. They separated the powers of government vertically into federal, state, and local levels, and horizontally into legislative, executive, and judicial branches. They provided checks and balances so no one branch and no one level of government would become too powerful. They reserved certain rights to the individual, rights that are God-given and so hallowed that no one in government can violate them, even with majority support. And although they wanted no established national religion, they recognized that religion builds the kind of self-discipline and civic virtue that makes republican self-government possible.
This Constitution has served Americans well for 223 years, and it has been used as a model for other free nations the world over. The Declaration that established the nation and the Constitution that established the government are truly exceptional blessings that have made America the great nation it has become.
A third factor that has made America exceptional is the free enterprise system of economics. Free enterprise is based upon Biblical principles of property rights and liberty of contract, and also upon a realistic and Biblical view of the nature of man. Unlike Communism and socialism in which the economy is controlled from the top down and which assume that people will work for the good of society, free enterprise is based upon limited government and recognizes that in order for people to work and be productive over the long term, they need the profit motive the free enterprise provides. Free enterprise, allowing each person to enjoy the fruit of his own labor and the investment of his own capital, coupled with the Puritan work ethic, has made America an economic powerhouse and one of the most prosperous nations in the history of the world.
Free enterprise has done far more than make Americans prosperous. It has enable Americans to use their riches for good. Whenever world disaster strikes, whether by flood or drought or tsunami or man-made scourge, Americans have been the first to respond, not only through government aid but also through the voluntary gifts of American churches and charities. Americans are at heart a generous people, but the prosperity produced by free enterprise has enabled Americans to act upon their generous instincts.
Free enterprise has also enabled Americans to build a strong military. American military might has been used by God in the past century to defeat Nazism, fascism, and Communism. In this century it may be used to defeat militant Islam. By containing and driving back these scourges upon mankind, America has been a blessing to the world.
The commitment of the American people to Christianity, coupled with the prosperity that free enterprise has produced, has enabled Americans over the past century to print more Bibles and send more missionaries than any other nation in the world. The Gideons alone distribute over 1,000,000 Bibles worldwide every week! Ninety-two percent of Americans own at least one Bible; the average American home has three. Some Americans even read them!
So the answer is yes, America is truly exceptionally exceptional. America is not the kingdom of God, but America is the best the world has to offer.
But will it always be so? Not necessarily. Everything that has made America great is being eroded and attacked today.
The American spirit of independence is eroding, and growing in its place is a spirit of globalism, dependence, and world government. The American Constitution is interpreted by judges and academics who ignore its plain text and the intent of the Framers, and instead read their own meanings into it. They twist it to grant to Washington D.C. the power to do things the Framers never imagined, and they strain it to create "rights" that the Framers would have considered abhorrent. Those who still practice the American work ethic are laughed at as "workaholics." Nearly half of American households pay no federal income tax, and an ever-growing number live on various forms of government aid. And no wonder: Government taxes and regulations make it every more difficult to start and run a business. Step by step, the American free enterprise system is being replaced by a socialist system like those which are failing in Europe and have failed in every other part of the world.
Most Americans still consider themselves Christian, but the percentage is lower, and many who call themselves Christian have little understanding of the Bible or of what Christianity really means. Americans have not fallen away from Christianity to the extent Europeans have, but we seem to be headed in the same direction. At the same time, Christianity is growing in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia. In both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, Africans are among the most fervent and the most orthodox, often calling down the apostasy of their European and American brethren.
Americans still print more Bibles and send more missionaries to the world, but the number is decreasing, and many of those who go are more interested in social work than in evangelism. And why should American churches send Bibles and missionaries to other parts of the world, when American seminaries teach future pastors that the Bible is an outworn book of discarded myths and all religions are equally paths to God, if He exists at all?
My friend Alvin Schmidt tells of a British officer on a South Seas island after World War II. He saw a native carrying a Bible and told him, "In England where I come from, educated people no longer believe that book." The native responded wisely, "You are fortunate that we do believe it, because were it not for the Bible we would be eating you."
The day may come soon when Asia, Africa, and Latin America will send missionaries to the United States. And I say, bring them on! We need them now!
I don't mean to paint too negative a picture. There is still much about America that is great and good. But we are in danger of losing the America we have loved.
And consider this: America was founded by people who came to get away from persecution and lack of opportunity in their native lands. If America falls, where will we go?
Enough preaching. Enjoy the fireworks and hamburgers on Independence Day. But don't let the Fourth of July pass without thanking God for all that has made America truly exceptional, and without a commitment to action that America will remain so.
Dr. John Eidsmoe is a retired Air Force Judge Advocate and Alabama State Defense Force Colonel and Chaplain. He is also a constitutional attorney who has authored 13 books and and produced numerous audio and video lecture series, and holds five academic degrees in law, theology, and political science, as well as graduating from the Air Command and Staff College and the Air War College. He also holds a Fifth Degree Black Belt in Karate.