American exceptionalism isn't a matter of muscle but mission
There is something tragically ironic about a former KGB agent lecturing America and its president about the meaning of American exceptionalism in the pages of a U.S. newspaper. Then again, that Russia's president-cum-dictator was given such a plum platform to deliver his discourse only underscores how exceptional America is.
In the end, neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor President Obama seems to understand what truly makes America exceptional.
In the final paragraph of his recent and much-discussed New York Times op-ed, Mr. Putin questions Mr. Obama's assertion that America's willingness to intervene abroad on humanitarian grounds is "what makes America different [and] exceptional."
"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional," Mr. Putin writes, "We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."
It is odd that Mr. Putin mentions God in arguing against American exceptionalism. He is right that God creates all people equal, but what makes America exceptional is that it was the first country whose founding was rooted in the recognition of this important truth.
At the core of America's founding was a simple, yet literally revolutionary, idea: that all people deserve to be free because they are created by God in His image, and that our rights come from God, not government.
This was articulated in the most important sentence in America's founding, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Those 36 words are sometimes called the best-known words in the English language because they are an expression of America's moral standard of conduct.
American exceptionalism is not a synonym for patriotism. Nor is it a belief that America is inherently superior to other countries, or that God loves Americans more. Indeed, the stains of slavery and abortion, to name two, are proof that America is far from a perfect country, and that it has at times fallen woefully short of its own standards.
However, that doesn't diminish the truths contained in America's founding documents. They have provided inspiration and hope to oppressed people around the world for centuries. This is how our Founders imagined it would be. Upon leaving office, President Thomas Jefferson wrote:
"The station which we occupy among the nations of this earth is honorable but awful. Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence."
In foreign affairs, American exceptionalism is the view that America has a special role to play on the world stage that's distinct from the roles of other countries. Until recently, presidents regularly committed to engaging from this unique point of view — that God-given rights deserve protection and support.
Despite his rhetoric on the need to act in Syria, Mr. Obama appears to reject the idea of American exceptionalism. In 2009, he responded to a reporter's question on the topic with "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
Lincoln once spoke of America as "the last best hope of earth." Seeing America as no more exceptional than other countries, Mr. Obama seems content to manage America's decline. As Norman Podhoretz argued in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, America's foreign policy missteps are the result of the successful implementation of Mr. Obama's strategy to weaken America's power and influence abroad.
Fortunately, most Americans don't share this view. According to a 2010 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, a majority of Americans believe "God has granted America a special role in history."
A Gallup poll the same year found that 80 percent of Americans agreed that "because of the United States' history and its Constitution [it] has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world."
America's founding launched the modern democratic experiment, an experiment that has not just survived but been instrumental in defeating the scourges of fascism, communism and, currently, Islamism. A rededication to the core of America's founding — the acknowledgement of God as the provider of our rights — will be essential as it confronts the inevitable threats to come.
Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.