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The concept or doctrine of “American Exceptionalism,” has some
things in common with the biblical ideas of chosenness and the
doctrine of election.
Both are ways of saying, “You are different. You are special.” But
in what way “different?” Or what does it mean to be “special.”
Some in the biblical narratives seem to understand and interpret
“different” or “chosen” to mean “better than,” or “entitled.” And
that is also the way some seem to understand “American
Exceptionalism.” We are better than other nations or peoples. Or we
are entitled to act in different and self-interested ways because we
are America or Americans.
But as the prophets and Jesus reminded Israel, election and
chosenness do not mean better than or entitled or free to mistreat
others or arrogance, they mean responsibility. They mean you are
expected to live according to a different and higher standard than
The rubber meets the road in the current debate over refugees. A
worthy understanding of American Exceptionalism would mean that
though others may close their boundaries or turn away the suffering
and needy, we are different. We have a responsibility to those in
need, to “the storm-tossed, wretched masses, those longing to be
free” -- as the Statue of Liberty puts it.
When others close their doors and hearts, we are not permitted to do
so, by our best values, our history, our identity.
Certainly, reasonable precautions, security and background checks,
so-called vetting, needs to happen to avoid admitting those who
intend to do harm. But to let fear cause us to shut our borders, to
forget the contributions of immigrants, to demonize Muslims is to
forget who we are.
As Marilynne Robinson wrote in an essay on “fear” earlier this fall,
“When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the
defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards
of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not
be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of
harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like