This is a fun one for me. It’s a pretty simple thought process to look at countries from an existentialist standpoint and ask “what makes one nation ‘better’ than another?” Most the sentiments and reasons people give are superficial, and the feelings we have about our preferred state actor are typically arbitrary. Making an argument with logical reasoning, there are plenty of ways to rank a country, from indexes like the Global Peace Index and the Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index, to raw numbers like GDP, GNP, troop levels, military spending, but given the myriad amount of factors that go into each number, it’s nigh impossible to say one state is objectively better than another simply because of some logistical data. More often, those figures are used to enforce an argument of exceptionalism which ties into cultural or subjective bias. The rhetoric of such arguments is pathos, and they play on personal prejudices and bias for a nationalistic theme, which demagogues effectively weave fallacies together for impassioned speeches. Example:

At the time when this famous historical battle was fought in Kosovo, the people were looking at the stars, expecting aid from them. Now, 6 centuries later, they are looking at the stars again, waiting to conquer them. On the first occasion, they could allow themselves to be disunited and to have hatred and treason because they lived in smaller, weakly interlinked worlds. Now, as people on this planet, they cannot conquer even their own planet if they are not united, let alone other planets, unless they live in mutual harmony and solidarity. – Slobodan Milosevic, 28 June 1989

Arguments for American exceptionalism don’t exist, as the concept was long ago integrated and accepted in Western thinking. These days, most of the effort goes into deconstructing the myth and putting it in it’s legitimate context. It may seem like a moot point to some, as there’s been a steady decline in trust for the establishment since Watergate, and everything from Zinn to Haliburton has put a healthy disdain for the government in a large percent of the population, but exceptionalism continues to thrive when people reshape it’s meaning to apply to the spirit of the American people, rather than our institutions. And the myth grows stronger each time it’s referenced for the motives of the moment. Often, it’s tied to biblical themes – as in the “city upon a hill” parable from Matthew 5:14, which was referenced by JFK in 1961, and then again by Ronald Reagan in ’84 and ’89. GWB was very fond of using Christian themes to reinforce his points; on 9/11/02, he said “Our prayer tonight is that God will see us through and keep us worthy. Hope still lights our way, and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.” His use of biblical-style rhetoric during the war of aggression in the Mideast earned him a great deal of (deserved) criticism from those who saw it as a modern day crusade. Obviously, reworking the historical Jesus, or even a redemptive positive, merciful, forgiving, accepting Jesus is necessary for tying political goals to deeper religious sentiment when those goals fly in the face of anything but the most fundamentalist version of Christianity.

That’s why it’s usually necessary to either be specific about what aspects of Christianity one wants to refer to. Unless you transform the radical, socially and personal Jesus into something that inspires Weber’s idea of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, you have to count on YHWH for the blood and guts and fire and brimstone stuff. In his time, Jesus emphasized the compassion of God rather than God’s holiness which put him at odds with the Pharisees of the day. These challenges to the social structure inspired by the Pentateuch made the social barriers of clean/unclean an affront to divine compassion. That made his gospel one of personal relationship rather than social order, making it a personal cause rather than a nationalistic one concerned with social norms.

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