Commentary

Undermining American Exceptionalism

By Rev. Michael P. Orsi | October 12, 2020 | 3:22pm EDT
The American flag swirls in the wind. (Photo credit: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)
The American flag swirls in the wind. (Photo credit: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

If I believed in curses, I’d likely conclude that in the year 2020, our nation is under a curse.

We’ve experienced rioting in the streets of some of our great cities. We’ve endured the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve even seen the president of the United States hospitalized with this illness that has caused, or been a factor in, so many deaths.

Thank God, he appears to be recovering.

It’s difficult to comprehend the full picture of what’s going on. In many ways our society seems to be coming apart. You have only to view online social media (Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, etc.) to see how people are at each other’s throats.

Every morning we awake to these surreal conditions, asking ourselves “what next?”

While I don’t believe in curses, I do believe in the Devil. And I’m convinced he’s behind the disorder we’re watching today.

America has been a uniquely blessed nation. Much like the Jews of ancient Israel, we’ve often assumed that God has given us a special role to play in the world. This is what underlies the notion of “American Exceptionalism.”

You can see in the great documents of our history — such as the Mayflower Compact — that our foundations were biblical. We’ve spoken of ourselves in biblical language, describing America with such scriptural imagery as “a shining city on a hill,” and “a light to the world.”

The nation’s exceptional character is interpreted differently by different people (in some political quarters, it’s rejected). But clearly, our ability to sustain government authority while protecting freedom, passing power from party to party for more than two centuries, is noteworthy. History shows that regimes in other lands are more often changed under conditions of strife and violence.

Beyond defending and promoting our own freedom, on numerous occasions we’ve acted to defend and promote freedom around the world. Consequently, people in other countries look to America for leadership — for moral leadership, for spiritual support, and for good example.

We’re not perfect. But we try. And the steady stream of immigrants to our shores attests both to the quality of our efforts and to the assumption that God is present in this country.

It’s getting hard to assert that view with confidence. Indeed, American Exceptionalism took a sharp blow with the recent presidential debate.

If anyone can be said to have lost in that debate, it’s the American people.

What we saw — all too clearly — was not Exceptionalism. Rather, it illustrated the Catholic understanding of scandal. Both candidates gave scandal to the entire country, and especially to young people, who have no understanding that this was not how leaders ought to behave.

It’s a natural human tendency to imitate those people we admire, and it begins in childhood, when we start to imitate our parents. We move on to imitating our teachers, our sports heroes, our favorite entertainers, and eventually those politicians we admire and believe represent our views and interests.

I would not like to see young people imitate the behavior displayed by either Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden in that debate.

More than its scandalous impact, however, the debate represented a low point in the current dialogue. That’s not new, of course. Disrespect, insults, and crude accusations have a long pedigree in the history of political discourse.

But this approach certainly contributes nothing to resolving the conflicts tearing at our national fiber now. Rather, the debate was a sign of how much our ability to even address the nation’s problems has declined.

There are solutions to our current dilemma, and they can be found in our past — in, for instance, the story of George Washington. Our first president, too, had to face political disagreement and challenges to the authority of his new government. But he took a much more elevated approach.

As president, he drew on lessons learned at the age of 16 from “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior,” written by a group of French Jesuits in 1595. Using these, Washington intentionally trained himself in how to be a gentleman and a good human being, and also how to treat other people, even those with whom you find yourself in opposition.

Washington never considered those with whom he disagreed to be his enemies. To the contrary, the first rule he considered (and copied out by hand) set the tone for his conduct:

“Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those who are present.”

That’s a far cry from the conduct we witnessed in the presidential debate — at which we were all present, the whole of the American people, or at least a large portion of it. Not only did Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden behave like enemies toward each other; the American people watching were shown no respect at all.

I do not minimize the depth of our disagreement over the issues that divide us today. Nor do I think our problems will be solved simply by candidates behaving like gentlemen. We face serious questions about the future of our country. And, yes, there are bad actors at work trying to deepen our divisions and alienate us from one another.

But we have to stop doing the Devil’s work by making each other into enemies, or American Exceptionalism will truly have reached its end. We will be like those Jews of ancient Israel, who despite their God-given roll, were divided and conquered many times over.

And that would be the real curse.

A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV,” a weekly cable television series devoted to pro-life issues, and his writings appear in numerous publications and online journals. His TV show episodes can be viewed online here.

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