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REL 200: American Exceptionalism

This article is for my REL 200 class.

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1. Exceptionalism itself represents the idea one entity is superior than another. Specifically, American Exceptionalism is a deep-rooted idea in american society where democratic freedoms, institutions, and ideals are superior to those of other countries.

Since our founding, John Winthrop made it known "we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us." Due to the strength of our democratic freedoms built off of the United States Constitution at our country's founding, Winthrop is defining American Exceptionalism as being looked up to as the "city on a hill". We are the country who must set the standard. In this time period, american democratic ideals brought a light into the world previously occupied by the darkness of monarchies and autocracies. Because of America's success in overcoming the challenge of building a strong, independent nation, other countries look up to America as setting the example for a "perfect" country.

When many Americans think of American Exceptionalism their mind goes to one thing: Military Superiority. Although a strong military is one aspect of a strong America, Hillary Clinton defines American Exceptionalism the best, “It’s not just that we have the greatest military, or that our economy is larger than any on Earth, it’s also the strength of our values.” Clinton added: “Our power comes with a responsibility to lead.” Hillary Clinton feels as though American Exceptionalism is a commitment to the leadership of the world. She believes in leading innovatively and creating a sense of cohesion amongst world leaders and their respective nations. America gains its exceptionalism by spreading its democratic ideals to the world.

2. There has always been a sense of exceptionalism among the american people. Historically however, not all racial groups feel they benefit from a sense of exceptionalism. Baldwin believes African Americans have been left behind. Since America's founding they have been discriminated against and not guaranteed the same rights as white citizens. Baldwin also expresses his views on this in a letter stating, "It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which your life and identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you." Baldwin concludes that America has failed him. Although he has spent his life as a hardworking, blue-collar worker, he has not been treated with the same respect as his white counterpart. African Americans have not been able to share in this idea of "city on the hill" exceptionalism.

Throughout the 1960's racial discrimination was on the national stage. In a speech by President John Kennedy in 1961 he states, "a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation." Kennedy believes in the idea of American Exceptionalism. He is promoting fairness and equity in government no matter what color your skin or where you prefer to worship. This idea was a new step for the decade. It would allow for more diversity in the government allowing for better representation of the people. Kennedy was trying to portray a message aimed at being forward thinking to remain a "city on a hill".

In 1989 with the Cold War coming to a close, America was the major democratic light in the world. In a speech by Ronald Reagan during this era, he offered a story of an american sailor saving a fleeing refugee who, "yelled, "Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man,"" simply at the sight of him. To those oppressed in communistic parts of the world, American Exceptionalism and the ideals they stood upon were admired. America was viewed as a savior to those unable to get free of communism's grip. In this era the idea of freedom for all, in all aspects of life, was a remarkable feat to have accomplished. While those such as Malcolm X or Baldwin would disagree, America was large steps ahead of other developing countries in providing fair and free institutions.

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American Exceptionalism in history overall has a checkered past. Past presidents such as Kennedy and Reagan have lauded this exceptionalism by explaining america's devotion to individual freedoms and providing a stabilizing source of democracy in other corners of the world. Baldwin however would criticize American Exceptionalism was built off the back of the slave and still is.

3. American Exceptionalism embodies the ideal fairness for all. However, America was built off inequality. Drew Smith describes, "the idea that white people are inherently superior to people of color," as white supremacy. White supremacy has poisoned our society and caused deep divisions. When Dylann Roof attacked the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston killing the nine black members inside there was national and global outrage. How could a society believed to be so exceptional allow for violence against different races? America prides itself of its acceptance but it is blind to the truth. Mass protests against police brutality across the United States are just one example of the prejudice existent in society.

If there is one thing America is known for it is its free and fair democratic elections. This major component of exceptionalism has been existent since america's founding. For nearly two centuries not everyone had this equal right to vote. Malcolm X, a suffrage supporter, during a fiery speech exclaimed, "Let it be the ballot or the bullet. Let him know that it must be the ballot or the bullet." He was calling for people to allow African Americans the freedom to vote or they would fight for what was right. Throughout history in America those oppressed have had to fight for what they deserve. Although America did allow for this unfairness to take hold of society, American Exceptionalism embodies the idea society can change for the better. It changes through the protest of the people within for the greater good.

Maintaining religious freedom and tolerance is another major component of American Exceptionalism. Employment vs. Smith first touched on this when two Native Americans trying to use illegal peyote for a religious ceremony were fired from their jobs. The government ruled, "the Clause does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a law that incidentally forbids (or requires) the performance of an act that his religious belief requires". From this point forward the precedent was set. Government would protect belief and not practice. The government must make this decision however, without it anyone could break the law and simply claim freedom to exercise religion freely. Although limiting freedoms, the government's job is to keep citizens safe.

Just this year religious freedom was questioned as the United States tried to build the Dakota Pipeline over sacred indian burial grounds. Although construction was halted to form an alternative plan around the site, without protest this never would have been achieved.

Another government outcome affecting religious freedom was in the Burwell Vs. Hobby Lobby case. This case questioned whether the christian religious institution Hobby Lobby should be forced to pay for contraceptives. Hobby Lobby argued it was an infringement on their religious rights and brought their case to court. The ruling prohibited the “Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion" This protection of religious rights is embedded into American Exceptionalism and what it represents. However, this brings into question how this case would have been treated if Hobby Lobby's religious views were different. In an increasingly christian, protestant america would a Muslim corporation's viewpoints be regarded in the same manner and granted similar freedoms?

The United States has proven it is in fact biased towards certain religions. Although it is not outright admitted, Christianity is the law of the land. For example when we go to court, the bible is the religious book we swear upon and currency is printed with "In god we trust". These represent the leaning of america away from minority religions sch as Islam. In this election season the bridge team reports there is, "hatred, violence and social hostilities confronting Muslims as a minority faith group in contemporary America" have increased. The article continues to show statistics such as how muslims are more likely to be the victims of domestic attacks or even murder. Muslims are treated with great prejudice in America yet we still believe in the idea of American Exceptionalism.

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Where is the love...

The idea of American Exceptionalism is beginning to be morphed into an acknowledgment and acceptance of racial prejudice against minority groups both religious and racial with the United States. To maintain America's democratic ideals and institutions as outlined by Winthrop we must maintain an example for other nations to mirror. If America begins to weaken its values or core beliefs given by its founding father's we will cease to be an exceptional America.

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