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"American Exceptionalism" - Exactly What Does This Mean?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

In the England of the 1600's if you were at home on Sunday morning - meaning, of course, you were not in church - you could expect a knock at the door.

Beginning in 1593, English law classified as 'recusants' those who refused to participate in Anglican services on Sunday.  The law was originally aimed at Roman Catholics, but in the early 1600's also was applied to other groups like Protestants whose beliefs were animated mainly by the conviction that one became a Christian by choosing Christianity for themselves and being baptized as an adult - as opposed to being baptized as an infant.

This did not sit well - to say the least - with the English Crown and its clerics.  It didn't go over very well with Rome either.  And even among the Swiss Reformed and Lutherans - the two other main groups in the Reformation - this group of 'dissenters' (also called 'separatists') were condemned and persecuted.  A lot of issues were up for debate during the Reformation.  But few issues threatened the political order of the day like the question of how one became a Christian - and a member of the community.

With the 'authorities' in pursuit behind them, and a future of religious freedom to be pursued in front of them, the people we know from American history as 'Pilgrims' ended up at Plymouth Rock.


A National Identity of Ideas

It is crucial for us as conservatives to understand how this pursuit laid the foundation for what we call 'American exceptionalism' today.  European history is a story of national identities formed around ethnicity and religion.  After Constantine's Edict of Toleration the Roman Church became the most significant unit of society in the Roman Empire.  If you lived in the Roman Empire, you were Roman Catholic.  To play with the language a bit, this produced a 'Churchist' society.  The Reformation then produced competing religious loyalties, which plunged Europe into decades of religious war.  The Treaty of Westphalia in 1498 ended these decades and produced the 'nation-state' system we take for granted today.  Europe, then, went from being a 'Churchist' society to being a 'Statist' society - one where the State is the most significant unit of society - and remains so today.  European national identities are still built around ethnicity and religion.

This was on full display as recently as October of 2010 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel pronounced German efforts at multiculturalism an utter failure:
[At] the beginning of the 60s our country called the foreign workers to come to Germany and now they live in our country... We kidded ourselves a while, we said: 'They won't stay, sometime they will be gone', but this isn't reality.  And of course, the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side-by-side and to enjoy each other... has failed, utterly failed.
 "They live in our country."

There seemed to be something about this pronouncement which resonated with conservative political media here in the U.S at the time.  But to uncritically accept the premise that multiculturalism has failed is to completely miss why we believe America to be exceptional.  For Europe, this conclusion - that 'multiculturalism' has failed - is simply a cop-out.  It allows the cultural elite in Europe to avert their eyes from what is really failing - the European Statist social model.

To have the State as the most significant unit of society works just fine as long as everyone looks and speaks the same and shares the same history.  Studying the decades of religious wars in Europe, it is not hard to understand why they look to the secular State... their memories of what a 'Churchist' society looks like are too painful.  But unless we are to shut down the Internet and social media and ground air travel, multiculturalism is the inescapable arc of human history.  The world is getting smaller and cultures are interacting more.

So the question becomes which model for community life is best suited to responding to these inevitabilities.  If the State is to be the most significant unit of society - and the individual exists for the benefit of the State (which is to say, to pay increasingly higher taxes) - well, Europe has been there and done that, and all they got were brooms bought on crushing debt to sweep up the public ashes.  The next time you see riots in France on TV, note how they originate among immigrant communities where private resentments are nurtured toward all things public.

But then there is America.  Like Europe, we have immigrant minority communities.  Unlike Europe, we largely do not have a problem living together peaceably.  And this is precisely because our social model has historically been one where the individual - created equal to all other individuals and possessing 'inalienable rights' - is the most significant unit of society. The State, then, exists for the benefit of the individual - which is to say to secure those inalienable rights - the first among which being the right to practice the devotions of one's religion in public and in private, or to practice no religion at all.

At the heart of the difference between a Statist social model and an 'Individualist' model is the difference between a national identity of ethnicity and religion on the one hand and a national identity of ideas on the other.  When the dissenting Pilgrims risked everything to come to the New World, they brought with them the ideological scaffolding of this identity of ideas.  And their descendants built the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution on this scaffolding.

As conservatives today, we are heirs to their courage: The Pilgrims in the face of the dangers of the sea and the wilderness; our Founding Fathers in the face of the gallows of the English Crown.  But we can only honor this history when we are clear about what it means for us to be exceptional.  We have formed a national identity around a set of ideas about human freedom - not around ethnicity nor religion.  No people had done this before - and none have done it since.

But we must also come to terms with the significance of this.  The flowering of many cultures and their religions among us - both in the privacy of home and church/mosque/temple/synagogue and in the public spaces we share - testifies to everything that is exceptional about America.  Multiculturalism in America is alive and well.

They do not live in our country - rather, together as a community we remain free.


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