Another Look at Putin's Stinging Words About American Exceptionalism

I cannot believe I ever would have said the same things as Vladimir Putin. But I have. Putin wrote on the opinion pages of the September 12 New York Times that he disagreed with Obama on American exceptionalism, adding, "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."

I wrote in my very first blog for The Huffington Post: "American exceptionalism is a dangerous posture in the world and betrays the very democracy it would export."

Of course Putin's op-ed piece also was full of self-righteous statements and accusations, many of which were blatantly untrue. His attempts to paint himself and Russia as the savior in the Syria situation, and blame the United States were not welcome words.

Nonetheless, Putin's final paragraph provides opportunity to once again look at that phrase "American Exceptionalism." A belief that the United States of America is God's chosen nation, divinely inspired with a specific mission in the world is dangerous and has frequently left this nation with an untenable burden or the alternative of retreating to mere self-absorption.

However, I don't believe the president shares the belief that many in this nation do. In fact he is often thought to be un-American because he doesn't. He was derided over remarks he made in April of 2009, in which he said that he believes in American exceptionalism, "just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."

Obama speaks of this country's continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity. He frequently relates his own story when talking about the exceptional opportunities open to all people in this country. This particular inclusive stance is in stark contrast to a superiority kind of "Exceptional America" which too often translates to, "Some people are God-ordained to deserve being better off than others." The devastating, and, yes, dangerous, gap between rich and poor internally in this country, can be an off-shoot of that belief, particularly when one defends that stance with who is considered to be "really American" by virtue of race, ethnicity and class.

Putin's words calling upon the United Nations rang hollow when one realizes Russia has vetoed or blocked any Security Council action against Syria's brutal regime or action to bring relief to Syria's people. President Obama has been right to try to work through the United Nations, as difficult as that has been. When he first traveled through Iowa as a presidential candidate, I asked him about his position on working with the United Nations. He seemed surprised that anyone would ask and thanked me for the question. He has favored a collaborative approach to world problems, but many American people, often under the belief system of American exceptionalism, have a go-it-alone approach. We hear elected officials speak of the United Nations as "them," asking, "Why don't they support us?" What difference over past few decades would it have made to say, "We" in regard to the United Nations?

No, we don't want to be the world's policeman. And yet, we often corner ourselves into that position. President Obama was criticized for restraint in use of power in Syria and criticized when ready to use the military. The president himself said in his commencement address at the Air Force Academy in 2012, that "there are many sources of American power -- diplomatic, economic, development and the power of our ideals. We need to be using them all." His basic belief that ending the wars will make our military stronger has not changed, no matter what his critics at home or Putin say. President Obama, although still using the term of "exceptionalism" often speaks about exceptional leadership which is not "power over" but leadership on global security and on behalf of human dignity, compassion and freedom.

And finally, those words from Putin about, "when we ask for the Lord's blessing," may have been hard to hear from the leader of a people who not many years ago were considered "godless Communists." But there they were. I take them as a challenge to the temptation to an American exceptionalism that would insist "Christian America" is one word. A broader view of Christianity includes God's people globally. A broader view of the United States includes many religions. A broader view of God's mission on earth includes an openness to understanding others (including others' views of us), an intelligent patient, and a passionate collaborative work towards peace in a very complex worlds.