Mark Mitchell at the Front Porch Republic wants to make an important distinction between patriotism and nationalistic exceptionalism. Drawing on Edmund Burke, the basic idea is that “…love naturally begins with the small, local, and personal and emanates outward from there. To profess a love for a nation without grounding that love (quite literally) in particular places and people that are intimately know, cherished, and stewarded, is to skim along the surface of love as well as responsibility. It is always easier to love an abstraction than to love a neighbor.”
As an example to help make the point, Mitchell points to the familial:
Consider the following analogy: I love my children. In fact I wouldn’t trade them for any other children in the whole wide world. Yet what if I peppered my discussion of my children with claims that they are the best children in the history of the world? What if I did this when they were around as well as when they weren’t? What if I belligerently insisted on making this claim and was offended if you disagreed? Wouldn’t that give them a strange view of the reality? Wouldn’t you find it annoying? In truth, my love for my children and commitment to them does not depend on my belief that they are the best humans the world has ever seen. True, I am delighted by them (usually) and desire the best for them. Nevertheless, my love does not depend on some notion of exceptionalism even though they are infinitely precious to me.
So when political candidates and pundits confuse patriotism with exceptionalism, they really are pulling a Michael Scott, who doesn’t understand that when someone gives him a “World’s Best Boss” mug it isn’t a literal and objective statement. It’s a comment on love and loyalty. Of course, in Scott’s case it’s also a matter of self-adoration, which underscores the comedy of the human condition. Nevertheless, the point remains. Love and loyalty for that which is known are virtues which seem far different from an expressed exuberance for an abstraction which can never even be measured by any feasible standard.
All of which which got me remembering an exchange some years back with a local neo-Calvinist friend of mine, Ed, who pointed to America as evidence that the advent of Christ and the pouring out of the Spirit has made the world a better place. Evidently, democracy, paved roads, and light bulbs are proof positive that there is indeed something new under the sun and we never would’ve figured it out if Jesus hadn’t condescended to take on human flesh. At one frustrated point, Ed pointedly asked me, “Are you seriously telling me you wouldn’t rather live here and now rather than in Jesus’ time and place?” The implication of exceptionalism was quite clear. I responded, “Of course, I’d rather live here and now instead of there and then. But it’s not because here and now is better than there and then, but because here and now is mine.” This was much too befuddling for Ed. And so I can’t help but think that, whatever else is entailed, cultural Calvinism also seems to have the problem of aiding and abetting the sort of American exceptionalism Mitchell points out as actually contrary to fidelity, responsibility, and loving care “laced with jingoism.” Ouch. But in a good way.