March 1, 2010
A recent blog post by Doug Wilson claimed that while he has recently written against American exceptionalism, this does not mean he is against American gratitude; indeed, we Americans should be grateful for living in a uniquely blessed nation. While I appreciate his opposition to the idea of American exceptionalism, something many Christians unreflectively embrace, I must confess that I am still a bit skeptical. One source of my skepticism is that saying you oppose the idea of American exceptionalism doesn’t mean you actually do. I know plenty of people who would say, “Oh no, I don’t think America is better than everyone else...I just think that we aren’t involved in all those wicked things that other empires have done, and I think that we’re called to use our power to bring peace and justice throughout the world.” Right...pardon me for being unconvinced.
Second, I’m a little leery of this idea of gratitude he has in mind.There’s a responsible kind of gratitude and a naive kind of gratitude. If a kid is grateful to his parents because they buy him all kinds of junk food, then that gratitude is not necessarily a good thing--it would be better if was, to a certain extent, ungrateful, because he didn’t want to keep eating junk food. More seriously, if the Emperor Nero had leaned back at one of his banquets and thanked the Roman gods for bringing him such wonderful luxury, we would not count that gratitude a virtue but a culpable naivete about the fact that this luxury was made possible by the suffering he had inflicted on thousands of others. Wilson says, “Liberals are ungrateful whiners....They are surrounded by unbelievable blessings, greater than any people in the history of the world have known, and they avoid the grace of gratitude by complaining about the pollution, the fact that we stole it from the Indians, the additives in the bread, and the fact that it is all propped up by CIA assassinations overseas.” I raise my hand timidly-- “But, shouldn’t we be upset that we murdered thousands of Indians to get this land? Shouldn’t we be disturbed that there are strange chemicals in our food? Shouldn’t we have some nagging discomfort, if not moral outrage, about the fact that it is all propped up by CIA assassinations overseas?” I’m looking for some follow-up qualification from Wilson, along the lines of, “These are all important concerns, but we must remember at the same time to be grateful for the genuinely good things God has given us,” but he never gives it.
Finally, Wilson seems to think that we are exceptional in one respect--our Founding Fathers knew better than to think we were exceptional, and so they enshrined safeguards of limited government in our Constitution. “The founders knew that we were in no way unique, and that really was unique.” In other words, America isn’t exceptional, we just have an exceptional Constitution. And although Wilson does not major on this theme, his comments got me realizing that this idea is quite pervasive in our circles. “Yes, yes,” we say, “we’re happy to admit that America has got zillions of problems, and shouldn’t pretend to be ‘God’s chosen people,’ but it’s an established fact that we do have the best political system in the world, cuz we had such smart founders. It’s only because we ignored our Constitution that we have problems.”
Well, maybe. But one nice thing about studying political thought at a British university is that you quickly find out that they are aware of quite a number of problems in the American constituion, as have been other European political thinkers for the last couple centuries. O’Donovan happens to think that in one crucial respect--the separation of the legislative from the executive--the American constitution is fatally flawed. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he thinks that the British system then is perfect. No--it has serious flaws too, and could be well served to borrow certain elements from the U.S. This seems to me an eminently sensible position: all constitutions have their pros and cons, most have fairly serious flaws, and even the best is only good for some nations, not for all.
Until we’re willing to grant this, and stop kidding ourselves that our Constitution is the envy of the world, we’re going to keep falling into subtle forms of American exceptionalism, and imagining that we figured out how to curb government power. After all, it is manifestly clear that we have failed to do so, and it’s worth asking whether that’s just because we ignored the Founders, or because the Founders got it wrong too.