What American Exceptionalism Means to Me

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” -Saint Paul, in his letter to the Romans

This weekend, one could argue (humbly) that the Lord chose the calendar as his instrument, placing the centennial of the hideous Tulsa Race Massacre smack in the middle of Memorial Day Weekend. For those inclined to see America as it really is and was, the juxtaposition is challenging. Like most worthy challenges, however, the reward is worth it – a renewal of the spirit of American exceptionalism.

As with many things, the wisdom of David French is a good beginning. His column on Tulsa is geared toward the faithful, but much of it should appeal to the secular among us as well (emphasis added).

While the violence in Tulsa was stunning, American history is littered with examples of street battles, racist uprisings, and mass killings. The history of the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina, massacre and coup, in which a racist mob overthrew the city government, is its own category of chilling. So is the Rosewood Massacre. The list goes on.

It is not “hating America” to acknowledge this is part of our story. It is not unpatriotic to understand that much of our present reality exists because the legacy of past atrocities does not fade as quickly as their memory.

So, what do we do? Perhaps we can take a cue from the way in which we honor the glories of the past, but with a very different emphasis. When it comes to our great moments, we remember them, we celebrate them, and we teach our children to emulate the courage and virtue of our heroes. We cover the countryside with tributes.

If it is right to celebrate, it is also right to mourn. When it comes to our darkest moments, we should remember them, we should lament them, and we should take a page from Josiah and seek reform to ameliorate their effects. Unless we remember our worst moments, we simply can’t truly understand our own nation, nor can we relate to all its people. 

For too many in this increasingly polarized America, the attempt to “truly understand our own nation” has been forgotten. The illiberals on right and left seem to be in full agreement that what made America was the White people who founded it – and never  mind anyone else.

For the illiberal left, this is a sign of America’s fundamental irredeemability. For the illiberal right, it is a sign that only certain people can be Americans – the fact that so many of them would themselves not be considered White or American at the time of its founding (including our lone German-American ex-president) notwithstanding.

What both get wrong is their shared assertion that America started fully-formed in the distant past; they merely argue about the year (1619 or 1776). This is, however, flat-out wrong. The Framers themselves understood this when they proposed the 1787 constitution “in order to form a more perfect union.” They knew America needed improvement and reform. That, not racial or ethnic categories, was what defined America.

What separates America is not ideals that we have achieved, for no small reason because, as humans, we cannot reach perfection. It is rather ideals that we never stop seeking: the balance between liberty and equality, between freedom and democracy, between individual success and collective responsibility.

Our attempts to answer these challenges have led us to export these ideals around the world (including to places with justifiable claim to them first).

On Memorial Day, we recognize those who gave their lives not just to protect this nation, but those very ideals, including the Black World War I veteran who refused to be forcibly disarmed by a White mob in Tulsa – because ideals are nothing if we refuse to judge ourselves by them, admit to our failures, and reverse course when necessary.

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