Is President Obama opposed to American exceptionalism? Many Republicans, including many running for his job in 2012, are suggesting he is.

The term was first used in the 1920s by the American Communist Party. It referred to class mobility within American society, and to the resources (both natural and human) that America contains. These factors, the Communists believed, would allow the United States to postpone (but not escape) the collapse that all capitalist societies are doomed to experience. In this it was exceptional.

Today American exceptionalism has come to mean that we are better than everyone else, and that spreading American values (religious, social and economic) is the gift America can give to the rest of the world.

I understand American exceptionalism to be rooted in the uniqueness of our Constitution. We are the first and only state based solely on a set of ideas – freedom, equality, individuality, capitalism and consent of the governed, to name but a few. In a world still given to power rooted in blood, tribe and religion, we are an exception to the rule. Sure, we have huge blind spots in our history, but that doesn’t demean the idea or the ideal.

Is President Obama opposed to these ideals? I don’t believe that for a moment.

As long as we demote American exceptionalism to American superiority, we may lose our devotion to the ideas that made and make us exceptional. As long as we equate American exceptionalism with being number one, we may fail to defend the things that make us exceptional: freedom of religion through separation of church and state, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and so on.

As long as we mistake American exceptionalism for American jingoism – USA! USA! USA! – we betray the very country we imagine we are celebrating.

And as long as we reduce our politics to personal attacks rather than focusing on competing policies, we will soon find ourselves anything but exceptional.

I am looking forward to real debate in Congress. I want to see principled people on different sides of an issue passionately (and politely) argue. This is part of who we are. When we demonize the other as un-American, we spit on the very heart of America.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an author and educator. He blogs at Beyond Religion, where a version of this column previously appeared.

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