Confessing the Sins of American Exceptionalism

Is a belief in American exceptionalism a sin?

That was the question I posted on Facebook after watching the Republican and Democratic national conventions this summer.[i] Despite their sharp differences, the political elite of both parties professed a belief that there is something exceptional about the United States. Broadly, this manifested itself in three different ways:

  • a descriptive exceptionalism where supposedly unique “American” features are highlighted;
  • a triumphal exceptionalism that affirms a divine mandate or special blessing bestowed on America by God to lead or dominate global economics, politics, and military force; or an
  • aspirational exceptionalism that uplifts as a model the nation’s struggle in overcoming racial, gender, and class injustice.

These assumptions and beliefs stand behind some of our most pressing issues domestically and internationally. Consider the emotional outrage over Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem or the debates on our responsibility toward immigrants and refugees. Think about how America’s “dominance” and “leadership” are almost assumed in relation to the country’s role in the world.

This uniquely American feature is laden with theological language and assumptions. Given this, where should a Catholic stand?

Exceptionalism: from description to manifest density

The notion of America’s exceptional nature is rooted in the religious worldview of Puritan settlers, who fancied themselves as a new chosen people seeking a “New Jerusalem” and discovering a “City on a Hill” under God’s divine providence. It received a descriptive vocabulary with Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations in Democracy in America. And it took on new and deadly force with the Myth of Manifest Density, which was used to justify both the expansion of the American Empire following the US-Mexican and Spanish-American Wars and the violent domination of people of color domestically.a-thing

In the twentieth century, presidents from both parties reaffirmed America’s exceptionalism and its divinely-mandated role in the world. For many white, middle class Americans today, this ideology is so deeply engrained it is hard to imagine another meta-narratives to view politics, culture and their own place in the world.

While Donald Trump has indicated reservations with the term, his “America first” rhetoric embodies a belief that America is, or should be, better and superior to others. This echoes his party’s official platform begins with this creed like statement:

“We believe in American exceptionalism.
We believe the United States of America is
unlike any other nation on earth.
We believe America is exceptional because of
our historic role — first as refuge, then as defender,
and now as exemplar of liberty for the world to see. [ii]

A more aspirational exceptionalism

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. O’Brien/Released)

In response to years of attacks, President Obama has reaffirmed his belief in American exceptionalism and its unique role in the world. Obama, in fact, is the “only president to publicly discuss (and for that matter embrace) “American exceptionalism.”

In his profession of belief in America, Obama has done something interesting by reframing the triumphal exceptionalism of the past into a more aspirational and humanitarian exceptionalism. This can be seen in his 2011 State of the Union and most notably in his powerful 2015 address in Selma.

America, while imperfect, this argument goes, is exceptional because marginalized peoples have been able to overcome oppression and gain freedom and we thus have a responsibility to share that with others.[iii]

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, like the 2016 Democratic Platform, [iv] continues to affirm to a more triumphal exceptionalism. In an address to the American Legion this August, Clinton repositioned herself as its only true believer in the race:

If there’s one core belief that has guided and inspired me every step of the way, it is this. The United States is an exceptional nation. I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country.
And 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, the strength of the American people. Everyone who works harder, dreams bigger and never, ever stops trying to make our country and the world a better place. And part of what makes America an exceptional nation, is that we are also an indispensable nation.
In fact, we are the indispensable nation

American Exceptionalism as a Social Sin

For the Christian believer, claims that the United States is an “indispensable nation” and the “last, best hope of Earth,” even when proclaimed in an aspirational sense, should give some pause. In both its triumphal and aspirational forms, American exceptionalism stands in tension with many parts of Catholic doctrine including Catholicism’s universal outlook, its understanding of the global common good, its teachings on the limits of sovereignty, and affirmation of the need for institutions of global governance.

To be blunt, and this may surprise many, the Catholic position does not hold the view that the United States has some divinely appointed role in the world.

American exceptionalism, especially when understood in its triumphal form and used as a means to affirm dominance is clearly a social sin and might also be idolatrous. In Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, Saint John Paul II carefully defines social sin as those “relationships are not always in accordance with the plan of God, who intends that there be justice in the world and freedom and peace between individuals, groups and peoples.” (16) This includes, racism, xenophobia and the “obstinate confrontation between blocs of nations, between one nation and another, [and] between different groups within the same nation.” Thus, any form of American exceptionalism that situates the United States over and against other nations, it is a social sin.

In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, the pope again draws attention to the sins of prideful nationalism by denouncing national policies that support the “thirst for power, with the intention of imposing one’s will upon others.” Such desires, he warns lead to “certain forms of modern ‘imperialism,’” and contribute to the division of the world into “blocs” (no. 37). For many people around the world, these words bring to mind actions of the United States to use of military and economic forces.

Rather than strengthening a sense of global interdependence and solidarity, an appeal to American exceptionalism serves to reinforce barriers and divisions. To paraphrase St. Augustine, sin leads us to curve in on ourselves (naval gazing). Ideologies of exceptionalism, even in their most humanitarian forms, do just that. They blind us to the realities of others, particularly those at the margins. They blind us to our own failings in the past and reinforce hypocrisy in the present. And they blind us to the deeper motives of those who benefit from the status quo.

Exceptionalism and the 2016 vote

So what are we to do this election? If American exceptionalims, (when understood as an ideology that affirms a prideful nationalism) is a sin, then what can we do when both political parties profess such a belief? Here, the Catholic Church is uniquely positioned to be a voice for a new meta-narrative to understand America’s role in the world, starting with four ways:

  • Draw attention to the needs and realities of the universal common good and the role of our nation in an interdependent world, including the positive and negative impact of US Foreign Policy and the work of the United Nations,
  • Drop the language of exceptionalism altogether in church publications and statements.
  • Organize spaces of prayer and repentance for the past sins of our nation including slavery, racism, and unjust war.
  • Rethink how patriotism is expressed in liturgical settings, including prayers of the faithful, liturgical music, the placement of flags and homilies.

While none of these are likely to have an impact on the election, they can help to reframe a more virtuous understanding of what it means to be America in the world.




[i] My friend Fran Szpylczyn offered a recap of the discussion here.

[ii] This follows years of attacks on Democrats, and, in particular, President Obama, for being globalists; for not loving the country enough; and, worst of all, for not believing in the exceptional nature of the United States. See Rudi Giuliani’s claim that he “does not love America” or John Boehnr’s questioning of the president’s belief in American exceptionalism.

[iii] A problem with this argument is that people have often been oppressed by very structures that have been uplifted as exceptional.

[iv] Like the Republican Platform, the 2016 Democratic Platform focuses on American power (strength) and espouses the belief that America is somehow destined and entitled to lead the world:

“Democrats believe we are stronger and safer when America brings the world together and leads with principle and purpose…We believe our military should be the best-trained, best-equipped fighting force in the world, and that we must do everything we can to honor and support our veterans. And we know that only the United States can mobilize common action on a truly global scale, to take on the challenges that transcend borders, from international terrorism to climate change to health pandemics.” (2) Even as it concludes with a nod to value international institutions, like the United Nations, the Democratic Platform perceives them as “important amplifier of American strength and influence.” (51)


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