Friday, September 19, 2014

American Exceptionalism & Natural Rights

Senate candidate Ben Sasse from Nebraska said in an interview:
"What motivates me first is the identity we have as Americans, and we have to celebrate the Constitution, and we have to be having these discussions. And if we don’t have more people who run for office for the purposes of having that civic conversation, we will lose the republic. I don’t think that’s going to happen, because I think people are going to demand more serious leadership that talks about these issues. The next generation does not wake up in the morning understanding American exceptionalism and the fact that natural rights predate government, and government is just a tool to secure those rights. And we’ve got to teach it.”
The identity we have as Americans? Understanding American exceptionalism? Natural rights predate government? Codephrases that function as sjiboleths among today's Republicans. No wonder Marvin Olasky eagerly retweeted this interview. And it is true, you can find American Exceptionalism on the GOP website as part of the partyplatform. But is American exceptionalism really something we should teach our children? Is it really something we inherited from our parents? Does American exceptionalism represent the history of the party or the early history of America?

Intuitively to me American exceptionalism comes across as an example of the influence of 19th century Romantic nationalism on American politics. Romantic nationalism as imported by folks like Philip Schaff. Using the term American exceptionalism is equal to capitulating for attempts by folks like De Tocqueville or contemporaries like Seymour Martin Lipset. The book American Exceptionalism by Deborah L. Madsen proves that Ben Sasse can't use the term without creating confusion.

To pretend that the American revolution took place in a vacuum and had no relationship whatsoever to other events in the history of the world, like for example the slave revolt in Haïti, is untennable. In addition Ben Sasse ignores the huge role Presbyterian and Episcopalean missionaries from England and Scotland played not just in the period leading up to the American revolution, but long after. The builders of Ohio, the state where the Republican party emerged, were in part funded by the English Anglican church. John Mitchell Mason, a leading federalist pastor, started a seminary with help from Scotland. He educated hundreds of missionaries that subsequently preached across the west.

But then we get to the declaration of independence and the claim that natural rights predate government. I'm not sure exactedly what that means. First of all, the emphasis on natural rights means very little outside of the Calvinist context from which they emerged. It was the link with the right to private judgment that made the abolitionist movement so strong. And secondly, government and natural rights both have their place simultaneously. One does not predate the other.

To avoid confusion, and to avoid alienating some voters it would be best if politicians could develop a sensibility to these difficulties involved in just spreading around codephrases like 'American exceptionalism' or 'natural rights'. Instead qualify your statements, be precise and educate your electorat on history and be honest about your own position in these debates.

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