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Posts Tagged ‘exceptionalism’

Scholars of religion and scholars of American society (including me) have conventionally described the United States as religiously “exceptional” compared to other affluent Christian nations. The claim has at least two features: First, since at least the mid-nineteenth century, Americans have been notably more religious than other westerners. Second, the U.S. has not experienced the decrease in individual piety (“secularization” in this discussion) that seems to have accompanied “modernization” in much of the affluent West. Indeed, observers have often been struck that, paradoxically, the U.S. has been at the same time the most “modern” society in the West and the most religious.god-we-trust

This description has, of course, been repeatedly challenged. Two new articles strongly argue that, at minimum, the U.S. has been experiencing “secularization” in the last several decades, so that, if American faith ever was immune to the supposedly secularizing forces of modern life, it is no longer.

Maybe. Maybe not.

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The British took cattle to the market faire; Americans took cattle to the butcher’s stall. According to a new study, that simple difference tells us a lot about the deep nature of “American exceptionalism.”

A recurring controversy among historians concerns the origin of Americans’ exceptional adherence, both in practice and in ideology, to the “free market.” Has this distinctive commitment been there from the earliest years of settlement or was it a much-later development of the nineteenth century? One side argues that from virtually the start New World conditions enabled and encouraged European-Americans to act and think in terms of independent, unregulated, self-interested entrepreneurs. The other side argues that the colonists originally behaved much as people in their European home countries did: Being community-oriented, they adhered to local norms and to local authorities that limited economic activities, for example, dictating prices for necessities. Then, after the American Revolution, commercial interests, empowered politically and riding a new laissez-faire ideology, swept away that earlier “moral economy” and created the distinctive, decide-it-yourself, American capitalism we know today. (For discussion of this debate, see pp. 101ff of Made in America. Earlier, related posts are here and here.) The contemporary political implication of this debate, by the way, is the question of how deep and therefore perhaps hard to change this aspect of American exceptionalism may be.

Emily Holt, a historian in Scotland, writing in the William & Mary Quarterly compares the cattle business in colonial Philadelphia and South Carolina to that in Glasgow and London. Her story leans in the direction of early exceptionalism, albeit with complexities.

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(This awkward title is one solution to complaints about “American Exceptionalism.” As discussed in a 2011 post, the phrase has recently come to mean, to some political partisans, “American Superiority.” For generations, however, students of American society have used the first dictionary definition of exceptionalism: “the condition of being different from the norm” [Merriam-Webster], more specifically meaning that the U.S. is an outlier among — way different from — other western nations.)

My take on the how and why of American Way-Differentism appears in the book, Made in America. Parts of the argument are summarized in a new essay for a joint project of the Smithsonian Institution and Zócalo Public Square on “What It Means to Be American.” The essay is here (and here and here as well).

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In a well-researched and provocative National Journal column, journalist Peter Beinart seeks to jujitsu conservatives’ charges that President Obama has undermined “American exceptionalism.” Beinart argues that American exceptionalism – by which he means America’s sharp differences from Old-World Europe — is “ending.” Young Americans, he states with data, look increasingly just like young Europeans in their religiosity, class consciousness, and nationalism. Beinart flips the right-wing charge, however, arguing that Obama’s arrival is the result, not the origin, of this convergence and, moreover, that it is largely conservative policies that are ending American exceptionalism. Neatly done.flag

I offer some reservations. Beinart exaggerates the convergence of Americans with other western peoples. What is really striking is how long-lasting aspects of American exceptionalism have been in a era when one might have expected global homogenization. (For an earlier discussion of exceptionalism, see here.)

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American Exceptionalism

Ending his April 5th House floor presentation of the largest proposed cutback of government spending in history, Congressman Paul Ryan declared, “It is now up to all of us to keep America exceptional.” It was the third time Ryan invoked American exceptionalism in his speech. The idea of exceptionalism has surfaced with some energy recently. President Obama, for example, was chastised for not thinking of America as exceptional and he seemed later to take pains to claim that he, too, believes it is exceptional. Exceptionalism has (again) become a buzzword. (A conservative columnist even cited my book as proof that a liberal sociologist acknowledges America’s exceptionalism.)

There are at least two different ways the term exceptionalism is used and it is worth sorting those out. Congressman Ryan’s use of the term is quite appropriate and worth close attention. The exceptionalism he means may, however, go deeper than he imagines.

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(A revision of this post appeared in the Boston Globe “Ideas” section, June 6, 2010.)

In a March, 2010, essay, National Review writers Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru asked: “What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve?” They continued, “The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism. Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.” The problem with President Obama, they wrote, is that he is trying to undermine that American exceptionalism.

There is much right and much wrong in this important essay. Here, I focus on the crucial element, the claim which they take as pretty self-evident that America is “more individualistic . . . than any other nation on earth,” that our exceptionalism is centered in our commitment to liberty.

There is considerable evidence that Americans are not more individualistic – in fact, are less individualistic – than other peoples. I mean “individualism” in the sense that Lowry and Ponnuru seem to mean it, that Americans give priority to personal liberty.
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