I was brought up to believe in exceptionalism. To be precise, I was brought up to believe that there are only three types of people in the world: there are Englishmen, those who would like to be Englishmen, and those who don’t know any better. Such a formulation, no doubt shocking to the sensibilities of American readers, was taught to me at my father’s knee. Nor was my father’s view particularly exceptional. On the contrary, my father’s English exceptionalism was not so much the exception as the rule. To his generation and to several earlier generations it was tacitly accepted that to be English or British (the words were used synonymously) was a mark of inherent superiority, signifying a standard of civilization to which all civilized people should aspire. If one wasn’t fortunate enough to be born British one could at least aspire to be like the British, learning our ways so as to become more civilized. If one did not want to be like the British, it was a sure sign of one’s lack of civilization. One simply didn’t know any better ….
British exceptionalism is exemplified in the lyrics of “Rule, Britannia!”, an ever-popular patriotic song that is belted out every year, amidst a sea of Union Jacks, at the Last Night of the Proms, an annual concert held at the Royal Albert Hall and televised live:
When Britain first, at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”
It goes on for several more verses but I think we get the point!
On a purely political level, it is easy to understand the reasons for the growth in British exceptionalism. It would not, for instance, have been an exaggeration at the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 to say that Britannia did indeed rule the waves, the Royal Navy enjoying essentially unrivalled dominance across the globe. Apart from the ruling of the waves, the British Empire also ruled much of the land, somewhere between a quarter and a third of it, from Canada in the north and Australia in the south to large chunks of Africa and all of India in between.
Less easy to understand was the rise of British Israelism, a wacky religious creed that arose as Britain rode the crest of the imperial wave. This bizarre doctrine held that the British “race” was a chosen people, like the Jews, and were descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. Furthermore, to add absurdity to the ridiculous, British Israelites believed that the British Royal Family was descended directly from the line of David. In its heyday British Israelism could boast a surprisingly large number of high profile adherents, including the Prime Minister of New Zealand and high-ranking politicians in Canada and Northern Ireland. Lord Fisher, Admiral of the Fleet at the turn of the twentieth century and therefore the person who effectively “ruled the waves” across the globe, was also a believer in British Israelism. Nor was America immune from this British exceptionalist cult. C. A. L. Totten, a Professor of Military Tactics at Yale University in the early 1890s, was an avid British Israelite, as was Herbert W. Armstrong, a trailblazer for tele-evangelism who founded the Radio Church of God in the 1930s which would metamorphose into the Worldwide Church of God thirty years later.
Perhaps it is easy to see why I am more than a little wary of British exceptionalism and why I have long since distanced myself from it. I am, however, and to be more controversial, equally wary of American exceptionalism, which strikes me as being as much a product of American triumphalism in the twentieth century as British exceptionalism was a product of British triumphalism in the previous century. It also seems to me, speaking as an outsider, to be even less coherent that its British counterpart. Aspects of what might be termed American exceptionalism were condemned as the Americanist heresy by Pope Leo XIII at the end of the nineteenth century. Later, in the 1920s, American exceptionalism emerged as a movement in the US communist Party. In contrast, today’s exceptionalists are often neoconservatives, though many are also former communists, who advocate American cultural and political imperialism in the name of a pax Americana not that dissimilar to the pax Britannica advocated by British imperialists a century earlier.
In the 2008 presidential election the Republican Party declared itself to be exceptionalist en masse, condemning Barack Obama as a political heretic for allegedly not believing in the dogma of exceptionalism. And yet, a year later, Obama came out resolutely as an exceptionalist: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Unconvinced by Obama’s statement, Mitt Romney insisted that Obama’s willingness to “create partnerships” with certain countries showed that he did not really believe in American exceptionalism. Meanwhile Mike Huckabee, who might be called an exceptionalist fundamentalist, enunciated the following dogma: “To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.” Not to be outdone, Obama, in 2013, in order to justify US military intervention in Syria, and echoing bizarrely the same justification given by his Republican predecessor for the war in Iraq, played the exceptionalist trump card. America, unlike other nations, was prepared to intervene directly into other countries’ wars, acting as a self-appointed global policeman: “That’s what makes America different,” he explained. “That’s what makes us exceptional.” On the following day, writing in the New York Times, Vladimir Putin responded to Obama’s exceptionalism by stating that it was “extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Considering the way in which the Russian President is usually condemned in the Obama-supporting media for his own alleged Russian exceptionalism, it was somewhat thrillingly surreal to see him chastising Obama for his American exceptionalism. “We are all different,” Putin continued, “but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Many will no doubt feel that Putin’s chastisement of Obama is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, and perhaps it is. Putin has been accused of being a Russian exceptionalist and as having expansionist plans. It is, however, important to distinguish the new Russian exceptionalism, which hearkens back to the national destiny of Holy Mother Russia as a Christian nation, from the old ideologically-driven Soviet exceptionalism, rooted in Marxist dogma. I am no more interested in defending or advocating Russian exceptionalism than I am in defending or advocating the British or American equivalent. I feel obliged to add, however, that Christianity is not being banished from the public square in Russia as it has been in Britain and the United States.
In the final analysis, the reason that I take exception to exceptionalism is that it sets up the love of country as a rival to the love of God. It is, in short, dangerously close to idolatry.
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