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.