No shortcut to being exceptional
Washington Post political reporter Karen Tumulty wrote Monday about the growing use of the idea of "American exceptionalism" by political conservatives as a "battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars."
Sarah Palin and many other prominent conservatives assert that "God has granted America a special role in human history." It is this belief about America's destiny that they say is "under attack" by liberals who downplay America's distinctiveness.
Are these leaders saying that America has a special relationship with God?
How do you interpret this?
The theme of national exceptionalism is one familiar to me. Though raised as an Orthodox Jew, I was drawn to the teachings of Mordecai Kaplan, one of the leading Jewish thinkers of the 20th century and the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism.
Kaplan was a religious progressive. His theology was trans-naturalist in that he posited a God who was not a Being but a force active in nature and in history. His politics were decidedly liberal. He was a staunch Zionist. And in matters of interfaith and intergroup relations, he was a fervent pluralist. On all fronts, he insisted on rigorous intellectual honesty even when it required challenging a core precept of traditional Jewish belief or practice.
As such, Kaplan felt that the Jewish people should dispense with the idea of the Chosen People. He did so for three reasons. First, he did not believe in a God who appeared at Mt. Sinai or who could choose Israel over and above all the other nations of the world. Second, he believed that for Jews to harbor a view of divine election would lead to an attitude of superiority justified neither by trial nor by deed. Third, Kaplan sincerely believed that every religious tradition had, at its core, essential religious truths and such truths had to be honored and respected by others. It is natural for a person born into a given faith to feel their birth religion was special. He certainly felt that way about Judaism. But, Kaplan warned, let's not mistake subjective affinity for objective truth.
History has taught us that every tribe, nation and ethnic group generates its own version of election if only to inspire group loyalty and solidarity. However what may start as a strategy for group cohesiveness, becomes dangerous when God and power get added to the mix. Suddenly, getting others "to see the light" becomes a driving mission for the faithful and it has resulted in the oppression and annihilation of millions through the course of history.
What Reconstructionist Judaism teaches is that Jews are better off striving to embody the core values of Judaism in their lives rather than act out of some sense of theological entitlement. I fear that the proponents of American exceptionalism will create a shortcut for American pride. To a country rightly concerned that America is losing its hold on being the most powerful nation in the world, shortcuts can be very appealing. Yet wisdom and prudence dictate that there are no shortcuts to being exceptional. It needs to be earned by diligent adherence, day after day, after day to this country's core values of freedom, justice and social equality.
November 29, 2010; 3:01 PM ET
war and peace
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