Two Peters are debating the current health of American conservatism. Peter Beinart and Peter Berkowitz are assessing the hold that American exceptionalism has on Americans and who is to blame for this understanding’s decline.
I am less concerned about the merits of American exceptionalism or who is responsible for tarnishing the nation’s image than I am by the handy definition that of exceptionalism that both Peters use. Berkowitz summarizes:
Beinart is largely correct that elements of American exceptionalism that conservatives cherish —”our belief in organized religion, our belief that America has a special mission to spread freedom in the world, and our belief that we are a classless society where, through the free market, anyone can get ahead”— have eroded. But even where he is correct about the data, what he makes of it is fanciful and tendentious. His essay might look like an empirically driven analysis of the political impact of conservative ideas and policies, but it’s actually an ideologically driven interpretation of the facts.
That is an odd assortment of beliefs and one that I could imagine Canadians, Brits, and Europeans find a tad presumptuous. Christians might even take exception since a “belief in organized religion” is not exactly what the Lord would seem to require. It is almost as vague as Dwight Eisenhower’s line, “And this is how they [the Founding Fathers in 1776] explained those: ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator…’ not by the accident of their birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but ‘all men are endowed by their Creator.’ In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.” (Even in its fuller expression, what on earth was Eisenhower thinking when he said “the Judeo-Christian concept”? Of what? Of the concept that includes Jewish and Christian stories where God chooses one set of people for salvation out of the rest of the human race?)
I wonder if one of the reasons for discontent with the 2k outlook is a lingering American exceptionalism among theonomists, transformationalists, and neo-Calvinists. The idea that religion makes for a healthy nation and that a nation that promotes religion or religious freedom around the world — whatever religion it is — runs on the sort of melding of the civil and the spiritual realms that afflicts those Protestants hot in pursuit of Christ’s Lordship over all walks of life. In (all about) my estimate, what makes 2k attractive is that it is suspicious of civil religion; 2kers generally can’t be snookered by presidential god-talk. And one of 2k’s critics’ greatest faults is that they relate the spiritual and the temporal in ways that make the world safe for civil religion.