We are an exceptional nation in comparison to the 192 other members of the United Nations. The USA has had one continuous government for more than 230 years. No other nation has had such a stable government as long. The United Kingdom is an exception which has managed to evolve itself successfully, although without a formal constitution, for almost a thousand years. Our country’s integrity was challenged by the Civil War’s rebellion, but that bloody war served to reaffirm and cement our unity and the continuation of the original Constitution.
So we are tempted to believe in what some call American Exceptionalism. We might believe that out of all history, we are the one country that has developed a permanent form of successful government. But believing that can be dangerous. We can take it for granted that we are the best and we will always be the highest example to the rest of the world.
I don’t think so. To imagine that the good old USA is installed as a permanent lighthouse fixed on the ocean of history is a risky and dangerous bet. We might assume we don’t need to do anything to keep our country healthy, like someone who is at the peak of health at age 32, and then eats, drinks, and behaves with abandon in ways that erode health, thence arriving at age 60 with life-threatening conditions, and saying to the doctor, “How did this happen to me?”
Our own selfishness and desire for personal pleasure and gain are always a part of the human story. But when we demonstrate our higher ideals, volunteering for good causes, voting in local, state, and national elections, perhaps serving in government to make our world better, and paying our own share of taxes, we help to make our nation’s future secure. If we don’t, or if we cynically believe we can’t make any difference, then our nation’s unique strength fades.
Why should we be the one exception in history? When we look at the history of nations, we are impressed with their accomplishments, the architecture, canals, great walls, their art and literature. But we need to ask, why are these accomplishments in ruins, studied by archeologists and scholars? Ancient history is one empire after another overtaking and burying the previous “world power.” Nations become strong and later they become lazy and indulgent, not attending to their weaknesses. One of the most famous leaders, Alexander the Great took advantage of those weaknesses and conquered nations from Greece across the middle east, north Africa, and across Persia all the way to Afghanistan. But his empire lasted only a few years, coming apart at the seams almost immediately after his death.
Will America prove to be an exception? Why would the slow and steady march of history not wear us out? What happens as we become less and less disciplined, less willing to sacrifice for the common good, less willing to care about our neighbor who is in need? Will we fail to notice the erosion of our nation’s integrity when we tolerate leaders who seem more devoted to personal gain instead of public service? I don’t have all the answers. But I simply hope that we will not take our security and our future for granted, as Lincoln put it, that our "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.".
We will be an exceptional nation as long as most Americans live with integrity, with willingness to sacrifice, and to show tolerance, respect, and good will toward their neighbors. There is a way that is broad and smooth, and it always looks attractive, but the road to life is narrow and few there be that find it. Will America be among the few?
And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8 NRSV
© 2020 Stanley Hagemeyer