The Last of Deuteronomy
And that He will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 26:19
Early in his presidency, Barack Obama was asked by a British reporter if he believed in American exceptionalism. He responded, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” His political opponents, always on the lookout for a fault, found it in this remark. In fact, six years later, the quotation found its way into the campaign of one of the many Republicans hoping to succeed him in office.
How could an American president not believe unequivocally in the uniqueness of our national endeavor, the candidate wanted to know. A relativistic approach to this foundational value of how we see ourselves was the source of (what the candidate identified as) the decline in respect for the United States.
I sort of sit on the sidelines of this issue because a lot of the same folks who endorse the notion of American exceptionalism find the idea of Jewish chosenness to be offensive. I admit to wobbling back and forth on the question of whether I believe in it. On the one hand, it’s in the Bible, from beginning to end, starting with Genesis where Abram is told to be a blessing and that “those who bless you I will bless and those who curse you I will curse,” and ending here in an unequivocal statement. On the other hand, the equality of all people, which is clear even earlier in Genesis, has led every generation of Jewish scholars to affirm that Jews are chosen for service, not for privilege.
And certainly, every faith that has begun since Judaism has insisted that its teachings (and the adherents that follow them) have superseded the Jewish people and their Bible as God’s most recent chosen. The bickering over this title of “chosen” is like Tom and Dick Smothers squabbling over the claim “Mom always liked you best.”
So I suspect that the Christians believe in Christian chosenness and the Muslims believe in Muslim chosenness and the Baha’is believe in Baha’I chosenness, not so much as favored by God for their inherent worth, rather designated as the repository of God’s most authoritative revelation and instruction. And I equally suspect that we all harbor deep if sometimes unspoken doubts about the claims of communities that are not us.
Most recently, I have been more concerned with a different question than whether America is exceptional or Jews are chosen. The question is this: what difference does it make? Were I to discover that Luxembourg or Lesotho was exceptional, either more so or in a different way, would I change my allegiance? And though I have found much to admire and even embrace about other faith traditions, in what competition does it matter who wins the gold medal, who wins the bronze and who was eliminated in the first heat? I play for the team to which I belong, appreciating the efforts around me.
Woven throughout the Bible, and woven throughout the stories our societies tell us, are representations I believe are meant to motivate right and good behavior – and even right and good belief. This claim of chosenness stands alongside the extended sections of threats. If you break the law, the courts will punish you. If you break the covenant, God will punish you. And if you turn away from fidelity to the mission of your people, calamity will befall you.
Is it integrated into our psyches that goodness and righteousness occur only to please those with authority over us, or to avoid punishment by those with power? Must we believe ourselves to be better than others before we will be good for the sake of goodness so as not to cause doubt about our claim?
And maybe more important, does the claim to elevated status actually exempt us from meeting the standards we commend to others?
We are at the end of four years of painful reckoning of what some people consider America’s former greatness and others consider its continuing shame. The debate will not be settled soon or, perhaps, ever. But how we each confront the notion that something other than our own conduct determines the content of our character can make the arguments moot.
Some ideas, accurate or not, deserve to atrophy – preserved as history, but not as legacy.