Is America Exceptional?

Daniel D. Plotkin

“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” –Leviticus 19:34

I was recently asked how I square my politically conservative point of view with my involvement at Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts where I recently completed my term as Board Chair. Jewish Family Service is the preeminent refugee resettlement agency in the region and respected nationally as a model for similar agencies. My simple answer is that I’m a Jew first and a conservative second but I realize that scripture won’t convince everyone.

During the Presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to “Make America Great Again” and this slogan became a pivot point upon his successful effort to convince the electorate that our country is no longer great and must be made so again. In response, many conservative pundits and politicians rediscovered the term “American Exceptionalism,” originally coined by Marxists who sought to explain why the U.S. avoided the rise of socialism and Marxism in Europe. Many conservatives and other patriotic Americans believe that today’s definition of American exceptionalism is synonymous with American greatness, the result of our world dominance as an economic, technological and military powerhouse.

In my view that isn’t American exceptionalism at all.

American exceptionalism does not mean that America is a more righteous nation, a more deserving nation or a nation that should foist its ways upon other nations. For me, American exceptionalism means that for Americans, the idea of nationality is based not on a common history or ethnicity or religion as in every other nation, but instead on common beliefs and governing principles; among them the right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. We are the lone exception among all nations in this regard. Our governing principles and reverence for the sanctity of life and freedom brought us and keep us together as a nation rather than individual origin, religion or race. This makes us different. This makes America an exception from all the nations that came before us.

This exceptionalism comes with a burden. It requires America to be the gateway to freedom and liberty it has always been for the rest of the world. It insists upon a moral standard that has not always been easy to shoulder. And at times, especially now, it is thought by many to be at odds with our national security interests. Yet if we are willing to subordinate our most coveted precepts to fear, then what remains to be protected?

Any policy that seeks to bar immigrants and refugees from our borders on the basis of their religious belief or from where they come is wholly incompatible with the idea of American exceptionalism as I understand it. America is a great nation because it is the exception, it is not the exception because it is great.


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