The Sin of “American Exceptionalism”

Last night I watched Mitt Romney at a campaign rally in my home town, Broomall, Pennsylvania. What I saw sent chills down my spine. Demagoguery was on display. The people from my home town applauded the scolding of American President for apologizing. No apology for the tragedy of an American soldier(s) walking into the homes of families in Afghanistan to kill. No apology for … well…for ANYTHING. America is the greatest country in the history of the world. We should make no apology, said Mr. Romney.

In light of that speech, I am reposting this piece first published in February. It’s Holy Saturday for me. The one who lay dead on this day was killed, without apology, by The Myth of Roman Exceptionalism. The Roman Empire is long gone. But the myth never goes away. Only the name of the nation changes. Here’s the piece:

Jacket of “My People Is the Enemy”

“The stairway smelled of piss….This [a tenement apartment in East Harlem] was to be my home.  I wondered, for a moment, why. Then I remembered that this is the sort of place in which most people live, in most of the world,  for most of the time. This or something worse. Then I was home.”  – William Stringfellow, My People Is the Enemy: An Autobiographical Polemic.

I’ve been holding my breath, wrestling with whether to speak aloud what I hear and see.

I’m a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, in the debt to the bold witness of the late William Stringfellow, lay theologian. I’m also a religious pluralist. I believe with Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet that there is not just one way, there are many sides to the mountain and many paths on which the Divine Mystery is experienced.

I have learned over the years to respect the multiplicity of ways different sides of the mountain experience the living God. I work hard to understand my Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish neighbors. I often experience these discussions as encounters with God whose vastness, like the ocean, is so much greater than any of the tea cups in which we hold a few drops of the sea.

I also know that some forms of religion are just plain nuts. The religion of Jim Jones whose followers drank the purple Kool Aid in shared suicide in the jungle of Guyana is only the most ludicrous example of why we need to join comedian Lewis Black’s raging objection to political distortions of the truth: “You can’t just make s—t up!” Religion represents the best and the worst of the human psyche (the Greek word for ‘soul’).

Joseph Campbell, among others, long ago opened the aperture on my theological camera. He helped me to see that what we are all dealing with, on all sides of the mountain, is myth, the human spirit’s uniquely creative meaning-making activity that expresses both the grandeur and the terror of finite experience. Myth is not the opposite of truth; it is the story that points us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal.

My way of looking at the world is shaped by a vast variety of voices. Among them are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose experiences of the horror of the absence of God caused them to poke their fingers in the eyes of prevailing religious traditions whose tidy moral worlds turn God into a cosmic sadist.

Any religion worth its salt in the 21st century has to pass through the existential protests of these thinkers and of the shrieks and cries that still echo across the world from Auschwitz and Buchenwald that poke holes in every theory of a morally ordered universe. The Garden of Eden was lost a long time ago and, in the wake of the closing of the gates to it, any religion has to take account of the human history that looks much more like the trail of tears paved by Cain’s slaying of Abel than like two innocent people in Paradise before the fall.

Yet there is a deep longing for something more tangible, more trustworthy than myth. Something one can touch, see, feel, smell – a story that is not a story but fact. The longing is strongest when we experience great uncertainty and insecurity.

With this perspective, I have been looking again at the fastest growing religion in America, Mormonism, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS).

My first experience with the Mormons came quite by accident thirty years ago. I was riding a bus in New York City on my way uptown to visit African-American theologian James Cone at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem when I noticed the sign “Mormon Visitation Center.”  Already stressed by an unfamiliar transit system and feeling quite alone, I decided to get off the bus and take the tour.

Unlike the streets outside that were filled with trash and lit by flashing neon signs, the Visitation Center was spick-and-span. Everything was in perfect order, complete with a hologram of a Mormon family in a tranquil woods sitting in a circle, listening to the white upper-middle-class family’s father sitting on a stump higher than the other members of the family, reading from the Book of Mormon to an enthralled wife and two perfect, obedient, happy children. The hologram elicited two responses. One was amazement. I had never seen or even heard of a hologram. The other was a sense of outrage at the perpetration of a promise that was, in short, nothing but a hologram, the illusionary projection of someone’s idea of Eden that would strike a chord with visitors who long for the lost woods of the Garden of Eden. It offered a world of perfection: orderly, tidy, white, rural – nothing like the urban world on the street outside – the antidote to the realities and complexities of life in New York City.

When I left the Mormon Visitation Center it never crossed my mind that the Mormon vision or mythology would become the fastest growing mythology in America in the 21st Century. I was relieved to get back on the bus on my way to Harlem.

I ask myself now why this is so. I look again at Mormon beliefs and practices to try to understand.

In Mormon teaching, the Garden of Eden was a historical place, and it was not in the Mesopotamian Valley by the Euphrates River, as in the original biblical myth of Genesis. It was in North America…in Missouri.

“According to Joseph Smith [Mormonism’s founder] the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Missouri and following his expulsion from the Garden, Adam traveled northward to a place near modern-day Gallatin, Missouri. Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt stated that the name Adam-ondi-Ahman “is in the original language spoken by Adam, as revealed to the Prophet Joseph” (Journal of Discourses 18:343) – Bill McKeever, Mormon Research Ministry.

It is to this very spot of physical geography that Jesus will return at the Second Coming. None of this is in the realm of myth. It’s fact. You can go there to touch it and  walk on it, knowing that Adam was there long before you and that, after you have walked there, it will prove to be the epicenter of the universe, the very spot where Christ will return.

Why is the Mormon myth gaining such traction in America? And why would I break the code of silence, the well-advised reticence to those of us who share White Calf’s belief that the Divine Mystery is known differently on different sides of the mountain?

Some things are too important to leave unaddressed. The Mormon mythology is quintessentially American.

The myth that America is the center of transcendent goodness and power, the world’s epicenter, the original Garden of Eden and the place of Christ’s return, the people of “Manifest Destiny”, the one exception to the rising and falling of empires and nations, is losing its hold on us at home and abroad. We are losing our sense of innocence. Yet there lurks the nostalgia for the secure home provided by the illegitimate marriage of Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom of God with America, “the City set upon a hill” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and of John Winthrop’s sermon to English settlers on their voyage to the new world.

As Nietzsche knew, such gods don’t die easily, even when they’re already dead. When the town crier takes his lantern into the darkened town square at midnight crying “God is dead! God is dead!” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, the rest of the town regarded him as a madman. But it would be only a matter of time before the news would reach their ears.  It was the god of Western civilization that Nietzsche’s madman pronounced dead.

When something dear to us dies, especially when it is the prevailing religious myth of a nation about its own holiness and invulnerability, we become like starving people who continue to look in the same old bare cupboard for bread.

What better place to go than the reassurance that America is still the center – the ancestral home of a real man named Adam, who came complete with his own (now lost language, the special place to which Jesus (who visited the lost tribe of Israel in the Americas between his resurrection and bodily ascension into heaven) will return? When the Christian story the story is concretized to a finite, mortal place, it power as myth – pointing us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal – is not only lost but turned on its head.

There are many sides of the mountain, and it behooves all of us to approach people of different religious traditions with open ears and open minds. But approaching another’s religious beliefs respectfully does not require that we pretend not to see what we see or that we conclude that all religions are really the same or that one opinion is as good as another in the free market of religious truth claims. “You can’t just make stuff up!”

Let me say without hesitation that what I see in Mormonism is but the most exaggerated illustration of the idolization of the nation that includes so much of the American churches of whatever stripe where the nation is enshrined as God and where patriotism is the unspoken highest virtue with the cross wrapped in a flag.

The American wars of foreign intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not have happened without this widespread faith in American goodness and exceptionalism. It is the cardinal sin that afflicts us across all denominational and religious lines. Whenever the Jesus executed by the Roman Empire becomes the Imperial King of a new empire, those who continue to hear the shrieks and cries of the world that suffers – and who continue to smell the piss on the stairway in the place we call “home”- are obliged to break the silence, violate the code, and get back on the bus to Harlem.

12 thoughts on “The Sin of “American Exceptionalism”

    • Jesus said : 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.

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  1. You might be interested in this article on the origins of the phrase “American exceptionism”:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/03/how-joseph-stalin-invented-american-exceptionalism/254534/
    It is a great example of how nations build myths about themselves.
    On Mormonism. They must mass produce their visitation centers somewhere! The one you describe is the same as one I have seen elsewhere in the world!. More seriously I am very conflicted in my views of Mormonism. There is a lot that leaves me unconformtable about their faith. And yet practicle expressions of love and community support are outstanding and put other other faiths to shame.
    What worries me more, watching American politics from the outside, is the extent to which Christian views of all pursuations are used to score political points on both sides. The more the politicians claim to act in the name of god, the more they cloud their very human ambitions and power politics.

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    • Well said. Very thoughtful reflection. Thank you for the link. I hope it was clear that my selection of the Mormon bellief about the U.S. as the site of origin and end of life is an example – the most absurd illustration – of how the underlying belief in American Exceptionalism expresses itself. It does the same among Christians and most everyone else. Nationalism is the sin that knows no boundaries.

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  2. In troubled times, times facing loss of security, and life ways, hanging on to beliefs is much like hanging onto a lifeboat. We want something seemingly solid to have a grip on, even if is verity is questionable. In the widening gap now much as is was in the 1800’s, people grasp at straws – most of them or their ancestors came here for a better life for them and their families. Seeing that erode as it has has brought us to a point, where we can not admit we are not “A city set on a hill”, but the idea that we should never apologize is,, in and of itself,, an affront to every other nation in the world, as well as any sense of decency, manners, and the very idea of diplomacy.
    Can I say it more succinctly or plainly?

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  3. I agree that it is sometimes difficult to talk honestly about these issues, and I agree that we must.

    In my lexicon, I think of American Exceptionalism as part of our Systemic Sin. While much is made of personal sin, systemic sin is much more brutally devastating. When a thief steals a social security check of an elderly woman, that is personal sin. When a vast banking system uses hidden fees and fine print to steal thousands of dollars from her, that is systemic sin.

    American Exceptionalism is the sin that led us into every war since Korea. American Exceptionalism is the sin that has created our increasingly onerous police state. (Strip searches.) American Exceptionalsim is the sin has left us with a Supreme Court that is no longer our last safety net, but another tool for the powerful. American Exceptionalism is the sin that allows our society to be so deeply divided by race, income, class and other imagined differences.

    American Exceptionalism is the sin that seems to slowly be devolving the USA from a humble part of the human family, to an oppressor of much of the human family. It is heartbreaking to me.

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  4. My little side of the mountain sings with appreciation when people speak aloud what they hear and see. To me, that is a far more helpful thing than any mythology. Relaxing breath control and speaking aloud is a wonderful art form, maybe the greatest art form. Effectiveness requires serious attention to what is seen and heard. It may require research. It definitely requires contemplation. -Wow again, and thank you.

    “American Exceptionalism” like Roman Exceptionalism, British Exceptionalism, German Exceptionalism, and a big etc., are right there at the foundation of a crimes against humanity.

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    • “American Exceptionalism” like Roman Exceptionalism, British Exceptionalism, German Exceptionalism…are right there at the foundation of crimes agains humanity.” Exactly. Precisely. Underlying each of these idolatries (I call them “idolatries” because they are impostors of God) is a vast psychological/spiritual/emotional denial of death. EVERYTHING dies. The projections of the Aryan race, or of White Supremacy die hard. But for their time, they provide the kind of denial of death of which Ernest Becker and every other reasonable sociologist, anthropologist, historian, and theologian understands. Self-absorption is a form of death. Narcissism, whether personal or collective, is an escape from the shadow of death. “The human race thinks it can go on with all its Narcissistice human normalities, of war, of politics, of religion, and that somehow the vast other side of the picture will look out for itself. So in opting for ‘himself as conscious’, man is opting for an ultimate solitude. And ultimate solitude is death. It is to be cut off from the tree of life, and to wither.” – Sebastian Moore, The Crusified Jesus Is No Stranger.

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  5. There’s no way I can say anything to enhance the power of what you’ve said. I think it would be fun to be sitting around the living room, chatting with Mormons and lots of other people, hearing reactions. That’s what this piece does – evoke thought that longs to be shared.

    But for now, I’m responding to say thank you!

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    • I would love to sit in the living room to have these conversations. I was hesitant to say what I’ve said for the reasons I’ve stated. In the U.S. we have agreed to suspend all criticism of one another’s religious beliefs. We accept religious pluralism, as I believe we should. But, having said that, the fact remains that IDEAS and ARCHETYPES do matter. And the things we believe most profoundly go unexamined. American exceptionalism is one of those ideas, stolen from Hebrew Scripture to apply to us as the best and last hope. It’s a horrible idea, an idea with horrible consequences, an idea that puts us :beyond sin” and beyond the need to apologize. In this country it underlies every religion that wraps God in the national flag. The churches are equally culpable. But the idea of a chosen land and people is nowhere so blatent as in Mormonism. Sometimes we need to speak out loud, especially when the myth is so proudly on parade.
      We do not engage in religious wars

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