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Pope Francis questions American exceptionalism

A country’s greatness isn’t inherent but born from great actions, the pontiff says

October 4, 2015 2:00AM ET

Pope Francis closed his whirlwind visit to the United States with an impassioned speech at the Philadelphia International Airport during which he thanked U.S. leaders, church officials, volunteers, and above all, God, for helping him “witness the faith of God’s people.”

“This land has been blessed with tremendous gifts and opportunities,” he said. “I pray that you may all be good and generous stewards of the human and material resources entrusted to you. May God bless you all. God bless America.”

Those three words — “God bless America” — have had a more conspicuous presence throughout Francis’s statements than one would expect coming from the leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination. R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, called it “an evocation of our shameless Americanism” and a “generous gesture toward American patriotism.” Still others, such as Time, saw it as “a prayer, not a boast.” At the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson noted that it sounded “banal” coming from politicians but “profound when spoken by the shepherd of 1.2 billion souls.”

Francis has fans across the political spectrum. Their goals, too, are diverse. But for those seeking to use Francis’s message to bolster their own political career, perhaps the most bitter pill to swallow is the pope’s outright denial of American exceptionalism, or the belief that the United States is a unique nation and that its history, political system, and moral values are unparalleled. Instead of bolstering this self-affirming agenda, Francis tried to push a broader, almost theological argument: that if America is exceptional, its status is based on works — its actions, both at home and abroad — not faith alone. His message was that a self-congratulatory portrait blended with positive thinking is no guarantee of righteousness. 

The idea of American exceptionalism is not a new one — it’s often traced back to French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, who described America as exceptional (and not necessarily in a good way.) But Tocqueville’s oft-misinterpreted comment has been transmogrified into a self-affirmation that has practically become a tenet of faith in mainstream political circles. Here, the United States is a distinctly moral nation — a “shining city on a hill,” to borrow President Ronald Reagan’s turn of phrase — with gifts so indispensable and consequential they’re worthy of universal admiration. Proponents argue that this excellence has, in turn, granted the United States certain rights—not to mention duties—on the world stage.

Like faith, one mechanism  “believers” have used to separate the wheat from the chaff has been questioning the extent of another’s faith in the doctrine of exceptionalism. Today, “[o]ne notes … a sense of American exceptionalism as a kind of datum, a way of empirically describing certain important facets of American political culture, and as the object of a kind of faith,” V. Bradley Lewis wrote in America, a Jesuit-run magazine, a few years ago.

If the United States is exceptional — as US politicians almost uniformly believe — it’s a conditional status.

That’s not to say that Francis failed to recognize the country’s various achievements. Rather, as Francis stressed constantly throughout his visit, a country’s greatness isn’t inherent, but born from great actions. As he told Congress in his speech on September 24:

A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their brothers and sisters as Martin Luther King sought to do, when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

Francis’s “Fantastic Four,” as John Allen Jr. called them at Crux, are not simply a way for the pontiff to better connect Catholic teaching to American history. They also allow for the pontiff to push an agenda that embraces the Catholic social teaching in full — one that focuses on peace, poverty, and dialogue, as opposed to the usual repertoire condemning abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception. It also offers Francis a venue to further his message that he is, as he said several times over the trip, an American.

Despite these “Fantastic Four,” if the United States is seeking exceptionalism based on works, by Francis’s assessment it has a long way to go. In terms of climate change — one of Francis’s main talking points — the United States has the dubious distinction of being a “leader” in the area of carbon dioxide emissions. According to a report from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, the United States totaled 5.7 billion metric tons of CO2 emitted in 2012, second only to China. The average American emits 16.4 million metric tons of CO2 a year, placing the U.S. behind Australia.

Francis also highlighted a Vatican favorite: the arms trade. In some respects, he chose the right crowd. The U.S. is the leading exporter of major conventional weapons systems, with its largest clients being South Korea, the UAE, and Australia. When the definition of armaments is widened to include small arms and light weapons (e.g., guns, grenades, and mortars), the numbers are more staggering. In 2012, the United States transferred $66 billion in arms, accounting for over 75 percent of all global arms transfers for that year.

When it comes to capital punishment, the United States remains one of the few developed nations (along with Japan, Taiwan and Singapore) to carry on the practice. Furthermore, while Francis’s aggressive anti-death penalty campaign may be widely embraced by like-minded activists and politicians, it isn’t necessarily representative of Catholic doctrine at large. As a number of Catholic commentators noted in the wake of Francis’s initial push, the church has not pushed an all-out ban, but contends the practice should be “very rare, if not practically nonexistent." Even Francis’s recent appeal to halt the execution of Kelly Gissendaner in Georgia cites his anti-death penalty advocacy as more of a personal mission, not a doctrinal one.

All these issues demonstrate a need for a country that has a sound understanding of its relation to the rest of the world. One of Francis’s central points in Laudato Si’ applies to U.S. politics at large: In his own words, proper governance is borne out of a “correct relationship with the created world.” Such a relationship wouldn’t be grounded in a “Promethean vision of mastery over the world” (including mastery over one’s people). Instead, it would take into account the interconnectedness that exists between the governed to those who govern, as well as the nation and the rest of the international community.

If the United States is exceptional — as U.S. politicians almost uniformly believe — it’s a conditional status. Whether that status is lost in the eyes of the Vatican may have little effect on public opinion remains an unknown. Still, it’s a worthy cause to uphold.

Hannah Gais is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, First Things, U.S. News and World Report and The Moscow Times.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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