Thursday, May 24, 2012

An Inclusive American Exceptionalism

They walked across the stage, over 1000 of them, one by one for an hour or more.  President Obama, after he delivered his commencement address Wednesday, met each of the Air Force Academy graduates center stage with a salute, a handshake, and a personal word as he put his hand on each one’s shoulder.
As a commentator and contributing blogger, I don’t often revisit a subject quite so soon, but in this case I follow up on a feature I posted last week, “American Exceptionalism, Except For…” because the catalyst for that post did. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colorado), usually quite talkative to the press, responded to questions from a local journalist this week as to what he meant on May 12 when he said about President Obama, “He’s just not an American.”  Coffman said to the reporter, “I stand by my statement that I misspoke and I apologize.”  When pressed, all he would say, again and again was, “I stand by my statement…..” backing off from both birther and American exceptionalism subjects.

President Obama used the word “exceptional” in his address at the Air Force Academy and gave examples of “why America is exceptional.” But while some news reports in this argument culture focused on who is more of an American and who really believes in “American exceptionalism,” and who doesn’t, the task remains to continue the conversation rather than back off from it.  President Obama may not share Coffman’s belief in American Exceptionalism, but that doesn’t mean in his heart he’s not an American. He may mean he has a more inclusive view of what exceptional can be. His shaking hands with all those graduates, long after even the 24-hour news media had returned to other “breaking news,” shows that.  Although all dressed in blue, there were no doubt a variety of political views among those 1000 young men and women.  And a variety of religious beliefs, even within Christianity a range of what being “chosen by God” and “exceptional” means.

The names and faces helped us catch a glimpse of inclusivity.  This year’s class had the largest number of female graduates. International students were among the graduates.  Yes, students from countries other than the United States at “our” Air Force Academy!
Inclusivity needs to extend beyond those exceptional graduates, to include all those men and women not dressed in blue but in uniforms for the battlefield, those who gave their lives In Iraq and Afghanistan and those who need care and jobs and educational opportunities when they return.  Obama honored them in his address.

One view of American exceptionalism insists that the United States must use “power over” in order to be faithful to its “God-given” mission to (over?) the world. But whose God? Which God? This is and always has been a pluralistic nation of people of many faiths and many religions and no religion.  The rhetoric of American exceptionalism today often comes from some of the people who are professing Christians.  However, within the Christian faith—Obama is a Christian—there is a range of quite distinctly different views of Christ’s redemptive work, God’s mission in the world, and the use of power itself.

Reports of President Obama’s commencement address caught his view that “there are many sources of American power—diplomatic, economic, development and the power of our ideals. We need to be using them all.”  The reports also stressed that, countering Romney’s charges that under Obama, the United States’ military superiority has waned, Obama said our influence in the world has not waned and that this is a new era of American leadership. “We’ll keep our military fast, flexible and versatile” and maintain military superiority in all areas—air, land, sea, space and cyber.” Ending the wars will make our military stronger.
Beyond the headlines, President Obama went on talk about exceptional leadership which is not “power over” but leadership on global security, “expanding exchanges and collaborations in areas that people often admire most about America—our innovation, our science, our technology.” This means “leading on behalf of human dignity and freedom” and “standing with” people seeking their rights.” Collaboration!

 “We’ve shown our compassion.”  Compassion can be seen as strength, extraordinary strength.  He said, “There’s a new feeling about America. I see it everywhere I go…There’s a new confidence in our leadership.”
There’s room in this view of American exceptionalism—exceptional leadership—for partnership, healthy, wise, aware, astute, mutually accountable partnership. Not power over, but power with.  Quite an exceptional stance.

Friday, May 18, 2012

American Exceptionalism, Except for....

This week I heard two strikingly different meanings of American exceptionalism, one from a congressman, and one from high school musicians.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colorado) May 12: "I don't know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America, but I do know this, that in his heart, he's not an American. He's just not an American." Coffman issued a written apology Wednesday evening. "I misspoke and I apologize," the statement began. "I have confidence in President Obama's citizenship and legitimacy as President of the United States." Then Coffman defended his intent. "I don't believe the president shares my belief in American Exceptionalism. His policies reflect a philosophy that America is but one nation among many equals. As a Marine I believe America is unique and based on a core set of principles that make it superior to other nations."
Conservatives often deride Obama over remarks he made in April of 2009, in which he said that he believes in American exceptionalism, "just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Obama added, "We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional."

Obama also said that he is, "enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world." And he hailed America's, "continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity."  He frequently relates his own story when talking about the exceptional opportunities open to all people in this country.  Exeptionalism with no exceptions is Obama’s vision of American exceptionalism.

This past Tuesday night, between Rep. Coffman’s first and second public statements, I attended the spring vocal music concert at Mason City, Iowa, High School, where over 300 students in 10 ensembles in this public school of just over 1000 students sang. It was a wonderful evening of truly outstanding students singing college-level music.  These choirs consistently receive superior ratings. Exceptional?  Yes.  But what I saw as even more exceptional is that all youth are included, not for the sake of being better than somebody else, but for the sake of building community.  More than half the students in Mason City are on free or reduced lunch programs. This is not a privileged community where students can afford private lessons.  Anyone can be “chosen” to sing. One large choir open to all students in grades 9-12 is split in half and each can meet only every other day.

Rather than singing only national songs to emotionally stir the audience, I heard the music of a diverse global community in the heartland of America. The director said, “We ask students ‘What are composers from different parts of the world trying to say that we also feel?’ We look for similarities first in order to appreciate the differences.”   That’s inclusive exceptionalism with no exceptions.

The concept of “American Exceptionalism” goes back to the question about the very origins of the nation. Republicans have argued that the president fails to understand that the country was divinely inspired, based on the Declaration of Independence's assertion that citizens were “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

American exceptionalism often includes the concept that the United States is different from other countries in that it has a specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy.  (And for some that includes by military means.) Although the term does not necessarily imply superiority, many conservatives have promoted its use in that sense. To them, the United States is like the biblical "shining city on a hill."  This sense of “chosenness” leaves little place for all others. Are they unchosen? Is this American exceptionalism, except for all the rest of the world?

Senator Albert J. Beveridge, speaking on the floor of the Senate after his return from a tour of the Philippines in 1900 while the United States was waging a war of subjugation against the Filipino independence movement said, “God…has made us master organizers of the world…He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world.” When I used that quote in my seminary classes a few decades ago students would gasp in unbelief. Today they nod their heads, saying that’s what many people in this country believe.

American exceptionalism is a dangerous posture in the world and betrays the very democracy it would export:

On college campuses this fall, hundreds if not thousands of students will be restricted from registering to vote because of new voting laws passed by Republican-led legislatures in states during the past year.  Democracy except for…

Democracy (the core of “American exceptionalism”) except for those who find it hard to have the ever-more-narrowly-defined requirements for voter ID: elderly, low-income, African-American and Hispanic voters.   A “chosen people”…except that legislators are defining who the chosen ones are.  We are challenged to work toward inclusiveness without exception.