Friday, August 28, 2015

Eric Foner Defends American Exceptionalism

It is really hard to argue that the United States is not an exceptional nation.  It was the first nation born out of the Enlightenment.  In the early 19th century it was probably the most democratic place in the world.  As Chesterton said, it has always been a "nation with the soul of a church."

American exceptionalism has fallen out of favor in recent decades, especially among liberals.  When understood in the context of the history of American foreign policy, American exceptionalism has produced some ugly results.  Unfortunately the idea of American exceptionalism has often gone hand in hand with some of the worst forms of imperialism.

And then there are those Christians who connect American exceptionalism to the providence of God. They believe that the United States is exceptional because it has somehow been uniquely blessed by God.  I am not going to go into the various problems with this view, but if you want to delve deeper into this idea I would recommend John Wilsey's forthcoming book American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

Eric Foner, the liberal historian who teaches at Columbia University in New York, might not  come immediately to mind when thinking about the defenders of American exceptionalism.  Yet, in this piece published in The Nation, Foner shows how the United States's commitment to birthright citizenship makes America exceptional. 

Here is a taste: 

Birthright citizenship--the principle that any person born in the United States is automatically a citizen--has been embedded in the Constitution since the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. This summer, it has suddenly emerged as a major issue in the Republican presidential campaign. Following the lead of Donald Trump, candidates like Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul have called for the repeal or reinterpretation of the amendment, to prevent children born to undocumented immigrants from being recognized as American citizens.

The situation abounds in ironies.  Now a Republican target, the 14th Amendment was for many decades considered the crowning achievement of what once called itself the part of Lincoln.  Today, moreover, birthright citizenship stands as an example of the much-abused idea of American exceptionalism, which Republicans have berated President Obama for supposedly not embracing. Many things claimed as uniquely American--a devotion to individual freedom, for example, or social opportunity--exist in other countries.  But birthright citizenship does make the United States (along with Canada) unique in the developed world.  No European nation recognized the principle.  Yet. oddly, those most insistent on proclaiming their belief in American exceptionalism seem keenest on abolishing it.

Read the rest here.