Real American exceptionalism

How do we hold a healthy distance between our patriotic pride and our Christian witness? It is sometimes not easy.


Baltimore held a weeklong Sailabration commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Events involved tall ships, fireworks and great pride for the host city.

In Baltimore, events of this nature cannot help but also celebrate the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer, author and amateur poet, wrote the first words to what would become America’s national anthem while detained aboard a British ship that was part of the attack on Fort McHenry.

On Sept. 3, 1814, Key and prisoner-exchange agent Col. John Stewart Skinner were sent on a mission by President James Madison to seek the release of Dr. William Beanes, a resident of Upper Marlboro, Md., under British arrest. They were successful in securing the prisoner’s release, but while having a meal with the British command they overheard plans for the attack on Baltimore.

Detained for knowing too much, they witnessed the Sept. 13-14 bombardment firsthand from British ships. Key was so inspired by the successful defense and seeing the huge 15 stars and 15 stripes on the flag still flying over the fort the next morning that he wrote a rough draft of the poem that would come to be called “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

After Key and Skinner were released in Baltimore on Sept. 16, he completed the poem in a local hotel. Titled “Defense of Fort McHenry,” it was soon published in the local paper, and a popular tune of that day became associated with the words.

Today, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a proud reminder of the defense of Baltimore after the British had burned government buildings in Washington, including the Capitol and White House weeks before. The Battle of Baltimore was a great moral victory and a turning point in what otherwise could have been a knockout blow for the fledgling nation.

Historically the War of 1812 is a mixed bag. One might argue the real winner was Canada. History recalls a series of blunders by American generals selected to attack Canada and faulty perceptions about the Canadian people of the time. Even the French Canadians from Quebec, who hated the British, preferred to remain in the Commonwealth over associating with the United States.

The U.S. did expand westward to take more land from the Native Americans. William Henry Harrison made his mark in the War of 1812 by killing Tecumseh, a great Native American leader who wanted only to protect the land of his people and hold together a tradition and civilization he correctly envisioned would be lost. This, too, is much of the history of the War of 1812.

It is good to remember and celebrate our pride by holding Fort McHenry as a legitimate historical marker. It is also good to remember that war is, as Barbara Tuchman put it, The March of Folly.

History is a helpful instructor. While as citizens we should have a healthy pride for all the great accomplishments our nation has achieved, as Christians we must see American exceptionalism — the idea that the U.S. is uniquely virtuous compared to other countries — as antithetical to our global witness.

How do we hold a healthy distance between our patriotic pride and our Christian witness? It is sometimes not easy. That is why — as people who believe in true religious freedom and separation of church and state — we must balance our civic pride with a humility that recognizes both freedom for everyone in our nation and also that others share a healthy pride for their own national heritage as well.

We belong to global organizations that transcend traditional territorial boundaries. We live in a global market with universal access to every type of currency and exchange that sometimes operate almost without consideration of elected officials and the policies of national agendas.

We live in an information age with immediate access to all information all of the time. It is not just about having knowledge, but about how to package that knowledge with the resources to disseminate the message you want to prevail in the contemporary information wars of currency and exchange.

We live in a time of major social change in our nation and in nations around the world. Thus, while we must express a healthy national pride, we must also celebrate with others their own pride and struggle for freedom.

I pray this perspective is what could be seen as truly exceptional in us.

This post originally ran on the ABPnews.com site on June 29, 2012.

Henry Green

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Henry Green is pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Annapolis, Md.

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