Mark Shea Gets the American Thing Right
Why We Must Talk About God

Sunday Night Journal — April 22, 2007

American Exceptionalism and the Culture War

Pardon me if I’m announcing my solution to the equation 2+2=X. I’ve been thinking about the question of so-called “American Exceptionalism,” raised in this post and its comments, and I may have come up with an observation that’s perfectly commonplace among people who study these matters on a regular basis.

But I’ll proceed anyway. It occurred to me that the sense of exceptionalism is a factor for both sides in our current cultural conflict. Despite their intense opposition to each other, both are rooted in the tendency to regard the founding of America as some sort of definitive break with the past, at least symbolically. And they basically think this break a good thing, though they disagree about why it was good.

Let me make clear, in passing, that I don’t think America (United States of) is “exceptional” in any intrinsic sense that would imply an exemption from the general limitations of history and the human condition (hence “so-called” above). I’m not even sure that the belief in exceptionalism—by which I mean something stronger and more clearly held than the normal human belief that one’s own people and nation are superior to others—is terribly exceptional: many civilizations seem to have thought of themselves as divinely founded and/or favored. What may be unusual, if not unique, in America is the particular form of our exceptionalism: the belief that we represent an elemental fresh start for the human race, a chance to walk away from history—literally from an Old World—and get things right.

Contrary to the desires of both sides in the controversy, it’s untenable to view the nation, either in its founding or in its subsequent history, as exclusively the expression of a Protestant Christian or a secular skeptical world-view. (There is of course the Catholic argument that the Protestant revolution was the first step toward the displacement of Christendom by secularism, but whether or not that’s true it was certainly not the intention of the early Protestants.) The fact is that what we would call today Protestant fundamentalism and religious skepticism were both very powerful influences in the founding of the nation.

Both believed they were doing something new, making a radical break with a corrupt world. Both had a strong sense of purpose and a sense that what they were beginning was the first step toward some sort of consummation. The Puritans wanted to build the kingdom of God. It’s tempting to say that the other party, the party of the Enlightenment, wanted to build a kingdom free from God. That’s not quite fair, but it does seem that they wanted a world that neither required nor desired God’s immediate attention. With time it has become more clear to both parties that the achievement of the two purposes are mutually exclusive, and for that reason among others the present-day successors of the tolerant deists of old are likely to be explicitly, sometimes ferociously, anti-Christian.

From the sociological and historical as well as from the Catholic point of view, both are deficient. Fundamentalism has the inherent tension of a faith which is totally dependent on a text: the tension always tends to be resolved either into narrowness and fanaticism or indifference, with the meaning of the text becoming so elastic as to be useless. (We’re going to see the same problem working itself out in Islam for some time to come.) Secularism, on the other hand—meaning a worldly order with no transcendent mandate for its axioms—is likely to lose or discard its moral compass and slide into greater and greater evil, or else simply fade away from sheer lack of will to live.

From the sociological and historical point of view, there is really only one institution on the American scene which can synthesize the insights of both parties: its non-negotiable core of transcendent truth puts the divine at the center of things where it must always be in the eyes of the truly religious, while its emphasis on mediation and on secondary causes allow a reasonable space for the liberty prized by secularists (though, unfortunately, no longer enough to satisfy most of them). Not least, it can correct in both the pride of exceptionalism, the sense of exemption and escape from history, the presumption of superiority. (Regarding that last: it’s true that much prestigious American opinion now holds that America is actually worse than almost everybody else, but this seems to me just an inversion of the pride, like the narcissist who is equally self-absorbed whether he thinks too well or too badly of himself.)

Of course this does not mean that Catholicism is true, nor am I advocating that the faith should spread because it would be socially useful. It’s funny, though, how the practical and the truthful turn out, in the long run, to be the same. In a contest between American secularism and American fundamentalism, I would bet on secularism; it seems to me in a stronger position and to have the momentum of history with it. I think it likely that the future of America will be either Catholic or monstrous.



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)