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.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

0 Comments

  1. I lived in the deep south till I was 13. The treatment of the American blacks mitigates our boast of American exceptionalism.

    Also I feel that one reason that the religious and political conservatives are loosing the battle on the normaliztion of homosexuality is that the religious conservatives at best sat out the civil rights movement of the 50′ and 60’s and at worst (In the South) mainly) actually opposed it.

    This has not gone unnoticed by the forces that desperately want to redefine and undermine traditional moral values.

    Reply

    1. Jeff, I couldn’t agree with you more on all of that.

      Reply

  2. […] That also seems to be a concern among younger Evangelicals in this country.  My friend Matt Anderson thinks the problem is the appropriation of religious language for discussing American exceptionalism.  I think such a mixture of language is unavoidable.  It’s where the whole problem we look at on this blog arises.  For the average American politics, patriotism, and religion are matters to a great extent of faith.  Most people, through lack of interest or capability simply do not understand how the nation works, anymore than they understand how church works. They approach both in much the same fashion.  That language would bleed from one to the other is almost unavoidable. […]

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  3. […] also some curious, and apparently not playful, appropriation of theological language, as Matthew Lee Anderson observes. America is said to offer not only a economic system, but “an economic gospel”, as if […]

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  4. Matt,

    I steer them to Eliot’s Notes toward the Definition of Culture and Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, among others.

    Best,
    I.J.

    Reply

  5. […] by Andrew Walker @ 10:05 am | Categories: America | 0 Comments` While I agree with Matthew Anderson’s critique of Lowry and Ponnuru’s article on American Exceptionalism in the latest issue of National […]

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  6. […] Posted by Andrew Walker @ 7:56 pm | Categories: Uncategorized | 0 Comments` While I agree with Matthew Anderson’s critique of Lowry and Ponnuru’s article on American Exceptionalism in the latest issue of National Review, […]

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  7. […] 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 […]

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