Throughout the year, especially on celebrations and days of special liturgical significance, we often feature meditations by Columbia clergy. For Thanksgiving our guest is The Rev. Dr. John C. Whatley III, Senior Pastor of Community Church of the Midlands in Seven Oaks Park at 200 Leisure Lane. Thank you, Dr. Whatley, for sharing your thoughtful and meaningful meditation, ‘Giving Thanks for American Exceptionalism.’
A good friend, a member of one of my former churches, recently called long distance to ask for my reaction to a sermon he heard. In celebration of the Thanksgiving season, his new minister (for whom he didn’t vote!) began a series of five sermons entitled “Biblical Reasons for Thanksgiving.” The first message in the series was called “Thanksgiving for American Exceptionalism.” The pastor chose, as a biblical basis for the sermon, a passage from the Old Testament book of Genesis. The verses in that passage portray God as saying that God’s creation of the world was good, but that God’s creation of a human being, Adam, was “very good.” The minister argued in his sermon that the Genesis passage declaring the man as “very good” constitutes the biblical basis for what has come to be called American Exceptionalism, for which each of us should “praise God and thank him (sic.) forever.” My friend said that he didn’t get the connection between the Genesis passage and American Exceptionalism and wondered if I could explain it to him —- if there actually is one. He also said, “I know I’m not a theologian and have a lot to learn about the Bible, but on the basis of what I do know, I doubted that American Exceptionalism could be a biblical concept.”
My friend, of course, was absolutely right. No biblical scholar would be foolish enough to assert that the writers (actually, the editors) of Genesis had America in mind when those ancient accounts of creation were compiled. It should be obvious to any intelligent elementary school child that America didn’t exist at that time, and the passage could not be referring to a country that had not even come into being! So to use that text or any other in the Judeo-Christian scriptures to support American Exceptionalism is preposterous. Moreover, to link all of that to a celebration of our American Thanksgiving adds insult to injury! Indeed, only the most gullible and uninformed of congregations would be willing to accept such nonsense.
Also, to my knowledge, at present, there is no one, universally accepted definition of American Exceptionalism, although I have heard several. One is that individuals in our country are exceptional when compared with individuals in other countries. Another definition is related to the earlier idea of Manifest Destiny in which America is justified in extending its borders — or at least influencing the affairs of other nations (by force, if necessary) because our way of life is so obviously superior to that of others. Recently, I heard someone on AM radio say that America is superior to all other countries on the face of the earth; consequently, we should never apologize for any of our actions, even when we seriously “fumble the ball.” Still another definition states that because the book of Genesis pictures God as saying that we are to “subdue the earth,” we have a divinely given mission to control other nations on the planet. During the last few years I have heard a few other definitions of American Exceptionalism and several variations on the ones I’ve already stated, but I won’t recount all of them here. My point is simply that no one of them seems yet to be universally accepted.
Whatever one’s definition of Exceptionalism is, it is not likely to be found in many good dictionaries. The word “exceptional” (an adjective) is there, but the word ‘exceptionalism’ (a noun) is often conspicuously absent; so it is essentially a neologism — a new word, apparently coined to justify any action our country or its leader(s) might choose to take.
My friend wondered if the idea of American Exceptionalism is even Christian. And, again, his instincts were on target. It definitely is not; and one might say it is patently unChristian — or perhaps even antiChristian. It is obvious that America is a remarkable country with many outstanding characteristics; and it is understandable to be proud of our most worthy accomplishments. But the New Testament extols the value of appropriate humility, not unbridled boasting. In fact, there is even a passage that suggests spiritually sensitive people should consider others better than themselves —an ancient way of recommending humility in relationships with others.
We also might do well to remember that biblical teachings in our own scriptures attempt, without putting us down, constantly to make us aware of our own finitude, our all-too-human (sometimes all-too-inhuman) tendency repeatedly to hurt both ourselves and others — teachings that keep us more realistic, balanced, and properly grounded in our perception of ourselves. Exceptionalism as a claim to superiority is hardly a Christian value; and to thank God that we are better than some other person, group, or nation is certainly alien to the teaching of Jesus and that of the New Testament generally.
By all means, let us give thanks during this wonderful season; but let us give thanks for the possibility of growth, the possibility of engaging in a meaningful process of becoming that leads to a more fulfilling life for ourselves and for others. Let us give thanks that we can do so without “besting” one another, without claiming superiority over the rest of God’s creation. Perhaps then we will be a little more worthy of the Genesis editor’s assertion that we are “very good” in God’s sight; and maybe, just maybe, we’ll approach this Thanksgiving season in a way that is a bit more biblically authentic!