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American exceptionalism and the roots of our freedom

By Jim Furr

American exceptionalism is a subject much misunderstood today. Yet understanding it correctly, writes Eric Metaxas in his book, If You Can Keep It, is foundationally crucial to keeping the republic bequeathed to us by the founders.

Obviously, America is exceptional — or singular. Never, prior to 1776, had people of different backgrounds and religions come together to form a nation because they all voluntarily bought into an idea — that idea in a word was liberty. Moreover, we are the only nation founded on the belief that all men are created equal. And too, America is exceptional in that we value the individual over the state. If these distinctions don't always work out perfectly, it's not because we don't take them seriously.

Far from a jingoistic variety of pride, America's exceptionalism is at its heart the responsibility to share this extraordinary gift with the rest of the world.

This vision for America preceded the founders and has remained with us into the present. In a famous 1630 sermon, John Winthrop, governor of the new Massachusetts Bay Colony, described his vision for the colony as a city on a hill, a reference to Jesus' words in the Gospel of Matthew: You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Abraham Lincoln called America the last best hope of the earth. Ronald Reagan said: I've spoken of the shining city all my political life. In other words, if America ceases to be strong — and if we cease to be the America we were at first — the whole world will suffer.

So what was America at first? Contrary to popular belief today, the freedom America's founders envisioned wasn't license to do anything at any time. Rather, the freedom given to us by the founders empowered the people to govern themselves.

History teaches that power to rule tends to corrupt and devolve into tyranny. So how could the founders trust the people to govern themselves? Checks and balances and democracy would help, but other democracies (Greece, Rome, etc.) had failed to produce a truly free society.

Sustaining American freedom would require a special kind of people, a selfless people. For example, for democracy to work citizens would have to vote voluntarily for what is best for the country, rather than just for their narrow interests.

Where would the founders find such selfless, virtuous people? Cultural observer Os Guinness in his book, A Free People's Suicide, refers to The Golden Triangle of Freedom: Freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; faith requires freedom. Guinness holds that the founders relied on this Golden Triangle, woven into the fabric of the culture of the American colonies.

Why does freedom require virtue? People cannot govern themselves if they lack character. Our Constitution, John Adams famously said, was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

But virtue requires religion. Irreligious people can be virtuous, but generally speaking, those who acknowledge a higher power and the laws of that higher power tend to be more virtuous than those who do not.

The third leg of the triangle, religion requires freedom, is the simplest to understand. Think Middle East and North Korea.

Attempts to limit religious freedom in America are what Guinness calls a free people's suicide. To anyone who thinks religious freedom is not that important, I would say, you're right. It isn't, if you don't care about any of your freedoms.

So how do we in America today match up with the 18th century Americans whose virtue and faith made possible the freest nation in history? It seems obvious that virtue and faith are in decline. And the implication for sustaining our freedom and the freedom of our children and grandchildren? That too seems obvious. So what can we do about this? Prayer would be a good place to start.

Metaxas suggests that we do what Lincoln in his first inaugural address said Americans must do if this nation is to survive: love our country. How do we love a country that's guilty of shameful treatment of Native Americans, slavery and racism, to name a few of our faults? We must, says Metaxas, own our sins, but lest we commit something like suicide, we must simultaneously choose to love our country by moving toward hope, focusing on America's positive attributes and taking inspiration from her many heroic moments.

A West Point graduate, Jim Furr holds a doctorate in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. Author of Pointers in Proverbs and a former pastor, he lives in Tulsa, where he is on staff with Cru, a faith-based nonprofit.


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