In April 2009, President Barack Obama said, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
This reflects a basic misunderstanding of what American exceptionalism means. It doesn’t mean that Americans are exceptional people (although in many respects we are). It means that the values our Founding Fathers expressed in our founding documents are exceptional!
“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.”
The founders recognized that religious governments get their charge from someone's sacred scripture while secular governments simply codify the beliefs of whoever happens to be in power. Both types have significant disadvantages: religious governments frequently experience doctrinal struggles and often create an environment of intolerance toward those of other faiths; and secular governments — since they are based on nothing more than the personal opinions of their rulers — have a tendency to lose stability and violate the rights of the people when corrupt rulers take power. Our Founding Fathers wanted to avoid these two extremes.
In England, mandated government religion led to acts of religious intolerance that violated unalienable human rights. The Founders wanted to ensure that the citizens of this new nation did not make the same mistake as their mother country. They realized that since God doesn't force anyone to adhere to one set of religious beliefs, neither should the government.
On the other hand, the Founders were Christian people with a proper understanding of human nature who thus recognized that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. So neither did they want the instability and abuse of power characteristic of a secular government. As a result, they brilliantly developed the perfect third alternative to the religious-secular dilemma. Instead of creating their own secular system or adopting laws directly from a sectarian religion, the founders wisely based the United States on the Moral Law (“Nature’s Law” in Jefferson’s words), which comes from God.
It is critical to recognize that our Founders based our government and moral rights on a theistic God, not on someone’s sectarian religion. This Moral Law is consistent with Christianity but does not require adherence to Christianity or even knowledge of the Bible. In fact the Bible itself says that even those who don’t have the Bible know basic right and wrong because God has “written it on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15).
In this respect, one could say that the country was founded on Christian theism, but the founders did not mandate the observance of Christianity. So even though most of the Founders were orthodox Christians who believed the Rights of the people came from God, they did not insist that every citizen believe in God; they simply saw no way to justify those natural moral Rights unless God exists.
Indeed, if there is no God then there is no standard beyond humanity, and morality is just a matter of human opinion. In other words, without an unchanging standard of Good (which is God’s very nature), then murdering Jews, for example, isn’t really wrong. Without God, it’s just your opinion against Hitler’s. And without God, you only have “rights” that the government decides to grant you.
The founders knew that human rights are unalienable precisely because they come from God, not government. They also knew that government's proper function is not to create rights or to settle theological debates, but, as they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, it is “to secure [the unalienable] rights” of the people.
But what happens when our leaders fail to secure our rights and our exceptional form of government? The Declaration has a recommendation: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.“
Do we need abolish our “Form of Government?” No, just the leaders misleading it. We don’t need a “transformation” envisioned by Obama, Reid and Pelosi. We need a restoration to the vision of Jefferson, Adams and Madison. That’s why concerned Americans don’t want to abolish our “Form of Government” but simply restore the exceptional one we had by voting out those who want to transform American exceptionalism into European socialism. But that will only happen if we replace them with the right people—people who are more like our founders than Obama. Today we call them conservatives.
Frank Turek is coauthor of I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, and the author of Stealing from God: Why atheists need God to make their case. See more of his work at CrossExamined.org.