Mar  2016 01
A Lenten Reflection on American Exceptionalism

The United States of America is my country. I love my country. I love my country’s highest values. And, my country is flawed.

My country does not always live according to the Declaration’s self-evident truths, or Lincoln’s “the better angels of our nature,” or King’s dream. Sometimes, “we the people” have created monstrous conditions and nightmares for individuals and for whole nations and categories of persons.

As a Christian and as a citizen of the U.S., I have a responsibility to speak up when the U.S. is claiming to be better than we are, especially when we use elements of my religion to justify wrongful actions and hold ourselves blameless.

Writing these words, or speaking these words in public gatherings, should not be divisive and incendiary. After all, even the beloved hymn “America the Beautiful,” includes the words “God mend thine ev’ry flaw,” which implies that the U.S. has flaws.

But speak those words in your house of worship this weekend and see how they go over! Hear any presidential candidate speak any number of those words and see the “America hater” and “defeatist” labels fly and stick.

One of the bigger divides in the nation today is between those who believe that the U.S. is an “exceptional” nation and those who do not.

In my opinion, Christians should be able to explain why the U.S. is as sinful and broken as any other nation, and why the U.S. cannot make a claim a particular presidential candidate has claimed—that he does not need to ask for forgiveness because he has never done anything needing to be forgiven.

One of my favorite lines written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is that original sin is Christianity’s only “empirically verifiable” doctrine. As I wrote in the previous blog, persons and nations who never acknowledge they need forgiveness, that claim they are always right, are bullies and tyrants.

I would further assert that a nation’s claim to innocence is idolatrous. That claim essentially means the nation is the standard of justice, rather than God being the standard of justice; if the nation takes an action, it must be right because the (flawless) nation took the action.

Over the centuries, the U.S. has claimed a favored nation status from God. Some leaders framed the nation as the New Israel with a mandate to conquer and cultivate the land and the people they “discovered” here.

Some created and claimed the supremacy of white Anglo-Saxon and Protestant ways of being human. Prominent evangelists, from Jonathan Edwards through Francis Asbury through Billy Graham and today’s megachurch and televangelist leaders, have believed God gifted the U.S. with a special role in God’s unfolding plans and that worldwide revival fires start here.

These beliefs have been used by preachers, military leaders, and politicians to justify many actions and to claim a continual innocent status: God’s chosen people. How I long to hear Lincoln wonderful, haunting appellation used today, that the U.S. is God’s “almost chosen” people. More humility, please.

For white America, the sense of innocence has been resilient to an extent I don’t fully understand. Consider all of the following, each of which is manifestly evident in the historical record:

  • Chattel slavery.
  • Native American removal and nearly complete genocide.
  • Empire-building wars (the Spanish American War).
  • Japanese internment camps.
  • Using atomic weapons in warfare.
  • Tuskegee and Guatemala (we injected prisoners with syphilis without their knowledge there, too).
  • The School of the Americas and Central American wars.
  • Vietnam.
  • Finding moral justifications for the Gulf Wars.
  • Systemic racial inequities, in the street and in the courts.

In light of this year’s extraordinary developments in the presidential campaign, as a Christian, I need to confess that the U.S.A. is not an innocent nation, exempt from national sins.

We have not lived up to our ideals. We have not measured up to God’s plumb line of justice—not measured up to that standard as evidenced by both our sins of omission and commission.

To the extent that we have more power than other nations, we are capable of greater sin—for sin and power are correlate. Just as great agency can be used for good, great agency can lead to great sins.

My Lenten prayer for my country is, “God, mend our ev’ry flaw. As you know, we have some.”


Photo Credit: By DVIDSHUB [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons



Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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