My public school and religious education were taught through the lens of “American exceptionalism.” We were not only blessed, we learned; we were also special, which translated to privileged.
I don’t recall learning about the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny specifically. But I recall a Sunday school teacher — likely parroting what she had been taught as a child — saying that if our forbearers hadn’t stolen and occupied these lands from Indians, the poor souls would have never known about Jesus.
The Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny are at the root of much of how America and Americanized Christianity have taken shape and continue to do so. It is out of this framework that the concept of American exceptionalism emerged and evolved.
The Doctrine of Discovery refers to the late-15th-century papal blessing of Christopher Columbus’ exploitations of native peoples. Any lands not occupied by “Christians” could be taken in an effort to advance the Catholic faith and the Christian religion.
This proposed noble undertaking — that was actually theft and genocide — was excused as being beneficial to those whose lives and land would be destroyed. Pope Alexander VI considered such carnage a fair price for overthrowing any “barbarous nation” in need of being “brought to faith itself.”
Jump ahead to the 19th century of western expansion of what is now the fuller United States of America. Settlers were “destined” to take lands and destroy livelihoods as needed to fulfill this divine calling.
These abuses also were deemed benevolent, since “our system” was superior to all others — and therefore, a gift to them. Claims of being “the greatest nation in the world” became justification for claims of doing no wrong.
This concept of exceptionalism, however, was not applied to all Americans — just the select few of European descent. And particularly exceptional were the self-appointed arbiters of the Christian faith who were blessed to be born as male.
Exceptionalism birthed a lot more racism and privilege than responsibility. It permitted continuing efforts to demean others based on ethnicity, religion and economics.
Still today — and in some ways more so than in recent decades — there is a robust effort to keep this indoctrination, masquerading as education, going. And it is best accomplished by continuing to ignore the larger and truer history of this imperfect nation with good stated ideals.
That’s why the straw man of critical race theory has been erected and continues to be thrashed.
One needs to look no further than Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, who recently said: “Teaching children that this is the most exceptional nation in the world is incredibly important.”
Author and religion professor David Dark of Belmont University gave this clear and needed response on social media: “He’s wrong. Teaching children that America is the most exceptional nation in the world is religious indoctrination. It’s also idolatry.”
Patriotism doesn’t require exceptionalism and isn’t a Christian concept. Deeming any persons or nations exceptional goes against everything Jesus said about individual value, faithfulness and conduct.
There was and is nothing noble — and certainly nothing exceptional — about a long history of human rights abuses in this nation directed toward Indigenous people, African slaves, immigrants from a variety of places and women based solely on gender. And similar justifications have been used for acts of war.
To teach American exceptionalism requires ignoring a whole lot about this nation while romanticizing a faulty version of its history. And to do so is, indeed, idolatrous.
It calls for a commitment beyond mere patriotism. It seeks to justify horrific abuses of the past — and positions a particular, powerful people to claim divine directives for continuing to treat others as lesser than God created them to be.
The exceptional thing to do is to work diligently toward the goal of liberty and justice for all rather than a privileged few.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.