The Problem With Exceptionalism

Lawmakers in Oklahoma are seemingly in the process of enthusiastically banning Advanced Placement U.S. History classes in Oklahoma schools because they don't teach American "exceptionalism."

As reported in the Tulsa World:

"Rep. Dan Fisher, who has been active in a church-and-state organization called the Black Robe Regiment, said the AP U.S. history course framework emphasizes "what is bad about America."

American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is unique in the history of the world. The way Fisher and other conservatives are using the notion takes that "city on a hill" notion further to suggest that because of our "exceptional" nature, we should be above critique and examination.

This view reared its ugly head recently after President Obama's speech at the Prayer Breakfast. When talking about the horrible things being done in the name of religion today around the globe by groups such as ISIS, he said:

"And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

And then came the backlash from the exceptionalists.

"The president's comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime," said former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore (R). "He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share."

We're seeing exceptionalism creep even further into our culture -- beyond views of American History and Christian History. We are now trying to impeach and discredit people who do not agree with us on just about any topic. In Idaho, the Republicans in the House State Affairs Committee just introduced a non-binding resolution that calls for impeachment of judges who "fail to uphold the Constitution."

Of course, in order to uphold the Constitution, you have to agree with Rep. Paul Sheppard of Riggins, ID that same-gender marriage should not be legal.

Before I became a minister, I majored in History in college. My wonderful professors and classmates taught me to look to original sources and to remember that just because history was written by the victors didn't mean there weren't other stories to be told.

Our children have taken AP History classes at Boise High School and I confess I would "encourage" them strongly to do so were they not already so inclined. We want our children to know the story of our nation and the world. We want their perspectives broadened so they learn the world is both a big and a small place. People in other cultures and other eras have lived both similar and different lives than ours.

I've traveled in other countries but have always lived in the United States. I love to travel. And I love to come home. Because I love living here. And I appreciate the grand experiment that America is after I've seen it from other places and other perspectives.

It is also why I want my children to read the Bible. All of it.

We like to lift up the "heroes" of our faith -- Noah, David, Abraham, Moses, Peter, Paul, and so on. We tend, however, to only tell the "exceptional" part of their stories.

We love the story of David and Goliath, but tend to spend less time on David and Bathsheba or David and his dysfunctional family.

We sing the song of Father Abraham but gloss over the two times he tried to pass off his wife as his sister so that when other men found her attractive, they wouldn't kill him to take her.

We put Noah and the Ark on children's nurseries, but we neglect to tell the weird story of Noah, drunk and naked in a tent.

Exceptionalism is bad theology and bad pedagogy.

This whole kerfluffle has me humming the hymn "This is my Song", which is a hymn of peace written to the tune of Finlandia by Jean Sibelius. Here's the first verse, written by Lloyd Stone between World Wars One and Two:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

We need to do better for our children, and for ourselves. I pray we will expose them to ideas we don't agree with and teach them to discern where lies the path of wisdom. I pray we will nurture a love of our country that is honest, reflective, and always yearning to be a better, stronger, more just nation. I pray we will nurture their faith in a God who is strong enough to not need our editing or protection.

This is my prayer, O God of all the nations.