Much of the world has long noted—often with affection, often with contempt, often with disparagement—that Americans, along with a frequently charming can-do attitude, are sold on themselves, their power, and the purity of their national motivation. I, too, have an almost worshipful respect for certain features of government and personal liberty America introduced to the world.
America’s economic and military strength is impressive, to be sure, but they are more the outcomes of inhabiting much of a continent with great resources, a demanding frontier in which to expand and experiment, the ambition and confidence born in part from isolation from the political congestion of Europe. We used those circumstances to great benefit, but we did not create them. What our founders did create—not without struggle and opposition—was an experimental setting for enlightenment philosophers’ ideas about pairing personal freedom and the rule of law: the judicious balancing of liberty on one hand and restraints on the other. I believe that maintaining this balance is the central task of our republic and, unfortunately, one that requires its fine points to be continually reconsidered as circumstances change.
Indeed, one stream of our history exemplifies what I mean. Resolution of slavery and, later, the status of women are part of that rolling modification; racial injustice is another. These have taken two centuries and are not yet completed. Freedom of speech, problematic since our founding, went through important redefinition a hundred years ago and still troubles us. Preserving separation of religious freedom from state intervention—a central intent since founding of the republic—continues to be grossly violated and widely misunderstood, even by presidential aspirants. Finding the sweet spot with regard to international entanglements is yet another.
Our greatest strength is our attempt, albeit greatly flawed much of the time, to keep the pursuit of the balance true to a horizon that continues to recede. But there is no assurance that the pursuit is destined to outlive the many ways it can be compromised. While we are all affected by the to and fro of national values, one I have been drawn to is that between theocratic pressures of various religions and the maintenance of a theologically neutral civic playing field upon which religious freedom can thrive. Religious people, seduced by short term interests, seem unable to see that their freedom of religion is not threatened by unbelievers as much as by other religions. That is why metastatic religious forces make it necessary to save religious freedom from religions just as crony capitalism makes it necessary to save market freedom from businesses.
But whether one is drawn to the arena of conflict which so interests me, we can all pay attention to the chief enemy of continual enhancement: the flurry of self-congratulation which intentionally or not masks the needs for and possible solutions for improvement. I don’t mean that we should never bask from time to time in what America has done well, just that beating our own drums can blind us to the stubborn fact that the need for perfecting is unending.
So it is that I wince when I hear expressions like “where but in America can X be done,” “the greatest country in the world,” “the freest country in the world,” or description of the US president as “the leader of the free world.” We are scandalized if a leader admits we’ve ever done anything wrong to other countries or failed to live up to our declared values (remember the lies about President Obama’s “apology trip”?). (I’d list the seemingly overreaching feature of America’s baseball “World” Series, though happily that term comes not from braggadocio, but from the playoff’s sponsorship by the now-defunct New York newspaper, The World.) At any rate, we seem not to have noticed that America no longer owns the Horatio Alger phenomenon, that other countries have claim to “the greatest” on one thing or another and just as much freedom, that even though leadership in the non-communist world may have been focused at one time, it is unlikely that free countries would designate America as their leader now.
Much of American bloviation is captured in our claim to be “exceptional.” Even I think America has some honest claims to exceptionalism, though I would point to America’s contributions in the 18th century rather than to some assumed righteousness today. In that sense, to paraphrase coach Barry Switzer, we of modern America were born on third base and go through life bragging that we hit a triple. The only thing exceptional about America, one observer said, is its claim to be exceptional. President Reagan, possibly our foremost exceptionalist, spoke of the “city on a hill,” “in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land,” and “the last best hope of man on earth.” Unfortunately, I fear that his and others’ similar words serve more as instruments in the service of our bragging rights than an energizing instigation to find and fix every way in which we fall short of so high a national self-concept. Waiving productive, healthy criticism need not be the price of waving the flag.
Where might we look? Oh, for a few examples, we might start with the dysfunctional Congress, partisan politics that resemble schoolyard brawls more than serious statesmanship, leaders who call for the Bible to outrank the Constitution in civil affairs, geographic illiteracy, general academic poor performance, byzantine tax structure, inability to find information needed for citizenship that can be trusted (including utterances of elected and would-be leaders), voters’ approval of politicians’ lying as long as they are in the favored party, and on and on. Is it even possible that America is the greatest country in the world with respect to any of these inadequacies? I think it would be sheer absurdity to claim so.