Auburn Unitarian Universalist Society
A topic that is getting a lot of pundit time, particularly by aspiring politicians, is American Exceptionalism. It is grounded in the belief that America is favored by God, above all other nations. Some of its adherents fervently argue that it provides justification for us to act unilaterally and without constraint or respect for international laws. By making such arguments, it weakens rather than strengthens our moral arguments, and makes us appear to be a bully rather than a moral exemplar for the rest of the world. As a religious leader who deeply loves what America stands for, using theological language, I believe that we have a moral duty to call those who argue for American Exceptionalism to repentance. As one who came of age during the Vietnam conflict (it was never a “declared war” even though half a million troops were fighting there at one time), I remember the phrase “America, love it or leave it.” One can “love” America without promoting American Exceptionalism. In fact, my arguments against American Exceptionalism are based on religious grounds.
As Unitarian Universalists, one might say that we are “theologically programmed” to reject American Exceptionalism. The reason for this is that the roots of American Exceptionalism can be found in the writings of the sixteenth century theologian John Calvin. Calvin popularized the related doctrine of predestination, the idea that before we are born, God has a plan for us; and furthermore, God has favored certain people who were called “the Elect” by Calvin and his Scottish protégé, John Knox. Those who were not included among “the Elect” were often consigned to lives of suffering, in this world and the next. How did you recognize members of “the Elect?” It was relatively simple—they were the ones who were in positions of economic power, and were often chosen to serve as leaders of the church.
Robert Burns, the great Scottish poet, came under attack by the national Church of Scotland, and fired back with his poetry condemning any doctrine that ( to paraphrase) taught condemning one to heaven and two to hell…all for its own glory. (See “Holy Willie’s Prayer.”) Burns was in step with the Unitarians of his time. (His two ministers, including the one who baptized him) were both brought up on heresy charges by the Church of Scotland.) William Ellery Channing, often referred to as “the Father of American Unitarianism,” also argued about the absurdity of these teachings when he wrote about why we were forming our own religious association of congregations during the early nineteenth century. (There had been Unitarian churches in Europe since the latter part of the sixteenth century.)
Concepts such as predestination, the Elect, and even the earlier Jewish belief in “God’s chosen people” are ways that groups of people choose to differentiate themselves from others. In essence: to set their group apart. They may have a role to play in the early, formational days of a movement, but they can become toxic and socially corrosive if they continue to dehumanize those who do not share their beliefs. John Calvin, himself, met great derision among other reformers when his followers burned Michael Servetus at the stake in Geneva for writing on the errors of the Trinity. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the beginning of our own Civil War, many of the racist writings used to justify slavery on religious grounds, are reemerging. These are the pernicious results of various forms of “exceptionalism.”
The United States owes its greatness to its egalitarianism and openness to opportunity, rather than absurd arguments for exceptionalism. As Unitarian Universalists, our religion is grounded in human reason, compassion, and the notion that, although we may do horrible things to one another, it is not because God has planned for this to happen. As Burns argued, what would this say about God?
As clergypersons, all of us have our different beliefs about how the world works, and what God’s role is…even, whether there is such a being. As Unitarian Universalists, our members have a wide variety of beliefs and opinions. We love to engage one another in spirited discussions. Yet, in the end, we accept one another, as people of worth and dignity. So, when I am asked to describe my theology or understanding of “how the world works,” I often like to say that “We’re all in this together.” No exceptions.