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Ask Jon 16 – American Exceptionalism: or, “You don’t know everything.”


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/08/07

Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New YorkHere we talk about American exceeptionlism.

*Interview conducted on August 3, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Okay! This is another Ask Jon. You wanted to talk about the concept or the claim of American exceptionalism. A) What is American exceptionalism typically directed towards? B) What are some obvious critiques?

Jonathan Engelman: We should talk about what it is. American exceptionalism is a belief held by many Americans that the United States is somehow – with a religious orientation to it, and a political one too – having God anointing America the greatest country ever and, therefore, then it shall always be so. Many Americans believe it. Many Americans are afraid to say that they don’t believe it.

You would find it hard to see a politician say it. I will say it because I am not looking for everyone’s vote. But with the idea of America as always great and as always the best is, from the point of non-Americans, is arrogant and conceited, if you look at it from the view of an American, it is arrogant and conceited, foolish and wrong, but also dangerous. I think it is dangerous because it brings an air of complacency. That, somehow, the United States is untouchable.

Because we will always be great because that is the way that it is, then you don’t have to look at your faults, get better, improve as a society. That’s not true. We’re seeing this right now. The United States has handled Covid worse than anywhere else in the world. Trump and others tell us that we’re handling it better. There’s a receptive audience for him.

They will believe this without evidence and, in fact, contrary to what they see with their own eyes if they will only open them and take a look. Yet, they will believe it, because he says, ‘America is the best.’ So, they think, “America is the best.” You see this happening with Covid while having a ridiculous death rate, which is not going away.

That concept, again, has some religious overtones, as to how it developed, but that concept is very dangerous to us as a country. I was reading something, recently, about the view of the United States from foreign countries from around the world.

There was a time when the United States, for years, has been alternately hated, envied, and admired. Now, we’re being pitied. Just wrap you head about that, Americans who believe in our inherent exceptionalism. We’re being pitied by the rest of the world.

You are really a disgrace. But that’s the concept. That’s what a lot of people believe. You go back. People talk about the Founding Fathers of this country, as if they were gods. They weren’t gods. In fact, many of them were deists. They believed some creator started the world, but believed that’s it. It is all humans. Most importantly, deists believe that everything that you see on Earth has a reasonable, logical, and scientific explanation.

No supernatural explanation, they do not believe God is doing anything to direct affairs of human beings. Remember that the Founding Fathers of this country, I do not even like the sound of that phrase because it sounds so godly. They borrowed quite a bit from Enlightenment thinkers in Europe. They were very open about it. Jefferson was open about it. Hamilton was open about it.

They learned and borrowed from Enlightenment thinkers about it. Today, you have Americans saying, ‘The Founding Fathers brought the ideas originally,’ as if Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments. There’s no thought processes involved. It is very dangerous for our country. We are seeing how it is playing out here. We have got to get with the program.

We have one shot. It comes in November. For us to get back on track, with an understanding that the United States is only one country in the world, we have allies who pursue many of the same values, at least generally, that we do, which are liberal democratic society values believing in human rights, believing in basic freedoms, believing in justice and a system of justice.

And that we need to coordinate and be a part of that community. We need to advance those values, which under Trump we have stopped doing. We don’t seem to care much about values like justice and human rights. This is what we will need to do to rebuild our country. But we have got to think about this from the standpoint of “we have a lot of work to do.” It won’t happen magically because we are the United States of America.

We have seen how this virus has exposed that our infrastructure is crumbling and needs to be repaired. It has exposed that our healthcare system, if you can call it that, leaves too many people behind. It is going to be one of the big questions moving forward; obviously, only if, we get rid of Trump. What are we going to do moving forward to learn our lessons that we should be learning to grow from this crisis? To learn and grow, you have to acknowledge that you don’t know everything.

Jacobsen: Sir, thank you.

Engelman: Alright, Scott, take care of yourself.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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