A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters
Our nation is at a cultural crossroads. At no time in our history has America been faced with two sets of values and visions that are so drastically different from each other.
President Obama and other liberal elites believe that more government is the solution to every problem. They see America as a nation that is behind other countries in moving toward a European statist model and a secular society. And they feel deeply uneasy with the United States’ leading role in the world.
These elites speak clinically of America’s “decline” despite the fact that no nation’s decline has ever been less inevitable. They reject the idea that America is exceptional, as one liberal columnist wrote in the Washington Post, as a symptom of insecurity and “the surest sign of looming national decline.” Apparently the profound gratitude most of us feel for the unique privilege of being an American is not a national strength, but instead a signal of psychological weakness.
Fortunately, few Americans share this vision for our country.
An overwhelming majority recognizes that we are A Nation Like No Other. A December 2010 Gallup poll asked, “Because of the United States’ history and its Constitution, do you think the U.S. has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world, or don’t you think so?” Eighty percent of Americans responded “yes.” It is this belief in the American Creed that both accounts for and ensures our freedom and prosperity.
In my new book, A Nation Like No Other, I write about the ideals and principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence that came to define American civilization. This is the first country in the history of the world founded on the idea that the individual is sovereign—that we are the source of political legitimacy and that we loan power to the government.
The Founders’ belief in limited government, self-rule, and natural rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” determined not only the character of our constitution, but our cultural ethos as well.
Even if many Americans are today unaware of the origins of these principles, they form the creed that we have lived by throughout our history, and to which we owe our freedom.
The Five Habits of Liberty
The Founders knew that the establishment of a limited representative government was necessary for the defense of individuals’ natural rights, but also that government institutions alone would not be enough. They were adamant that the success of the American republic would depend on the virtue of the American people. Self-rule is a great responsibility.
I write in A Nation Like No Other of the “Five Habits of Liberty” that have defined the character of the American people as responsible citizens and have ensured that America has remained exceptional. They are:
Faith and Family: Why Both Are Under Attack.
The affirmation in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is not a mere introduction to a long list of grievances with the British King. It was then, and remains today, a universal expression at the very heart of American Exceptionalism.
Each one of us is endowed with these rights by our Creator, not from any government. And if our rights are granted to us by God, no person or human government can take them away; this is what makes them “unalienable.”
Much of American history can be seen as a struggle to better honor these God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and to advance equality. The revolutionary American model of religious pluralism, the abolition of slavery, the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, and the defeat of communism all furthered these ideals. And no institutions have been more important than faith and family in advancing them.
Work: In America, It’s Called “Opportunity”
The Founders saw the ethic of personal responsibility for themselves and their families as one of the primary virtues required under republican government, and thought it shameful to be seen as even slightly dependent on public money.
From early on in its history, America has been a commercial society that rewards hard work and protects private property, the linchpin of a free society. Through the industrial revolution, territorial expansion, and immigration from all over the world, millions of people have had the chance to work in a country that offered opportunity and social mobility. In fact, the American free-enterprise system and the economic growth it has created over the past two centuries has been the most effective anti-poverty program in history.
A citizenry dedicated to hard work and personal responsibility have made America the freest and most prosperous nation on earth. Today, however, that dedication is challenged by a new and incompatible ideology—one which holds that government can take care of us and our families better than we can do so ourselves. The Left believes Americans need government to manage their healthcare, their financial decisions, and even their food choices, despite the fact that government has never done any of these things well. As the Founders foresaw, this assault on the traditional American work ethic is a threat to prosperity that we must reverse with a reassertion of the principles and policies that reward work.
Civil Society: The United Citizens of America
When Alexis de Tocqueville went on his tour of the United States in the 1830s, he noted the striking proliferation of private associations and their crucial importance to civic life. Americans, he found, were exceptionally active in their communities and tended to solve problems together without government involvement.
Tocqueville’s observation continues to hold true centuries after he returned to France. Americans today are by far the most philanthropic people in the world. Individual Americans in 2010 gave more than twice as much to charity as citizens of next nearest country.
The Rule of Law: One Nation, Under God, Equally Protected
The Founders knew from experience what it was like to be ruled by the arbitrary will of men instead of by the rule of law. They sought to create a representative republic in which legal principles, and not privileged interests, would govern. Their design of a limited government that would respect individual liberties and property rights was central to this aim.
Many in Washington have forgotten that their job is not to dictate to the American people, but to protect their rights and maintain the rule of law. I write in A Nation Like No Other that the rule of law today faces three grave threats: the corrupting effects that of big Government; ObamaCare; and the federal judiciary’s claim of judicial supremacy as well as the judiciary’s drift to an open embrace of radical secularism.
Safety and Peace: America, the Indispensible Nation
If the people’s safety is not guaranteed, the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are meaningless. Government’s first and most important task, then, is to maintain peace within and defend the nation from threats outside. Millions of courageous Americans have fought to protect our freedom through revolution, civil war, and two world wars. Many still do today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout its history, America has been the world’s foremost defender of freedom.
The Obama administration, however, refuses to tell the truth about some of our most dangerous enemies. It repeatedly refers to radical Islamist terrorists by the euphemism “violent extremists.” By failing to identify these threats to America, the political correctness of the Left puts our freedoms in even greater danger.
A City Upon A Hill
With its love of liberty and overwhelming recognition of American Exceptionalism, the United States has everything it needs to remain the freest and the most prosperous country in the world for generations to come. But it is up to each of us to ensure that this vision of America prevails at this crossroads in American history.
That is why I wrote A Nation Like No Other . It is also what inspired Callista and me to make a documentary on this topic, A City Upon A Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism.
We believe it is the right time for Americans to be reminded that America is truly an exceptional nation.
You can read the introduction to A Nation Like No Other here.