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Commentary: United States Exceptionalism | BATAVICK



Images-2Zealously rooting for a home-town team must be ingrained in our DNA and probably began when the Neanderthals first took on the Homo sapiens. Whether the team is the Phillies or Manchester, England’s United football club, fans wear their colors, religiously watch their games, and wish ill for whoever the competition is. In our workplaces and schools we gently disdain anyone who doesn’t cheer for the local team, living by the philosophy of “you’re either ‘with us or against us.’” This “us vs. them” dynamic is literally fun and games until someone goes too far and injects vitriol and violence. If in doubt, just Google “football hooliganism.”

Unfortunately, we are now witnessing another version of this tribalism in our politics as the Judaeo-Christian team lines up against the Muslims. Ben Carson said he would not support the election of a Muslim president. Senator Ted Cruz, son of a refugee from communist Cuba, ironically cautioned against accepting Syrian Muslim refugees because they might be terrorists. Donald Trump joined the discussion when he failed to refute a questioner at a town hall meeting who claimed that President Obama is a Muslim, and when he advocated blocking Muslims from entering the U.S. Tellingly, a 2015 CNN/ORC poll revealed that 43 percent of Republicans agree that the president is a Muslim.

Last year at a National Prayer Breakfast, President and full-time Christian Obama addressed this “us vs. them” mentality while condemning the religious extremism of ISIS and the Taliban. He cautioned, “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

The President’s comments ignited a firestorm among conservatives. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore protested, “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.” And Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, termed the President’s remarks, “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison.”

Even given that this President can do nothing right in the eyes of conservatives, their reaction was a bit over-the-top. At the heart of the criticism was the claim that Obama had once again violated the concept of American exceptionalism, denying that this country is unique, a shining city on a hill. I happen to believe in the “shining city” ideal, but also must acknowledge that we haven’t always lived up to these high standards. But that’s what it means to be human, and the key is to acknowledge our mistakes, fix them, and vow to do better. This concept is at the heart of Christianity’s exhortation to seek reconciliation and do penance. Not to admit our sins only makes us prideful and self-righteous. Obama’s remarks were every bit appropriate for a prayer breakfast.

The President delivered his comments in the days following the horrific burning of the Jordanian pilot Muadh al Kasasbeh by the forces of ISIS. These violent jihadists produced a slick video of the immolation and put it on-line. People everywhere were aghast at the barbarism.

In 19th and 20th century America, whites ritually burned blacks as part of a wave of terror that began during Reconstruction. These immolations often followed mutilations and lynchings. It is estimated that from 1877 to 1950 more than 3,950 black citizens were lynched. Sam Hose and Jesse Washington were among them— executed on trumped-up charges and without benefit of judge or jury. Hundreds attended their immolations and graphic photographs were fashioned into picture postcards mailed throughout the South. These were meant to intimidate and provoke, and they share an obvious kinship with the disgusting ISIS video. Undoubtedly, this is what the president meant about our getting on a high horse and thinking horrific violence “is unique to some other place.”  

So how do we handle the sordid chapters in American history and the current anti-Muslim sentiment? And how do we explain the bloody deeds of Henry VIII against hundreds of Catholics in 16th century England, and the slaughter of the Protestant Huguenots by Catholic mobs in 16th century France? The answer is simple. We acknowledge the sin and vow to do better as fallible members of the human family. What an exceptional idea.

Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ.  He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.