There has been discussion in the public square lately about American Exceptionalism. The term is one of those which, it seems, causes visceral reactions in many people, either positive or negative. Some immediately declare that the United States is one of the greatest nations that has ever existed. Others insist either that the US is entirely un-exceptional (and its inhabitants delusional for thinking otherwise) or that it is exceptional only in that it has been an unusually bad influence upon the world.
One of the problems is that there are a couple of different meanings one can assign to the term “American exceptionalism”. Some use the term to mean that 19th century Protestant idea that the United States is uniquely selected by God as a new Israel to play some pivotal role in the world. This view strikes me as sufficiently wrong as to be uninteresting, so I won’t discuss it further. However, this does not necessarily leave us to conclude that the US is either unexceptional or evil.
There are, I would propose, a small number of countries which have had an outside impact on the history of the world — mostly for the good: Athens, Rome, Charlemagne’s empire and its Holy Roman successors, the Spanish empire, the British empire, the United States, and (though this may get me drummed out of the conservative ranks) the French republics and empires. All of these have had prodigious effects upon the history and culture of the world. Having had such an impact, all have had, beyond question, quite a bit of negative impact as well as positive. Rome is, after all, the military power that crushed many another regional kingdom, razed Jerusalem, persecuted the Christians, picked up the Persian practice of crucifixion and spread it throughout the world, etc. Indeed, Rome was arguably what St. John described as the Whore of Babylon, crouched upon its seven hills, in the Book of Revelation. Rome was far from being an unambiguously good force in the world, and caused its share of destruction and suffering.
And yet, for all its faults, Rome was by any measure exceptional. It was a major force on the world stage for over five hundred years. It left a legacy of Latin language, Roman law, Roman architecture and classical art throughout the known world. And, quite without the intention, originally, of its elite, it became the mechanism through which the Christian religion spread to every corner of the world. The Church, which Rome did its best to wipe out through persecution, is now called the Roman Catholic Church. Nor is it merely a historical accident that this occurred, a mere coincidence that the center of the Church remains in Rome. Just as the Roman Empire because Christian, so to an extent the Church became Roman. Through the Roman world we absorbed classical learning, we learned the Latin language, and we adopted traditions of Roman law. The City of God learned much from the City of Man.
This is not to say that that one is better or more worthwhile because one is an ancient Roman, or a subject of the British Empire or a US citizen, nor that one should be ashamed for being from a country which is not among these greats. There is a great deal to be proud of in the history of any country, and if some countries cannot claim to have had such widespread effects upon the world as a whole, they are spared blame as well as praise.
But there is, I think, a very false balance in trying to explain away the exceptional place in history of these countries, or denying that the United States is the latest in that elite succession. It is, unquestionably, exceptional.