Conservatism and American Exceptionalism

I am occasionally asked by folks how to help young evangelicals understand and sympathize with conservative political ideology.

Here’s a hint:

Don’t steal religious language to make the case for American exceptionalism, as Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru unfortunately do.

Ponnuru and Lowry’s piece is a tremendous example of the sort of one-eyed shut conservatism that has disenchanted many of my peers.  Their’s is a defense of the American creed, which they describe as a blend of “liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics.”

All good things, those.  But the critique of exceptionalism (at least in its toned-down version) contends that however good those things are, they are enormously destructive when set loose from either the local ties (Front Porchers) or the restrictions of virtue (PoMoCons).  But Ponnuru and Lowry seem to confuse means and ends.  Laissez-faire economics must be surrounded and sustained by virtue.  It will not–as we have seen–produce it.

But the language of virtue is the language of religion, and that language Lowry and Ponnuru have appropriated for America.  We have a “creed” (an observation first made by Chesterton, in fact).  There is a fundamental “missionary impulse” for democracy.  We believe in the “American economic gospel.”

This language is, if nothing else, off-putting to those who worry that the virtues of the American political order can be over-emphasized.  While Lowry and Ponnuru are clear that they think the arrangement has turned out well for Christianity, and that Christianity has offered helpful “self-criticism” of America’s track record on key issues, they are at best tone-deaf to the worries of those who don’t already agree with them.

From an evangelical standpoint, many of my peers have worries that American patriotism is incompatible with adherence to the Gospel.  Lowry and Ponnuru have done nothing to allay them, though they certainly could have.

But any claims to American exceptionalism has to be tempered and chastened by our own social evils, chief of which is abortion.  Europe, Russia, and China have their holocausts:  we have ours.  The radical moral evil against our own people that is abortion must radically relativize any claim that we are a grand experiment in liberty.  And most my peers agree with me, which is why I find the triumphal assertion of American exceptionalism by these two pro-lifers odd.  That pro-life issues continue to be an “also-ran” to capitalistic individualism is probably the central reason why few people my age read–or care–about National Review.

But here’s the irony that I think many of my peers miss:  those who tend to be the the most moved by claims of American exceptionalism tend to be resolutely pro-life and the most acutely aware of America’s moral failing.  The myth of America’s Christian founding among conservative evangelicals is almost universally accompanied by the awareness that America can hardly claim to be a “Christian nation.”  The lament over is sometimes problematic.  But their awareness about abortion and their moral repugnance often keeps them from thinking that this is their home.

But this is not the sort of nuance that Ponnuru and Lowry give us.  There are token admissions that America isn’t perfect, and that she has needed self-critiques.  But the most egregious example of our errors is so offensive that it calls the thesis into question.  Claim, if we must, that we have avoided the problems of Europe.  Ours can be worse at home.

I want to be clear:  I might, at the end of the day, agree with something like American exceptionalism.  I am, after all, a conservative, and apparently that’s what we’re about.  But Lowry and Ponnuru’s case for it doesn’t move me.  Instead, it strikes me as a classic case of conservatives conserving the wrong things.  Unlike my peers on the Left, I am not afraid to use arms or maintain American military superiority.  But I also realize that the virtues that made us great may be hollowing out the core and emptying any claims to America’s special role in the future.

Where does that leave me?  Treading with fear and trembling, thankful that I am an American and intent on playing my part to help us endure as long as God allows, which starts with an honest and candid assessment of our strengths and our weaknesses.

email