Jack Kerwick

Furthermore, in spite of the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, the men and women who eventually seceded from the Mother country of England were well aware of their shared racial, ethnic, and religious identity. Overwhelmingly, they were white, English, Protestants who sought, and knew they were seeking, to preserve, not Liberty, but their liberties as Englishmen.

This brings us to the next point: Contrary to AE, not only was America not founded upon an idea; the idea in question—the idea of “inalienable rights”—originated long before America came into being.

The idea of “natural law,” the idea of a universal moral order, dates back thousands of years in the West to the ancient Greco-Roman world. The Romans, most notably Cicero, were the first to speak the language of “natural law.” Later, during the medieval era, the term “natural right” emerged, and during the late Middle Ages, William of Ockam spoke of “natural rights.”

So, the concept of natural rights had been in circulation for centuries prior to the “founding” of America.

Even more to the point, as is common knowledge, the concept of natural rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence was the indelible impression left upon Jefferson and his compatriots by such early modern thinkers as John Locke. But, as the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott once observed, Locke hardly “discovered” the rights to life, liberty, and property about which he wrote. Rather, he distilled them from the time honored English political tradition that he—as well as America’s founders—called home.

Sixth, AE threatens to actually undermine patriotism.

Patriotism is affection for or commitment to one’s own country. The relationship between the patriot and his country is not unlike the relationship between a man and his family: it embodies the morality of particularity. As such, it calls for an attitude of partiality.

From the perspective of AE, however, the patriot is committed to the principles upon which America is founded. Principles, however, are universal, and the morality of universality demands not partiality, but impartiality: the American patriot must be just as committed to serving those peoples and countries that affirm America’s founding principles as he is committed to serving his own. There are no grounds for him to prefer his own country to the countries of others.

But it’s even worse than this: the American patriot does not have a country: He is a citizen of the world.

Conversely, every citizen of the world that embraces America’s “founding principles” is a citizen of America.

This implication of AE covers much distance in explaining the enthusiasm on the part of its proponents for both America’s immigration and foreign policies.

And this is the seventh flaw of AE.

AE serves a specific ideological program. If America is unique among the nations of history in being founded upon a timeless abstract principle or idea, a proposition (or set of propositions) that anyone can learn easily enough, then while there may be prudential considerations for denying the rest of the world entry into America, there can be no moral grounds for doing so. And if America exists for the sake of advancing “inalienable rights”—i.e. the rights of all human beings—then there can be no moral basis for withholding America’s resources, its military might, its blood, economic treasure, and political genius (“Liberal Democracy”), from the rest of the world.

Quite the contrary, in fact: there is a moral imperative for America to expend its resources in order to better the plight of all Earthlings whose “rights” are threatened.

Finally, AE’s champions never tire of extolling America’s “Judeo-Christian” roots. Well, AE may be “Judeo-Christian,” whatever exactly this means. But it surely is neither Jewish nor Christian.

It is pseudo-Christian—which is another way of saying that it is anti-Christian.

From the vantage point of AE, there is indeed a Messiah, a Savior, but it is not Jesus Christ.

It is America.

America is God’s ambassador to the world, selected from the beginning of time to export “liberal democracy” or “Liberty” to the four corners of the Earth.

Yet there is more.

America is, ultimately, an idea, a timeless abstraction that assumed flesh—that became incarnate—in 1776.

This incarnational ideology known as AE, far from being Christian, is more akin to Platonism. Plato held that what’s most real are timeless “Ideas,” “Universals,” or “Forms.” The concrete, sensible “particulars” of everyday life are time-bound and, hence, imperfect “copies” or instantiations of these universal intelligible realities.

AE is Platonist in that its champions view America as the concrete instantiation of the timeless “Idea” of “Liberty,” “Freedom,” or—what always seems to amount to the same thing for the proponents of AE—“Liberal Democracy.”

In many respects, America is exceptional. AE, though, is something else entirely.

As I’ve tried to show, “American Exceptionalism” is a creed that is as fatally flawed theoretically as it is potentially destructive in practice.


Jack Kerwick

Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at jackk610@verizon.net or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.