The following lecture was recorded during Providence’s 2017 Christianity and National Security Conference.

Joseph Loconte critiques the idea that the United States presents a uniquely powerful model of democratic self-governance. He compares two extreme positions on this topic: American as a God-ordained domineering global power and America as a deprived force of global exploitation. He then offers a third view, which he argues is a better, more balanced Christian perspective on America’s role in the world.

Well, thank you Brother Lee. How’s everybody doing out there? Hold together. Stand up if you need to. Get water in your face if you need to. I wish we could say we saved the best for last. I’m just the last man standing, as they say.

What’s happening over here? And I have to say, even though, let me just thank Mark Tooley and Mark Libecki and Robert Nicholson, and of course, Providence Magazine for this conference. Thank you to my King’s College students, especially, for coming down here. You guys, how about a round of applause to these guys from New York and the dodgy bus service they had to endure to come down over here? Guys, thanks. But thanks to all the students and everybody for being here and holding on this long.

I have to say, Mark Tooley, he’s been a good friend of mine for a number of years. But I’m gonna have to now publicly denounce him for the structure of this conference. I begged and pleaded for a few breaks in between, just ten minutes break in between, but I was shouted down by Mr. Tully. And the image has been in my mind the whole day, really, it’s a scene from that great Hollywood classic, Ben Hur.

Ben Hur is that slave, the galley slave on that Roman ship. And he’s rowing his heart out and he’s half dead from the rowing. He just wants to take a break, and the Roman slave stops pounding him and says, “We keep you alive to serve this ship.” So roll well and live.

Anyway, our time is short, so let’s get into it. And by the way, the title of this talk, as it was incorrectly listed in the itinerary, “A Christian Critique of American Exceptionalism.” A Christian critique, not “the” Christian, but “a” Christian critique of American exceptionalism.

Well, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 2nd, 1863. That’s where we are. We’re on a hill called Little Round Top. The troops of the 20th Maine have been ordered to defend the left flank of the federal line led by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. This northern regiment has already repelled repeated attacks by Confederates from Alabama.

The Union troops hold the high ground at Little Round Top, but they’re running out of ammunition. Yet, Chamberlain’s orders are clear: at all costs, hold your ground. Hold your ground. Well, the colonel has about 300 men at his command, and they form the extreme flank of a Union army of about 80,000. But they face Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee.

Robert E. Lee, who has not lost a single significant encounter. If Chamberlain’s soldiers falter, the rebels will seize the high ground, and they’ll advance up the flank of the Union army. The men of the 20th Maine, facing a force ten times their number, hold the key to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a professor of history by the way, he understands the historic importance of the moment. And here’s what he told his men: “Stand firm, you boys. Remember, for not once in a century are men permitted to bear such responsibilities for freedom and justice, for God and humanity, as are now placed upon you. What will they do? What would you do? What would I do? We’ll pick up the story before we’re done. For now, it’s enough to draw attention to the beliefs and the ideals that animate Chamberlain and many of the men under his command, and certainly the president who’s ordered them into battle.”

Abraham Lincoln viewed the Civil War not only as a struggle for America’s Democratic soul—it was that, he said—the whole family of man was watching the outcome of the conflict. The world was watching to see whether the concept of government of the people, by the people, and for the people would perish from the earth. American exceptionalism, or as Thomas Jefferson declared at the founding, “a new order for the ages.” To Lincoln, during the dark days of the Civil War, America was the last best hope of Earth.

To Ronald Reagan in the throes of the Cold War, America was a shining city on a hill. Most of our presidents and political leaders have embraced some version of American exceptionalism—the idea that the United States, unlike any other nation, represents to the world a uniquely powerful model of democratic self-government.

Yet, as we know, I think for those who pay attention to the news, the concept of American exceptionalism has fallen on hard times in recent years. Both sides of the political aisle. During a European trip in the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama was asked specifically about his view of American influence in the world. He was specifically asked if he believed that there was something exceptional about the United States. And here’s what he said:

“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Translation: we all cling to our parochial mythologies, right? Everybody’s special. Everybody gets a ribbon.

Well, candidate Donald Trump, when he was asked that question specifically, candidate Trump said this: “I never liked the term. I want to take everything back from the world that we’ve given them. I don’t want to say we’re exceptional. We’re dying. We owe 18 trillion dollars in debt.”

Well, the idea of American exceptionalism suffered a body blow, as we kind of heard a little bit today, during the Bush administration because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The mistakes that were made, the human and financial cost of the wars, the uncertain results. From the standpoint of the critics of this idea of American exceptionalism, belief in the concept of American exceptionalism, to them, that’s the problem. To the critics, America’s inflated sense of its democratic mission is a major cause of the world’s evils. This is the view, of course, of much of the liberal establishment, if not all of it. Think of the New York Times, Hollywood elites, Oliver Stone.

Under this view, the United States behaves just like any other imperialistic power. American exceptionalism, they say, is just a conceit to rationalize selfish imperialistic objectives. And it’s to tie down Gulliver. A version of this thesis appears in the work of people like Andrew Bacevich, Boston University retired Army veteran who lost a son in the Iraq war, so he’s invested in this. And in his recent book, “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism,” Bacevich echoes a kind of conspiratorial trope that US foreign policy is really a story of thinly disguised militarism, and that its claim to noble, liberating intentions is really invalidated by its “pension for consumption and self-indulgence.”

Now, I don’t really agree with those views, but the critics have a point. They have a point. Whether you’re a person of faith or you’re more secular-minded, belief in American exceptionalism is fraught with peril. It’s fraught with peril. It can underwrite a reckless, unilateral, and arrogant foreign policy. When it’s wrapped in religious language, in the language of civil religion, it can mutate into Christian nationalism. When it proclaims a God-ordained empire, it invites colonial aggression and the usual injustices that go along with it.

This is one of the themes of Walter McDougall’s most recent book, “The Tragedy of US Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest.” While claims about American exceptionalism demand real scrutiny, especially from the Christian community. All of that is true, friends. But there’s another truth which an honest look at American history also reveals to us. And here’s the thesis: belief in American exceptionalism has been the motive force behind virtually all of the nation’s achievements in promoting liberty, democracy, and human rights.

Let me say it again: belief in the concept of American exceptionalism has been the motive force behind virtually all of the nation’s achievements in advancing liberty, democracy, and human rights. That’s the thesis. In an era of deep ambivalence about America’s role in the world, I argue for a revived but certainly sober commitment to American exceptionalism. What I hope will be a Christian perspective on American foreign policy, which rejects, on the one hand, cynicism on the left, militarism on the right. I want to argue for a healthy, historically informed patriotism rooted in the deep truths of the Gospel because I think that’s essential to confronting and hopefully overcoming the threats to international peace and security.

That’s the big picture. Let’s get down a little bit into the weeds. Not too much into the weeds. The great thing about the Lachani here is that, well, it’s the same thing about my guy, Schrafft Lachani, but the nice thing is that I’m not a philosopher. I like philosophers. I work with philosophers, but I’m not a philosopher. You know, I’m a historian. We historians, we have to land the plane.

Land the plane, Bob. So, I’m gonna try to land the plane. Is to ask the Kennedy. You know, we’ve seen the development of two extreme views of American exceptionalism, historian. Two extreme views. One from the right, one from the left.

From the right, we have a doctrine of American global dominance. A strange cocktail of covenantal theology, manifest destiny, and social Darwinism, all wrapped up into one. It grew out of 19th-century thinking. Reverend Josiah Strong, in his blockbuster book, our country has a few lines which I, a strong, is there room for reasonable doubt that this race meeting the Americans, this race unless devitalized by alcohol and tobacco, is destined to dispossess many weaker races? He says assimilate others and mold the remainder. Men of this generation from the pyramid top of opportunity on which God has sent us, we look down on forty centuries. We stretch our hand into the future with power to mold the destiny of unborn millions. Wow, so that’s from the right.

American global dominance, God-ordained dominance. Now from the left, we have a thought, a theology, I think you could argue, of American depravity, not dominance but depravity. Under this view, America is exceptional, alright. It’s exceptional in its dreary catalogue of exploitation, imperialism, militarism, and jingoism. For the 1960s, this leftist version of exceptionalism has been loudly proclaimed from mainline and other liberal churches, culminating in the commentary following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I’ve listened to this very carefully and closely. Theologians like Stanley Hauerwas at Duke University denounced American foreign policy while human remains were still being recovered from Ground Zero. Listen to Stanley Hauerwas: “I think that when America isn’t able to rule the world,” he said, “that people will exact some very strong judgments against America and I think we will well deserve it.” And from the pulpit of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the one-time favorite pastor of President Barack Obama, this was a typical sermon after the terrorist attacks from Jeremiah Wright: “We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas has now brought it right back to our own front yards,” he said. “America’s chickens are coming home to roost. God damn America,” he said. “God damn America.” Wow.

Now both views from the left and the right, I think, well, they’re kind of drenched in moral condescension, aren’t they? Both find justification in the Bible. Both appeal to divine judgment for their vindication, and both, I think, represent seriously flawed approaches to American history, to politics, to diplomacy, and to Scripture. Other than that, they’re just fine, right?

Well, a Christian approach to American exceptionalism should have a realistic grasp of US diplomatic history. Let’s just take a crack at it in the remaining time. I don’t whose water I’m drinking has ten glasses of water out anyway. Alright, you should see the water out. Alright, let’s review some of the highlights of America’s foreign policy and see what lessons can be learned, some lessons.

Let’s begin at the end of the Second World War, when America emerges as the most important player on the world stage. When it has a nuclear monopoly, the most powerful military, the strongest economy, and presumably what would be most vulnerable to superpower arrogance. Around 1945, summer of 1945, Second World War’s coming to an end. By the way, my students out there at King’s College, this is a little preview of what’s coming in class. I think there’s still time to drop the class, there’s still time to get out. You have to a little preview. 1945, Soviet Army occupies most of Central and Eastern Europe. Stalin, from the Soviet Union, is tightening communism’s grip in the region. Now, where’s the United States? The supposedly imperialistic, swaggering hegemon. American forces are being pulled out of the continent, pulled out of Europe, leaving a handful of divisions in some democratic zones of influence. Despite its decisive victory in Europe, the United States makes a choice that no other great power ever made in the history of international affairs. It demobilizes its occupying armies. Think about that. It demobilizes its occupying armies and this causes great concern among people like Winston Churchill. Here’s what Churchill said at the time: “The newspapers are full of the great movements of the American armies out of Europe,” he complains. “Surely it is vital to come to an understanding with Russia before we weaken our armies mortally.”

Well, the United States has no intention of remaining in Europe, trying to dominate the continent like the Roman Empire or Napoleonic France or the Soviet Union. It has the power to do so, friends. It has the power to do so because it has a monopoly on atomic weapons. From 1945 to 1949, only the United States possesses the atomic bomb. Let that fact hang in here just for a minute. For those years, now why didn’t we use the bomb to bully other nations into submission, to bend them to our imperialistic will? America, perhaps a reluctant superpower. Well, our reluctance is interpreted by our enemies as political weakness. And so the Soviet Union launches a blockade of West Berlin, June 24th, 1948. The Soviets shut down all rail and surface traffic that connects Western Germany with the Allied control zones of the city. Stalin wants to push the Allies not only out of Berlin, but out of Germany and hopefully out of Western Europe. That’s really what he wants. What’s America’s response? Four days into the crisis, Harry Truman, Democratic president, tells his cabinet the United States will not abandon the city, we’re going to stay, period. Truman views America’s defense of Berlin as the strategic key to the democratic future of Germany and the rest of Western Europe. Here’s how Truman put it: “Berlin had become a symbol, a symbol of America’s and the West’s dedication to the cause of freedom.”

Well, what are you going to do? Start a war with the Soviets now over Berlin? What are you going to do? Truman proposes an airlift, an airlift, a massive round-the-clock air transport to supply the citizens of West Berlin with food and fuel to keep them alive. Western pilots start landing, minute by minute, in Berlin, eventually delivering 13,000 tons of food and fuel per day. Per day! Planes that just a few years before were used to wage war, to terrify, to destroy, are now being used to rescue the German people, our sworn enemies just a few years before. Who does that? Enemies turned into allies. The United States keeps up the airlift for 320 days. Think about that. Every day, round-the-clock, minute by minute, 320 days. May 12th, 1949, the Soviet Union backs down, Stalin lifts the blockade. West Berlin, West Germany, are saved from Soviet tyranny.

Now, what ideas guided Harry Truman during this crisis? You know the answer. American exceptionalism is near the center of his strategic thinking. It explains the moral energy of the Truman Doctrine. Quick reminder, Truman: “I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” He makes it our policy. The same belief made possible the Marshall Plan, also under Truman. The Marshall Plan, an American aid package that throws an economic lifeline to Western Europe, billions of dollars approved by the American taxpayer. Here’s how Truman put it in his inaugural address, January 1949: “Our efforts have brought new hope to all mankind. We’ve beaten back despair and defeatism. We’ve saved a number of countries from losing their liberty. Events have brought our American democracy to new influence and new responsibilities. Let’s underscore that word, new responsibilities. They will test our courage, our devotion to duty, our concept of liberty,” and it goes on. “Steadfast in our faith in the Almighty, we will advance toward a world where man’s freedom is secure. To that end, we’ll devote our strength, our resources, and our firmness of resolve.” Sounds like American exceptionalism to me. It’s the same vision that supports Truman’s decision a year later.

A year later, think about it, this is five years after the end of the Second World War and we’re at war again in Korea. We send American troops into Korea to protect the South Koreans from communist aggression. Friends, we lost thirty-eight thousand men in that conflict. I had two uncles who fought in that war, Uncle Vinny and Uncle Vito. Yes, there’s an Uncle Vinny and Uncle Vito in the family. Just think about that as you get excited about this talk. Alright, both injured, both survived. Do you think North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Mr. Rocket Man, is a problem now? Imagine the entire Korean peninsula, a communist concentration camp. So, in the aftermath of the Second World War, we see in U.S. foreign policy what a display of strategic insight and moral resolve to stand down tyranny, first in Europe, in Berlin, then in Asia, on the Korean Peninsula. And of course, over the next four decades, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, created and led by the United States, will allow all of Western Europe to resist Soviet aggression. NATO, think about this, NATO makes possible in Europe a union of liberal democratic states at peace with one another for the first time in centuries. In centuries! The European Union, no French diplomat admits this, but it’s true. The European Union owes its existence to the concept of American exceptionalism, inconceivable without it.

Now, none of these acts of statesmanship and defense of freedom are explainable, I think, apart from this belief in America’s global democratic mission. I think all of them can find some justification in the Christian tradition. We won’t belabor the point. We’ve heard a lot today, yes, from the Bible, about a just state and also from the Christian just w

ar tradition about waging war to punish acts of aggression and lawlessness and also to protect the innocent from great harm. But the question remains: why should the United States assume this leadership role? Even if you can find some justification for this in the Bible, why should the United States take this leadership role? Not because it’s in the Bible, not because America is in some covenant relationship with God, not because the United States is the new Israel, a nation on a divine mission to usher in the kingdom of heaven. None of that is in the Scripture, and that kind of God talk can sound like idolatry.

Now it’s time to answer the question that neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump were able to answer: what is so exceptional about the United States in the course of human history? Really, what’s so exceptional? Let’s start with a belief enshrined in our founding documents: natural, universal, inalienable rights. This concept of natural, inalienable, universal rights includes the right to life, liberty, and, I’m going to say property. Some might reference the pursuit of happiness, but it’s really life, liberty, and property.

The Declaration and the Constitution are natural rights documents, natural law documents. The United States was the first nation in modern times to come into being not because of a common language, ethnic identity, or religion, but because of a political and cultural commitment to universal human rights. To implement that political moral vision, the nation’s leaders did something extraordinary that nobody else had done up to that time: first, they got rid of the monarchy, the political institution that had dominated Europe for centuries, and they designed a democratic republic to replace it with three branches of government and a separation of powers. Why that form of government? To protect these natural rights and make possible government by consent of the governed.

Second, the Americans rejected the concept of a national church. They rejected the National Church—no Church of England, no Church of Scotland, no Reformed Church of Geneva, no National Church of America. They gave up on the idea of a Christian Commonwealth politically enforced and insisted upon the separation of church and state. Why? To protect our natural rights and our first freedom, religious liberty—the rights of conscience, which is the basis for so many of our other rights: free speech, free assembly, and free association.

From the outset, America did away with two of the most stabilizing institutions in Western civilization: the monarchy and the state church. We took them to the woodshed as the motive was to advance man’s natural, universal rights. Friends, that is radical stuff. That’s exceptional! It would have been nice to have heard that from either president over the last eight years, but I guess I’m just asking too much, living in my little historical Fantasyland.

Until recently, most Americans knew this stuff. We’ve thought of our democracy as being engaged in the world outside of our borders with these ideals in mind. That’s why, after the Second World War, the United States insisted upon an International Court of Justice to determine the guilt of those responsible for the Holocaust—to send a message about our commitment to the dignity of the individual and the requirements of justice. When our allies wanted vengeance against the Nazis, and they all did, the United States alone insisted upon justice even for the Nazis. The rule of law was paramount.

Robert Jackson, the lead prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremberg Trials, said this: “The wrongs which we

eek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated. This was why the United States led the effort to establish an international bill of rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that’s become the Bible for the modern human rights movement.

Listen to Charles Malik, the Lebanese ambassador, the Arab Christian to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. He helped to draft the Universal Declaration. “So it was in this country for weeks and months at a time,” Malik’s reflection on that time. Here’s what he said: “The American spirit of freedom, tolerance, largeness of heart, and profound respect for individual human beings permeated and suffused our atmosphere all around. We imbibed the spirit in restaurants, in the streets, but above all in dealing with and talking to American men and women of every stripe and on every social level.”

“I cannot imagine a document on human rights and fundamental freedoms of the importance and breadth of our declaration arising in our age without the sustaining support of this spiritual background,” he says. “I cannot imagine that arising under the aegis of any other culture emerging dominant after the Second World War—an Arab Christian from Lebanon. America, the indispensable nation.”

We used to view our commitment to these ideals as the source of our success and stability as a free people. Isn’t it reasonable, friends, for a nation which has committed itself to protecting the natural rights of its citizens? Isn’t it reasonable and wise, given the success of this experiment in self-government, to promote—not to coerce, but to promote—the same moral and political ideals among the nations of the earth?

Now, having said all that, again, America’s critics are correct to argue that arrogance is a special temptation for those who believe in American exceptionalism. And we’ll probably eat into our little Q&A time here, but guys, bear with me. I’m the last guy in the day—what, did he fire me? Superpower arrogance. Yeah, let’s give an example. Exhibit A: the Vietnam War.

The decision by Liberal Democratic President Lyndon Johnson to send at least half a million soldiers into South Vietnam to fight the Communist Viet Cong was not a Korean-style policy of containment. At the end of the day, it wasn’t. Johnson’s decision was fueled by a delusion that the United States could remake nations into its own image—nation-building. Lyndon Johnson, April 7th, 1965, just as he’s sending Marines into Vietnam: “For our generation has a dream. It’s a very old dream, but we have the power and now we have the opportunity to make that dream come true.”

“For centuries, nations have struggled among each other,” he says, “but we dream of a world where disputes are settled by law and reason, and we will try to make it so,” as he’s sending Marines to fight. When the United States launched the Marshall Plan, it was helping establish countries with strong political traditions. But Vietnam was a new country; it had no institutions to build upon.

When the United States blocked communism in Greece, Turkey, or Korea, it did not try to transform those countries into models of democratic capitalism. It didn’t. Vietnam was different. Colonel Harry Summers, who was there, puts it this way: Vietnam was “the international version of our domestic Great Society programs.” Johnson persuades himself that the exercise of American power can work miracles in a nation crippled by poverty, political corruption, and war.

Here was America’s first great attempt at nation-building—the utopian idea that American values and institutions can easily be implanted into non-Western societies, even in the throes of a violent and determined insurgency. It was a massive failure. Maybe, though, maybe the catastrophe of Vietnam had less to do with American exceptionalism than with the deep flaws of the president and his team who led us into Vietnam in the first place—flaws in their thinking and flaws in their character. Another story for another day.

But Vietnam is the first law that America first wore, that America loses, and it casts a long shadow of disgrace on American foreign policy. It produces the Vietnam syndrome—this deep sense of insecurity, cynicism, and opposition to America’s leadership role on the world stage. American exceptionalism, really for the first time in our history, comes under severe attack in that post-Vietnam War era.

Now, how the United States emerges from its dungeon of self-doubt and moral ambivalence is one of the great stories of renewal in diplomatic history. And that story involves, I would argue, the reassertion of American exceptionalism, alongside a commitment to certain Christian truths. When Ronald Reagan entered the White House in January 1981, he made this prediction: “The years ahead will be great ones for our country, for the cause of freedom, for the spread of civilization.”

“The West won’t contain communism; it will transcend communism. We will dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” Well, Reagan’s critics argued—and he had many of them, and I remember them very well—Reagan’s critics argued that America’s misdeeds, its many foreign policy misdeeds, were on the same scale as those of the Soviets, and we had no business lecturing them about their internal affairs.

But Reagan rejects this view of American democracy. He believes deeply in American exceptionalism, and his beliefs made all the difference. He openly identified the United States with the democratic revolt in the communist world, beginning with Poland and the Solidarity movement in 1980—and Kings, costumes—I can’t wait to get to that period in class. Stay tuned.

Reagan helped to make the Polish struggle America’s struggle. He worked publicly and privately with Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II to aggressively support the Solidarity movement when it was forced underground. Here’s what Reagan said in a White House statement, January 1983, when Solidarity has been outlawed, driven underground: “What is at stake in Poland? His freedom. We in the West have a responsibility not only to preserve our own freedom, but to nurture it where it d

oes not exist. Well, friends, we know the rest of the story. The Solidarity movement toppled the communist regime in Poland in 1989, the first crack in the Iron Curtain, the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Reagan sensed the deep vulnerability of Soviet Communism at a crisis moment and exploited it.

Make no mistake, the Reagan doctrine, which helped to bring the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion, was rooted in a belief in America as the indispensable nation. There’s more to it, though, than that. Reagan’s speech to the Soviet Union in 1983 stated, “I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written.” He continued, “I believe this because our source of strength in the quest for human freedom is not material but spiritual.”

Reagan believed this spiritual strength must ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow men. Reagan’s American exceptionalism was nurtured by his genuine belief in spiritual realities. Christian ideals about the existence of evil, man’s religious nature and yearnings, and the god-given worth and dignity of every human being were central to his worldview. This insight helped him to discern Soviet weakness, not just its economic weakness but its spiritual poverty.

What can we learn from all this? Can we endorse American exceptionalism from a Christian standpoint? Is it appropriate to identify a spiritual source of strength in the United States and its democratic example? We need the moral ballast of honest history and sound theology. We need to frame our political ideals within the realities of a world ravaged by sin, burdened, and threatened by the will to power.

We need a good biblical anthropology, recognizing the shadow of evil that darkens every human heart and every human endeavor. This is the task of the Christian statesman or stateswoman, the Christian realist. Listen to Reinhold Niebuhr, who has been quoted today, which is pretty appropriate. He’s criticizing the liberalism that doesn’t take these ideas seriously.

Niebuhr states, “There is little understanding of the depth to which human malevolence may sink and the heights to which malignant power may rise.” He continues, “Some easy and vapid escape is sought from the terrors and woes of a tragic age.” But, friends, there is no easy escape from the terrors of our age. There is no primrose path to international peace and security.

There is no global community prepared to defend human rights against tyrannies and dictatorships. There is no purely diplomatic solution to religious radicalism, genocidal regimes, or rogue states with nuclear weapons. More than once over the last century, the United States has been the most important force standing between civilization and barbarism. Sometimes we need others to remind us of this fact, especially our immigrants who have seen some of the alternatives.

I remember one of my interns when I was working at a think-tank here in Washington. He was from Somalia, a failed state. In his home country, there was no peace, no security, no government by consent, no rule of law, no freedom. Virtually every day he was with us, he would utter these words of amazement in that lovely accent he had: “America, what a country.”

American virtue, friends, is always mixed with vices, its noblest aims always tainted by self-interest. That’s the nature of our mortal lives in a fallen world. America’s democratic example does not shine like John Winthrop’s biblical city on a hill, ever pure, steady, and bright. But it is visible. The great and grievous flaw of some of America’s critics is to despise the light, to confuse it with darkness.

This is from a Yale University student blogger: “The only city on a hill we resemble today is Mordor.” Well, you must circumvent a lot of American history to arrive at this sinkhole of self-flagellation. We should ignore the cry of the embittered utopians. Let them remain soaking in their sanctuaries where their mischief is somewhat contained.

Many critics of U.S. foreign policy love Reinhold Niebuhr and his book, “The Irony of American History,” because he takes aim at the idea of American exceptionalism in that book. However, the critics forget that Niebuhr was contemptuous of liberal self-loathing toward American democracy. Niebuhr said, “When the mind is not confused by utopian illusions, it’s not difficult to recognize genuine achievements of justice and to feel under obligation to defend them against the threats of tyranny and the negation of justice.”

Over the last century, friends, no nation has done more to bring about a measure of justice in this world than the United States. And not only justice but mercy. In 1921, a mostly man-made famine in communist Russia became one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in Europe since the Black Death. In desperation, Vladimir Lenin turned to the United States for help, and America responded.

By horse, camel, truck, and railcar, the American Relief Association delivered more than half a million tons of food, clothing, and medicine. At its peak, the program was feeding ten and a half million Russians a day. It’s estimated that the United States rescued probably about ten million people from certain death by starvation.

In July of 1922, the Russian author Maxim Gorky wrote to Herbert Hoover, who was very involved in that operation, on behalf of the Soviet government. Gorky said, “Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians whom you’ve saved from death.” Paranoia and propaganda almost erased the memory of that remarkable act of generosity from Russia’s history books, and even from our own.

Herbert Hoover didn’t forget it. Listen to this quote from Hoover explaining how his travels around the world convinced him of America’s unique role: “I have seen America in contrast with many nations and races. My profession took me into many foreign lands under many kinds of government. I have worked in governments of free men, tyrannies, socialists, and communists. I’ve met with princes, kings, despots, and desperados. I’ve seen the squalor of Asia and the frozen class barriers of Europe.”

Hoover continued, “I was not a tourist. I was associated with their working lives and problems. I had to deal with their governments. And outstanding everywhere to these great masses of people, there was a hallowed word: America. To them, it was the hope of the world.”

Well, that’s a burden no single nation should bear. And yet, friends, we cannot evade our unique responsibilities created out of the ashes of two world wars, born out of our remarkable history of self-government, our Constitution, our national character. So maybe our most important task now is just to remember.

Remember what kind of world we actually live in, for starters. We have the memory of Eden, don’t we, friends? The memory of Eden, the world as it was meant to be, the longing for the “hollow of country.” But this is not paradise, and we cannot make it so.

Listen to Niebuhr: “The divine mercy apprehended by Christian faith in the life and death of Christ is not some simple kindness indifferent to good and evil. The whole point of the Christian doctrine of atonement,” he says, “is that God cannot be merciful without fulfilling within himself, on man’s behalf, the requirements of divine justice.” Just as the nations of the earth will all be judged, including our own someday.

Someday they’ll be governed by a sovereign that is both the Prince of Peace and the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, justice and mercy intertwined. The United States has always struggled to hold these concepts together, to bring them to bear in our dealings with other nations. We continually fail to live out our deepest principles every day. But probably no other people have a greater awareness of their failures and a guilty conscience than we Americans.

No other nation has shown a greater capacity to reform itself, to allow the voices of dissent, the statesmen, the poets, the prophets, to call us back to our founding ideals. We need to remember the singular historical achievement of the United States. It has arranged its national life so that its extraordinary power, political, military, and economic, would promote and defend democratic ideals and institutions.

This brings us back to Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Little Round Top. The cause of freedom on that little hill in Pennsylvania, the cause of human rights, is hanging in the balance, isn’t it? The whole family of man is waiting and watching for the outcome. As Chamberlain recorded later in his diary, “At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough.”

This 35-year-old college professor, a follower of Jesus, gave the order to fix bayonets. The boys from Maine, those brave young men, those patriots, charged down Little Round Top with bayonets mounted on their rifles, rifles without ammunition, into the teeth of the Confederate Army. Victory! 400 Confederate soldiers surrendered, and Little Round Top was secure a

nd so is the Republic. So is the Republic. It’s a turning point in a battle that proves to be a turning point in the war. It makes possible, in the words of Lincoln, a new birth of freedom. Freedom, justice, mercy, the willingness to wage a just war, and the desire to live in peace with all men. America, an almost chosen nation. America.

I stand between these people and dinner. You want five minutes, people? Five minutes, three minutes, a couple of minutes? Five minutes right here up front. Good. I agree 150 percent with everything you’ve said about American exceptionalism and the greatness of our tradition and country. But I served in Vietnam, and I do have to take issue with your characterization of Vietnam. Major management problems there, but I guarantee you the purpose was to stop the spread of international communism at a time when the dynamism and momentum were in many ways on the side of communism.

Our purposes there were almost identical to the purposes that your two uncles fought for. The circumstances of the two countries were different, but I would invite you to, and we could perhaps talk about this offline, give some very serious thought to your characterization of the Vietnam War. Because if anything was in pursuit of the American exceptionalist dream, it was our effort in Vietnam.

My argument is, you’re absolutely right. The desire was to stop communism at a time when China had gone communist, and the Soviets seemed to be outdoing us in the race. My argument is, once Lyndon Johnson started prosecuting this war, the objectives also changed a bit. There was still the desire to stop communism, but at the same time, I would argue there was a desire to try to do in Vietnam what we’re doing domestically – to actually try to build an economic revitalization.

Hi, great. I totally agree. Great point. We love talking online. Yes, we’ve got time for one more question. Any students out there? Julia Rose, my faculty assistant, let me ask her.

Thank you, professor. I have a question about stability. You talked about how American exceptionalism started with how we rejected the normal agents of stability: the church, the state, the monarch, language, and ethnicity. And I would say that you would agree that we replaced it with the value of the rule of law and justice, our universal values of human rights, and our pride as a nation to an extent.

So my question is, today we’ve heard from the speaker for the Philos Project who talked about how Millennials are not as interested in the rule of law as they are in just the idea of justice. And the young lady to the right spoke about her experience with current Millennials who care little about American ideals anymore or are almost ashamed of them. So my question is, moving forward, if our original exceptionalism came in rejecting the institutional stabilities of the past, what will be our institutional stabilities as our current ones seem to be on the trend down? The rule of law and the pride of human rights – what’s going to be the stabilizing agent you see in the future?

Wow, it’s a huge question, as usual above my pay grade. I appreciate you asking it. What will be the kind of stabilizing ideals or institutions that might replace some of the ones we have now? Is that kind of what you’re asking? Well, you know, to me it’s more recovery than replacement. In other words, we have these ideals – the idea of universal human rights grounded in divine natural law. We’ve had these ideas, and we’ve built institutions with those ideas embedded in our mind and our thinking culturally.

But I think we’ve just neglected them. And I think the great question we are now sorting out is: can this democratic republic survive either the destruction or the neglect of its founding ideals? Can it really survive at the end of the day? That is a problematic experiment we’re now engaged in. Can we survive the destruction of our founding ideals? So I don’t want so much replacement as recovery. Yes, they’ve got to be recovered for the 21st century, not for the 18th century. And maybe that’s part of what your question is getting at. We’re not living in an 18th-century farmer’s republic anymore. I work in New York and live in Washington; I’m an urban guy. It’s not an 18th-century farmer’s republic.

So what does it mean to try to live out these ideals in such a diverse society where there’s a breakdown in consensus about these very things? I think part of the great task is remembering. I think it’s education – not the only answer, but it’s a huge part of the answer. And some of us have to be involved in that fight. Just a stab at it.

In the back.

I think you’re great. I heard you speak one time before on the Philos trip. You’re one of the only people I remember – you’re my favorite. So my question, kind of following hers, is how can – and this may be like a totally political grassroots Christian evangelism question – but how can we, the people in this room, help change the narrative? Because when I think of America, I think of those things.

My grandparents would remind me all the time. My mom got married when she was 14, dropped out of middle school, ended up going back for a master’s, working in a pro-life pregnancy center. Amazing. I believe in that idea of America. So how do we change the narrative? Because that’s not what America is right now. Those ideals – we’re so thankful as Millennials to hear from people older than us who lived through it. People do not think like that anymore.

How do you – same question kind of that I asked Robert – how do you combat that when it’s so much easier to absorb the negative memories versus America is great because of X, Y, and Z? How do we get that redemption for national sins? I don’t know, that’s why I’m working in politics and human rights because I believe in that. But how do we change the narrative of what people are believing all over our country?

It’s a fabulous question. I only have a partial answer. It’s a hugely important question. I don’t really know the answer. Partial answer: one of the aides to Henry VIII said the times are never so bad that a good man or a good woman can’t live in them. They’re never so bad that a good man or woman can’t live in them.

So part of the key is courage. Courage. We learn to bear witness for a certain set of truths that have organized not only our personal lives but our national life so successfully over the last couple of centuries. Bear witness for the truth. How does a young woman like Malala from Pakistan think about the obstacles she’s been up against since the Taliban tried to take her life? She just stood up and spoke the truth regardless of the consequences. That’s a hard thing to do. It takes courage. Lovely question. Thank you. Applause for Jo Laconte. [Applause] [Music]