The Varieties of American Exceptionalism

This article originally appeared on Ethika Politika

Lately Americans have been talking more explicitly than usual about what is called American exceptionalism.  For most of my lifetime not much was said about this directly.  Apparently most people just took it for granted and assumed that everyone believed it.  But now politicians think they have to affirm their adherence to it, and they criticize other politicians for their presumed lack of devotion to the idea.  However instead of looking around to see who does and who does not hold to this notion, let’s examine what it is and see how we might evaluate the various versions of it.

American exceptionalism, as the term implies, means that the United States is an exceptional country.  And in one sense this of course is certainly true.  The United States is unique, exceptional, but then so is every other country in the world, Canada, Chile, Mongolia, Uganda, and every other one.  Every nation is different from every other nation, just as every individual person is different.  So in this sense American exceptionalism is nothing special, nothing anyone could possibly object to or deny.

Of course, this is not what people mean by the term.  They mean that the U.S. is special in a unique sense, especially good or great or superior, in fact, the greatest country in the world.  But here I think we can distinguish further, for there are different degrees of this notion.

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Historically people in many lands have thought that their country was the best or the greatest.  I’m told that the Chinese historically thought this and perhaps may still do, so also the French and the English, and no doubt many other places too.  This is a fairly benign foible, one that’s certainly pardonable.  But still it is a foible.  Even if we could agree in advance on which features of a country were the most important, the ones that should count when we’re deciding what country is the greatest, it’s not likely that there is only one country that possesses all these features in the highest measure.  One nation may be the greatest in one way, another in another way.  And it’s even more unlikely that very many people have sufficient knowledge about enough countries to be able to have an educated opinion about which one is best and best in what.  One would have to live in quite a few countries, I would think, in order to have an opinion that is worth much on this subject.

Of course, the upholders of American exceptionalism, or for that matter of any other national exceptionalism, don’t seem to think that much experience is needed to know the truth that their own country is the best.  Apparently it’s obvious (so they think) that the U.S. (or China or England or France) is the greatest, and anyone who doesn’t think so is ignorant or perverse.  As I said, this is a fairly benign fault, if it goes no further than this.

One would have thought, though, that Catholics would be least liable to such a view of things, since we ought to have a more universal outlook and, of all people, be the least provincial in our judgments.  This of course does not mean that we should not be patriotic, should not love our own country—about which I will speak later on—but it does mean that we ought to be free of the parochial opinion that whatever we have is necessarily and obviously the best.

C. S. Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, talks about this kind of national exceptionalism, about the idea “that is sometimes called patriotism…that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others.”  He notes the obvious fact that every country is apt to think thus, and relates the following humorous incident.

I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?”  He replied with total gravity – he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar – “Yes, but in England it’s true.”

“Yes, but in England [or America or China] it’s true” is the kind of silly provincialism that should be spontaneously rejected by Catholics.  It is easy in a country cut off in some way from the rest of the world for the notion of exceptionalism to flourish.  England, with its unique institutions, even a church of its very own, long felt itself separate from the largely Catholic European continent.  Thus it is not surprising that such notions have abounded there.  And we Americans, able to romp around in our big expanse of territory without coming into much contact with anyone we thought needed to be taken seriously have also been prone to the same tendencies.  So while the tendency in both cases is understandable, still it is a blemish on our thinking, even if a relatively mild one, and a blemish that is particularly inappropriate in a Catholic.

But while this sort of American exceptionalism is not of too much concern, there is another sort, a kind of greater intensity, that does raise concerns.  This is the type that goes from a mild self-satisfaction and feeling that we of course are the best, to an explicit political outlook which proclaims not only that we are the best, but that all the rest of the world had better acknowledge this or else!  Woodrow Wilson, in his second inaugural address of March 5, 1917, stated very clearly the fundamental assumptions of this political exceptionalism.

We shall be the more American if we but remain true to the principles in which we have been bred.  They are not the principles of a province or of a single continent.  We have known and boasted all along that they were the principles of a liberated mankind.

But if our principles are simply “the principles of a liberated mankind,” then, at least in the view of some, we have a right, if not a duty, to export—some would say impose—these principles on the rest of mankind, whether they want them or not, whether they like it or not.  If we were speaking of any other nation we would call this imperialism.  And indeed, unfortunately, our nation’s history has not been free of the aggressive nationalist imperialism that sought to impose our opinions and institutions because we claimed that “they were the principles of a liberated mankind”—and who after all would not want to be liberated?

Unfortunately, with a sort of naiveté that would be charming were it not so dangerous, Americans continue to express such ideas.  One David Rothkop, who had firm links with both the Democratic and Republican political establishment, wrote in the summer 1997 issue of Foreign Policy magazine that

…it is in the economic and political interests of the United States to ensure that if the world is moving toward a common language, it be English; that if the world is moving toward common telecommunications, safety, and quality standards, they be American; that if the world is becoming linked by television, radio, and music, the programming be American; and that if common values are being developed, they be values with which Americans are comfortable.

And further, “…Americans should not shy away from doing that which is so clearly in their economic, political, and security interests” and, it seems, by a happy pre-established harmony,

so clearly in the interests of the world at large.  The United States should not hesitate to promote its values.  In an effort to be polite or politic, Americans should not deny the fact that of all the nations in the history of the world, theirs is the most just, the most tolerant, the most willing to constantly reassess and improve itself, and the best model for the future.

As I said, the naiveté is almost charming, for apparently it never occurred to Mr. Rothkop that Americans just might have a higher opinion of themselves than others do, just as any other nation might have a higher opinion of itself than others do.  But one would hope that even a little bit of liberal education would help a person to see that such self-centeredness, no matter where expressed, is a sign of national hubris, a hubris that even a little acquaintance with history and literature ought to remove.

But, sad to say, we can descend further.  That is, the notion of American exceptionalism—or any national exceptionalism for that matter—can become not just a danger to the rest of the world, but an actual example of blasphemy.  Consider one of the most popular utterances of American exceptionalism, Abraham Lincoln’s assertion that the United States “is the last, best hope of earth.”  Let us unpack this statement a little.

This assertion ought to be objectionable to any Christian because it asserts that a mere nation, a political, cultural and geographical entity, is the world’s “last, best hope.”  But do not Christians believe and proclaim that it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Church which he established on earth, which are precisely the only hope for the world?  Can mere political arrangements, such as are embodied in the U.S. Constitution, deliver man from original sin, reconcile him with God, give him grace to attain eternal life or even bring about the lasting welfare of mankind on earth?  The answer ought to be obvious.  Only Jesus Christ can say: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).  Moreover, the idea that not until nearly 1800 years after the Catholic Church was founded would the world find its best hope, not in God, not in the Church, not in the preaching of the Gospel, but in a mere political entity, destined like all other such entities to come to an end, is as ridiculous as it is blasphemous.  And if one objects that Lincoln was speaking only of politics and not of the order of grace, still, is it likely that one single nation would stand out above every other nation that ever existed or ever will exist in such a way that it could be called “the last, best hope of earth?”  And that if there were such a nation it would be one founded on Protestant and Enlightenment principles, which remains the chief cultural and political support for Protestant culture?

Any Catholic ought to instantly see that it could not possibly be true.  The historian Christopher Dawson explained this American intellectual outlook in this way:

The United States achieved their independence in the heyday of the European Enlightenment, and this ideology of the Enlightenment was the foundation of their national existence.  The peoples of Europe, in spite of their revolutions, were committed to the past and to their separate national traditions.  But Americans were committed to the future.  They saw the Revolution as the dawn of a new age and a new civilization which was destined to be the civilization of a new world, and consequently the principles of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were not transitiory and fallible opinions but absolute truths which no citizen could question and which were to remain the firm foundations of the American way of life (The Crisis of Western Education, chap. 14).

But the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution no more embody “absolute truths” than the documents of many another nation.

The fact that most Americans are unaware of the documents of other nations and what they might contain merely illustrates, of course, the provincial character of much of our thought.  But when such notions are elevated to the sphere of political theology, they embody a hubris that not only is dangerous to the rest of the world, but an insult to Almighty God.  The motto on the Great Seal of the United States, which appears on the back of the one dollar bill, Novus Ordo Seclorum, the New Order of the Ages, is another assertion of the same idea.  Only the Catholic Church, the Church of God, is the new order of the ages, the order which will last until the return of Jesus Christ.  The United States can no more rightfully claim to represent the world’s final political order than any other powerful nation in history could.  The fact that many American Christians, Catholic and Protestant, have embraced this secular messianism is a sad sign of the triumph of secular politics over religious faith.

I said above that I would talk about what genuine patriotism is if it is not an absurd adherence to national exceptionalism.  And really it is very simple.  Genuine patriotism is love for one’s country—and for one’s region, one’s state, one’s town—because it is one’s own.  We feel comfortable with it, we understand it, we are grateful for the good things which it gave us, and we understandably feel a duty to give something back for what it has given us.  We do not claim that our city, our state, our country is the best, any more than we would make that claim about our own families, simply that it is our own.  And every other people ought to feel the same way about its own place.  To assert, as some versions of American exceptionalism do, that our way is the way for everyone, like it or not, is in fact the very negation of patriotism.  This is not so much the love of our own place as the love of an abstract idea, an idea which could be incarnated anywhere.  G. K. Chesterton, in Heretics, said much the same thing about Rudyard Kipling.

The great gap in his mind is what may be roughly called the lack of patriotism….  He admires England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons.  He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.

But if America is primarily an idea, then obviously “we admire [it] with reasons.”  Unfortunately the explicit assertion that America is an idea more than a place has often been made.  I’ve seen the following attributed to the late Senator Hubert Humphrey: “America is not a piece of geography between two oceans and two borders.  America is an idea….”  And the first President Bush said in his State of the Union Message of January 31, 1990:

America—not just the nation—but an idea, alive in the minds of people everywhere.  As this new world takes shape, America stands at the center of a widening circle of freedom today, tomorrow and into the next century.

If the “principles in which we have been bred…are not the principles of a province or of a single continent [but] the principles of a liberated mankind” then they are no more ours than anyone else’s.  America is an idea, free to float around the earth and land anywhere, and no more at home in North America than in North Africa—if only the people there could be brought to see this fact!  But I would hope that only the most blind American nationalist would not see that this notion of America as an idea is an enemy not only of the rest of the world, but of ourselves too.  Were we to embrace it fully we would no longer love our own place, but rather esteem a set of political maxims which we would spend our life imposing on the rest of mankind in a sort of perverted version of the command of Jesus Christ that we go forth throughout the world to spread the Gospel.  That any Christian, Catholic or Protestant, could accept such a notion is incredible.

“Yes, but in England it’s true”—this is the kind of unthinking sentiment which fuels notions of national exceptionalism.  If many Americans think it is obvious that in America it’s really true, then when they come to learn something about other peoples they might be surprised to find out that these others sometimes have the odd illusion that they are the best, and moreover—strangely enough!—that it’s generally Americans who think America is the greatest, English who think England is, and so on.  How could it be otherwise?

But if every people cultivates feelings of love and devotion to its own place because it is theirs, then all the countries of the world, especially if united by the Gospel, can live together happily, recognizing that the only proper rivalry among nations is in the pursuit of justice and truth and holiness, and that the winner of that contest will be revealed only when Jesus Christ returns to abolish all political boundaries forever and only the kingdom of God remains.


  • Thomas Storck

    Thomas Storck is the author of three books relating to Catholic social teaching and political thought. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Caelum et Terra, the New Oxford Review, and The Chesterton Review, where he sits on the editorial board. An archive of Mr. Storck’s writings can be found at

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