We had an interesting lesson in Relief Society last Sunday. Our teacher referred to an op-ed piece written by Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, and published last fall in The New York Times. Mr. Putin wrote his article in an effort to “speak directly to the American people and their political leaders”. The article was basically about Syria, but it ended with a reference to a statement by Barack Obama about America being “exceptional.” Mr. Putin wrote, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Our teacher asked us if we believe America is exceptional. Various women gave their reasons for why they believe America is exceptional. As a group, we determined that America is exceptional. The teacher also teaches early morning Seminary to high school students, and she posed the same question to her Seminary students last fall. The teens did not believe America is exceptional.
Later that day, I posed the same question to my twelve-year-old granddaughter and thirteen-year-old grandson and learned that they did not believe America is exceptional. I asked them to explain their reasoning, and they referred to the crime and wickedness in our nation. After a short discussion about crime and wickedness in other countries, we agreed that we could not use those two categories to judge exceptionality. My younger son jumped into the conversation and shared several reasons why America is exceptional.
Matthew Spalding at The Heritage Foundation wrote an article entitled “Why is America Exceptional?” He began by writing about the beginning of America. “In 1776, when America announced its independence as a nation, it was composed of thirteen colonies surrounded by hostile powers. Today, the United States is a country of fifty states covering a vast continent. Its military forces are the most powerful in the world. Its economy produces almost a quarter of the world’s wealth. The American people are among the most hard-working, church-going, affluent, and generous in the world….
“Every nation derives meaning and purpose from some unifying quality – an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history. The United States is different. America was founded at a particular time, by a particular people, on the basis of particular principles about man, liberty, and constitutional government.”
Mr. Spalding concluded his article by explaining why America is exceptional. “America is an exceptional nation, but not because of what it has achieved re accomplished. America is exceptional because, unlike any other nation, it is dedicated to the principles of human liberty, grounded on the truths that all men are created equal and endowed with equal rights. These permanent truths are `applicable to all men and all times,’ as Abraham Lincoln once said.
“America’s principles have created a prosperous and just nation unlike any other nation in history. They explain why Americans strongly defend their country, look fondly to their nation’s origins, vigilantly assert their political rights and civic responsibilities, and remain convinced of the special meaning of their country and its role of the world. It is because of its principles, not despite them, that America has achieved greatness.
“To this day, so many years after the American Revolution, these principles – proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and promulgated by the United States Constitution – still define America as a nation and a people. Which is why friends of freedom the world over look to the United States not only as an ally against tyrants and despots but also as a powerful beacon to all those who strive to be free.”
On January 25, 1974, Ronald Reagan spoke at the first Conservative Political Action Conference (C-PAC) on the topic “We Will Be A City Upon A Hill.” In his speech he quoted John Winthrop who spoke on “the tiny deck of the Arabella in 1630 off the Massachusetts coast…. `We will be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.’ Well, we have not dealt falsely with our God, even if He is temporarily suspended from the classroom.
I believe that many Americans have dealt falsely with God, but I will return to that subject later. The future President of the United States concluded his speech: “One-half of all the economic activity in the entire history of man has taken place in this republic. We have distributed our wealth more widely among our people than any society known to man. Americans work less hours for a higher standard of living than any other people. Ninety-five percent of all our families have an adequate daily intake of nutrients – and a part of the five percent that don’t are trying to lose weight! Ninety-nine percent have gas or electric refrigeration, 92 percent have televisions, and an equal number have telephones. There are 120 million cars on our streets and highways – and all of them are on the street at once when you are trying to get home at night. But isn’t this just proof of our materialism – the very thing that we are charged with? Well, we also have more churches, more libraries; we support voluntarily more symphony orchestras, and opera companies, non-profit theaters, and publish more books than all the other nations of the world put together.
“Somehow America has bred a kindliness into our people unmatched anywhere, as has been pointed out in that best-selling record by a Canadian journalist. We are not a sick society. A sick society could not produce the men that set foot on the moon, or who are now circling the earth above us in the Skylab. A sick society bereft of morality and courage did not produce the men who went through those years of torture and captivity in Vietnam. Where did we find such men? They are typical of this land as the Founding Fathers were typical. We found them in our streets, in the offices, the shops and the working places of our country and on the farms.
“We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia. In the days following World War II, when the economic strength and power of America was all that stood between the world and the return to the dark ages, Pope Pius XII said, `The American people have a great genius for splendid and unselfish actions. Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.’
“We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”
In my discussion with my grandchildren about American exceptionalism, I very carefully explained to them that we as individually are no better than any other person living anywhere in the world, but America is exceptional because it was founded on principles of truth revealed from God. Americans as a group are exceptional when we live those principles.