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A Broader Exceptionalism: Responding to Ponnuru and Lowry

March 9th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry have a response to their critics up at National Review, and they saw fit to include me in their targets.  They write:

Our essay attracted some criticism from the right as well. Matthew Lee Anderson faults us for adopting theological language by referring to an American “creed” and an “economic gospel”; it seems to us that his problem here is a literalism at odds with widespread usage. He writes further that “any claims to American exceptionalism ha[ve] to be tempered and chastened by our own social evils, chief of which is abortion.” The accusation that the two of us have underestimated the evil of abortion makes up in novelty for what it lacks in sense. The injustice of our practice and legal treatment of abortion is a stain on the national character. But in no way does it tell against our argument — which, to restate it, is that the agenda of contemporary liberalism would seriously undermine distinctive and valuable American traits.

Ponnuru and Lowry might be right about my literalism.  But then, my point was in part about the wide-spread usage of such language and how it continues to alienate younger evangelical voters.  We were clearly not the intended demographic for their piece, but their refusal to grant that such rhetoric is at least a little troublesome simply reinforces why most young Christians refuse to read National Review.

But rhetorical strategies aside, Ponnuru and Lowry are simply wrong in asserting that I argue they “have underestimated the evil of abortion.”  I said no such thing.  In fact, I pointed out specifically how odd I found it that two pro-lifers would not take that great evil into account.  My genuine surprise lies in the fact that I know Ponnuru and Lowry have not underestimated the evil of abortion, but that they continue to treat it as an issue distinct from their claims about exceptionalism.

Hence, when they write that their central argument is “that the agenda of contemporary liberalism would seriously undermine distinctive and valuable American traits,” I agree.  But one way of looking at abortion is through the American emphasis on those distinctive and valuable traits. Consider the list:  “liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics.”  It is precisely those values and our inability to move beyond them to the ground of those values, the nature of human personhood, that drive the debate over abortion.

My point, then, isn’t to question whether Lowry and Ponnuru are sufficiently pro-life.  To expand and clarify the case from last time, the very virtues that undergird the American exceptionalism they put forward must also be seen as lying near the heart of our greatest evil.  But to ignore that seems to take a selective view of American history and our “quasi-providential” place in the world, and perpetuates a myth (in a pejorative sense) of our American heritage.

I am interested, then, in a broader view of American exceptionalism, one that situates America not only as having a role on the world’s stage, but as having that role because we own up to our own vices within our self-understanding as a means of eradicating them.   After all, I do plan on meeting God as an American.

But to return to the rhetoric, Lowry and Ponnuru position their article as defending the central tenet of political conservatism. On that score, their refusal to acknowledge that social conservatism’s ultimate concern is at the core of political conservatism ought to give every pro-lifer pause.

The traditional pro-life argument for the centrality of abortion is that our understanding of the human person, which is clearest in how we treat those who have no voice of their own, grounds how we act in the world.  That ‘social conservatives’ have had to adopt the qualifier suggests that this view is outside the mainstream of movement conservatism (as exemplified by Ponnuru and Lowry’s article).

But we shouldn’t be.  By defending the human person as created in the imago Dei from birth to death, social conservatives stand beneath movement conservatism, grounding the values that Lowry and Ponnuru identify with American exceptionalism, establishing limits on their implementation, and unifying them in a broader metaphysical and political structure.

In that way, America’s most exceptional role in the world is yet to come, and will not be fully realized until we have eliminated both the need and the reality of abortion from the American scene.

Postscript: See also Matthew Schmitz and Samuel Goldman, the latter of whom offers a similarly structured critique, though in a different direction.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.