An Exceptional Nation?

Posted: Jul 09, 2015 12:01 AM
An Exceptional Nation?

Another Independence Day has come and gone, and as always, the holiday elicited much waxing lyrical about the greatness of America. As one who leans to the conservative side of things, my Facebook feed was peppered with no shortage of odes to the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. While it's not in my nature to be effusively patriotic, I am certainly grateful to be an American and do believe that we are in many ways an exceptional nation. It so happens that my husband and I started watching the HBO drama "Newsroom" over the weekend, something that prompted me to consider the idea of American exceptionalism in further detail. In the pilot episode, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) delivers a scathing critique of America as part of a panel discussion at Northwestern University. He's asked why he believes that America is the greatest nation on earth, and responds as follows:

"And with a straight face you're going to tell students that America is so star spangled awesome that we're the only ones in the world that have freedom? Canada has freedom. Japan has freedom. The UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, BELGIUM has freedom. So, 207 sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.

And you, sorority girl, just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day there's somethings you should know. One of them is there's absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we're the greatest country in the world. We're 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, Number 4 in labor force and Number 4 in exports, we lead the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending where spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.

Now none of this is the fault of a 20 year old college student, but you none the less are without a doubt a member of the worst period generation period ever period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don't know what the f--k you're talking about. Yosemite?

It sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons. We passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chests. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men, we aspired to intelligence, we didn't belittle it, it didn't make us feel inferior.

We didn't identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn't scare so easy. We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed, by great men, men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. Enough?"


This is nothing new, of course. Jeff Daniels' character at least believes that America used to be the greatest nation on earth, while many on the Left are quite happy to say that they do not believe that America was ever a great nation, period. Our poor track record with regard to women and minorities is generally the reason, as well as capitalism and our history of military interventionism. On many college campuses, students emerge from their freshman history courses convinced that being American is something to be ashamed of.

But it's not just Liberal professors indoctrinating their students on the evils of America. Increasingly, voices on the Right are chiming in to the "America's Not Great" bandwagon. On the eve of Independence day, the outspoken Christian blogger Matt Walsh published a piece explaining his position that America is no longer a great nation:

"Happy Fourth of July. America is not great. Not anymore. America is a land where babies are murdered, the family is disintegrating, marriage is perverted, and every institution is dominated by nihilists and self-worshiping liberals. That's America. It has betrayed God, and any true patriot should feel a deep and profound anger, not false confidence in our alleged greatness.

I think it's time, particularly after this past week, that those on the right stop with the blind, frivolous 'optimism' that leads us to constantly proclaim America's 'greatness' no matter how corrupt and sinful our culture has become. There is an arrogance in that declaration that, I assure you, does no please God. I doubt very much that God looks down on our culture and agrees with our assertion that we're still super great and awesome no matter what." (

So what is the average American to make of this? America is condemned from the Left as a socially and economically unjust police state, and condemned from the right as a morally bankrupt, hedonistic wasteland. Liberals tell us that we can be great again if we raise taxes on the rich, raise the minimum wage, outlaw guns, eradicate discrimination, and – somehow – ensure universal K-College public education and free health care for all. This is what a great nation looks like, generally speaking, to a Liberal. Matt Walsh, on the other hand, tells us that the key to the restoration of American greatness requires a national return to faith:

"In the end, the nation that sends the most people to heaven is the greatest. Period. No nation is truly great if it leads its citizens away from truth and away from God. It's as simple as that. You find a country where most of the citizens — the culture itself, predominately — is directed toward God, toward a humble, moral life, toward truth, and you have found a great nation. I don't care what else it has going for it. I don't care if it the life expectancy is 27 and it doesn't have a standing army or WiFi. If the conditions in the country are such that people are living a moral, God-centered life, it is a great country."

Ironically, both "Newsroom's" Will McAvoy and Matt Walsh point back to a time of American greatness, and seem to admire similar things. In an almost identical echo of McAvoy, Walsh says:

"[W]hile we've declined rapidly, we also rose faster than any country before us. We accomplished incredible things. We stormed beaches, conquered tyrants, built cities; we invented and pioneered and innovated. We faced down evil and defeated it. We abolished slavery. We established civil rights for all. We beat the Nazis. We extinguished Communism. We earned the title of a land of opportunity. A God-fearing land. We went to church, we raised our families, we worked, we loved, we prayed."

There it is, the same references to America's technological prowess, her character and bravery on the battlefield, her fierce sense of moral rectitude, and her reputation as a land of political equality and economic opportunity for all.

McAvoy is optimistic that America can regain her greatness, and his producer believes that America's remaining virtue is the one that's always been at the heart of her greatness: The belief that she could do better. Thus by Episode Two, the driving vision of the show is established: Will McAvoy will remind America of what she once was by serving as the unwavering "moral center" of his nightly news broadcast. He will remind the American people that they respect, and aspire to, intelligence, and are not mere consumers of flashy entertainment. There's a sense that McAvoy holds the American people in contempt – contempt for their apathy and ignorance, contempt for their hollow patriotism.

Matt Walsh's contempt for modern day America is much more palpable. It's explicit. And while I share many of his concerns about America's moral floundering and her embrace of moral therapeutic deism (combined, strangely enough, with an entirely material view of reality), I can't help but find his prescription for a return to American greatness wanting. Of course, the goal for any believer should be to live with God at the center, and a nation populated by such people would truly hold the potential for greatness. But America managed to skyrocket to greatness without being a Christian nation. We had a Christian-influenced culture, to be sure, as did all western nations at the time, but we weren't a "Christian nation" in the way that many Conservatives seem to believe. Our founding political documents and the institutions that grew out of them reflected a combination of Jerusalem and Athens – humility before God paired with a confidence that knowledge was accessible through the use of reason.

If anything, American greatness has fallen victim to one of her greatest virtues: freedom. We live in a society that venerates the freedom of thought and speech. We are a vast nation that has set the bar quite high for ourselves. Despite our immense size and our diversity, we cling to our ideals of liberty and justice for all. We strive mightily for it. The result of this struggle is perpetual instability, perpetual conflict, and inevitably, perpetual disappointment. One party's victory is always interpreted as a setback by the other side. One side's vision of justice is the other side's definition of injustice. And the bigger America grows, the more diverse she becomes, the worse this problem will get. Politicians and pundits love to invoke "the people" as though they are ultimately in agreement on the important things, but the truth is that they aren't. We are a nation of great and divergent passions;. Approximately half of us think it's morally permissible for a woman to kill her unborn child, while the other half views it as an act of unspeakable evil. Half of us believe that marriage is defined solely by the love of the two people involved, while the other half views it as a holy sacrament established by God in Creation for a man and woman only. Some view justice as a 20-foot-high wall along our southern border, while others see amnesty as the solution most in keeping with the American spirit.

Bottom line, America is an exceptional nation. We are unique in the world. But exceptional doesn't always mean great. I fear that in many ways we've become too big and too successful for true greatness. We're... diluted, in a way. Some countries achieve national unity and harmony by suppressing diversity or limiting free speech. Others are very small and homogenous, and remain that way by adopting strict immigration laws. America does none of that. Despite how difficult it is, we continue to press towards the ideals expressed in our founding documents. We could go the way of Russia, and pummel our unruly and opinionated populace into submission with an iron fist, but then we would cease to be America. Perhaps this means that we'll ultimately fall victim to the very thing that enabled our meteoric rise to greatness. Or perhaps, as has happened so many times throughout our history, we'll manage to surprise ourselves. People, after all, have been writing about the decline of America since the ink on the Declaration of Independence was still wet.