Liberals often like to make fun of the conservative doctrine of American “exceptionalism” (and rightly so, for a lot of reasons). There’s a sense, though, in which conservatives are somewhat perversely right: America is exceptional, or at least unusual, among its first world peers. We, perhaps more than any other nation, treasure ignorance and bull-headed foolishness as something to be proud of and as our secret strategy for success. And it’s not just recent history and the rise of Fox News either.
I blame Martin Luther.
Luther’s biggest contribution to history, for good or ill, was his notion of sola scriptura, which is Latin for “You are not the boss of me.” Well, that’s the gist of it, anyway. Bound up in those two, short, italicized words is the notion that I, as an individual, reading my own Bible, am the ultimate authority regarding what Christianity teaches and requires.
That’s huge. That notion, right there, displaces the authority of the authorities with the authority of the self. Instead of the authorities telling us what’s what, each of us is free to think for ourselves and to decide for ourselves what’s truth and what isn’t. And the church, in Luther’s day, was something of an ultimate authority, not just for religion, but for science and politics and just about everything. Luther’s sola scriptura sowed the seeds of supreme authority for every individual over every area of life.
What does that have to do with American exceptionalism? Just this: all the other nations of the first world had already existed for centuries before the Reformation, in culture if not in actual borders. There were already certain constraints and customs set up, certain habits and allegiances and social mores to serve as boundaries and foundations, to guide and shape Protestant thought and practice. Luther’s influence modified and adapted existing influences, but was itself somewhat modified in the process.
In America, by contrast, there was no prior history or tradition, apart from what the colonists brought with them. It was easier, in the New World, to travel with less baggage brought over from the Old. Protestant thinking, in both the religious and the secular sense, could flourish undiluted. What’s more, frontier life rewarded individualism and self-reliance in a way that simply wasn’t available in the established civilizations of Europe. We had more freedom to make our own rules and our own authority. And that’s what we did.
Like I said, good or ill. It’s been good in that we’ve made some advances, but there’s a lot of ill there too. A lot of Americans, for example, see themselves as “skeptics” when all they’re really doing is refusing to listen to the experts. Call it sola scriptura as applied to science, or education, or whatever. And it makes them easier to exploit: just tell them that, by ignoring the experts, they’re “thinking for themselves” and “making up their own minds”—we report, you decide.
Of course, there’s a lot of other factors involved too. For example, our current educational system is fundamentally flawed, and is inherently prone to produce adults who remember the classroom competition for good grades, and who consequently have a lingering antipathy towards the “smart kids” who made them look bad. There’s only so many students who can belong to the top 10% of a class, and the other 90% are going to remember how it feels to come in second best (or worse). Sola scriptura, the doctrine that you possess a superior authority over the “official” top guys, is a powerful vindication, and an incentive to make up your own rules and expertise. And the thing is, you don’t need to be in the top 10% in school to do well as an adult.
The result is a lot of “self-made” people who credit their own worldview and resourcefulness over and above any kind of “submission” to what we might call academic authority. Being “smart” wasn’t what got them through school as kids, and it wasn’t what made them successful as adults. So to hell with being smart. To hell with the smart kids, the know-it-alls, the experts. Be dogged. Be independent. Don’t let anyone else tell you what to do, and don’t let anyone tell you what to think, especially if they know more about it than you do. Live by sola scriptura—your own interpretation of the world—and defend it against all threats, real or imagined.
That’s overly simplistic, of course, but I think it’s a factor, and I think it’s a large part of where actual American exceptionalism comes from.