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REL200 Understanding Exceptionalism In America

America has been depicted by many as the greatest country in the world but why? Just stating this has no meaning if there isn't evidence to back up such a claim. This post will hopefully help to show what exceptionalism is, how it has evolved, and its overall significance.

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Well, what is it?

American Exceptionalism is the belief that America was chosen by God to be the greatest country on Earth and serve as an example for all nations to follow.

Alexis de Tocqueville, founder of Exceptionalism, proudly stated that "this country differs qualitatively from other developed nations because of its national credo, ethnic diversity, and revolution-sprung history".

De Tocqueville's points are nationally centered and are focused on why the COUNTRY is great. While not extremely religious, his language is very group centered and inclusive, demonstrating that the people have created this greatness.


According to John Winthrop, the man responsible for the term "City Upon a Hill", God "hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity... ordering all these differences for the preservation and good of the whole".

Winthrop reinforces my personal definition by referencing God as the main reason for why America is such a great place. The differences instilled by God make us an example for the rest of the world to follow.

President John F. Kennedy echoed Winthrop in his "City Upon a Hill" speech by stating, "We do not imitate—for we are a model to others".

Kennedy's quote served as a reminder that America was not only given the distinction of being great, but that we had a responsibility to make sure the world understood what greatness was.


How have we historically been exceptional? Let's take a look.

In one example, Malcolm X has problems to discuss. In his "Ballot or the Bullet" speech, he angrily stressed that he doesn't "see any American dream; I see an American nightmare".

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This quote from X is very deep. It speaks about the racial injustices perpetrated by American politicians who have done little or made it harder for minorities to survive in the United States. X directly challenges JFK's statement that we are a model to others because of the lack of work done for oppressed people. JFK is not being ignorant, but X's claims show the imperfections that do not make America a model to others.


I know what you're thinking: "Am I going to hear any good news about this topic?" Right now.

In Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, she proclaimed, "nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place!".

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This line from Truth's speech reflects the systemic gender problem that America has had with not only women, but specifically black women. This can be tied to the American Nightmare that Malcolm X described above. We were deemed a "City Upon a Hill", but this term gives us a false sense of perfection due to this problem with oppression.


Yeah man, it's frustrating. Why can't we be good to everybody?

In Ronald Reagan's "Farewell" address, his thoughts on exceptionalism are more politically charged than the previous two historical examples. He discussed how the country was "more prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was 8 years ago".


Sounds good right?!

While Reagan's address may just be one last shot at the negatives of communism, I'm willing to overlook that to see the positives of economic prosperity and high morale; two things that the world had taken notice of and tried to emulate. He even discussed the problem of the deficit, and by labeling it as such, America can see it as an area to become even greater.

Enough of this historical content, how is this important to today?

2016 Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton and her thoughts on exceptionalism today mirror Reagan's when she said, "we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity." Her focus on American values and greatness shows a historic shift of the term from the Republicans (at least from Trump), who have used this as one of the main points of their platform, to the Democrats.


At least her loss in the election did not change her mind.

President Obama had a more realistic outlook and noted that America still has room to improve. Obama took the idea of a city upon a hill and changed it to one under construction, an indication that America has to continually reform problems that come up in all sects (religious intolerance, racial injustice, etc.)


What a good message from our departing president

American Exceptionalism has also been compromised by groups within the United States that restrict rights for others. Kelly Baker's "White Nationalists", the alt-right has been bound together by their opposition to immigrants, minorities, feminism, to name just a few. Looking at de Tocqueville's definition of Exceptionalism again, the point of ethnic diversity is challenged by a group like the alt-right trying to take power away from certain groups of people while trying to push their white supremacy and exclusive agenda.

Obama's message is needed now more than ever with some of the problems that still persist. In Roxane Gay's "Why I Can't Forgive Dylann Roof", her frustration for why people are able to forgive such a hateful individual is understandable. Her argument aligns well with the Baker piece, as it serves as a reminder that not everyone is accepting of ethnic diversity.

Another point of discussion for exceptionalism comes from North Carolina and their HB2 law that prevents people from using public facilities that align with their interpretation of gender.


No, I'm not kidding.

Pat McCrory, the ex-governor responsible for the law, described HB2 as common sense and not as religious. However, this law reinforces the traditionalist view that women and children must be protected by men, in this case from sexual danger. Additionally, the law gives the state power over individuals to determine their gender, marginalizing those who believe that gender falls on a varying spectrum. Looking back at Clinton's definition of exceptionalism, McCrory has challenged peace and progress for LGBT and women, destroying the history of Exceptionalism.

America has done a lot of great things, but that does not mean that they have not had some negatives as well. With a political outsider about to take the highest office, the pressure is on to make progress and improve. If the country can start seeing progress in religious freedom/intolerance, racial divide, and economic prosperity, there will be no doubt as to how exceptional America is.

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