Sjolander Road Fellowship

Declaring the God of Unconditional Love

american exceptionalism




The subject of American exceptionalism has generated an emotional debate recently. When some have suggested that American history should be re-evaluated, considering the viewpoints of outsiders, like that of native Americans or British loyalists displaced after the Revolutionary War, a vocal outcry from opponents has resulted. One can hardly understand how anyone could conclude that past views of history are not biased by the prejudices of those who recorded it. It should be obvious that a different viewpoint will yield a different emphasis and conclusion.


Since the subject of correct historical lessons has raised the whole issue of what makes America exceptional, I have spent some time considering what properly constitutes the basis for claiming a superior American example for the world at large. Generally, people point to our economic prosperity, military might and subsequent world leadership role, and democratic institutions as the reasons why America is exceptional. Certainly these attributes are a large part of why people around the world envy and in some cases scorn us as a nation. In material things we have been very successful.


However, I believe any claim of exceptionalism has to be grounded in something beyond material success. By claiming to be an exceptional nation, we assume a role as the example for the rest of the world to follow. Is exceptional living really to be measured by military might, gross national product, and political institutions. Undoubtedly, adequate nutrition, medical care, political empowerment, and educational and economic opportunity are worthy and even necessary goals for all humanity; but are these attainments the mark of the exceptional or merely the measure of the more fortunate or more aggressive in seeking personal advantage?  


Where we are noted as truly and rightfully exceptional, I don't think we will have to worry about anyone denying or taking away our exceptionalism. The kind of leadership which promotes emulation out of true respect and not just greed and envy, will be a real exception to most of human history.


For the spiritually minded who consider what is exceptional, the example of Jesus may serve to guide us. Militarism, materialism, and politics were not high on the list of importance to Jesus. Fulfilled living was the exception Jesus taught, a life characterized by simplicity, humility, and self sacrifice. His list was markedly different from the normal measures claimed for exceptional living within our cultural history.