When American politicians speak of greatness one can hear the echo of American Exceptionalism in those words. This idea goes back to the Great Awakening, an early revival movement in America, and the preacher Jonathan Edwards. This revival movement had its beginnings in the 1730’s and 40’s. As with any revival movement, it laid great stress on personal sin and the need for repentance, but it also presented a vision of America as the “city set on a hill” from Matthew 5:14.
American exceptionalism views the United States has having a unique role to play in world history. According to this idea, God has given America the role of world leadership; not just political leadership but moral leadership as well. We are meant to be an example of what a nation can become when it is faithful to God. In a sense, America is seen as the new Israel.
Europe was weighed down in centuries of religious differences and conflict. America was new. It was an opportunity to start over and built a nation that was committed to God and which reflected the Scripture in its laws and customs. Augustine had written centuries earlier about Christians building the “city of God”. Edwards and others saw America as a God given opportunity finally to be able to do that. We can see this theme at work in the writings of many of the Founding Fathers and in 19th century concepts such as Manifest Destiny.
Thus, when politicians speak of greatness, yet to come or lost, they often evoke American exceptionalism and a time when America was or will be faithful to the will of God. They evoke nostalgia for a Christian nation with a heritage of European culture and traditional values. The problem is that this vision of a “city on a hill” is filtered through the lens of the ambitions of the era and the politicians using the term. Thus, the Manifest Destiny promoted by the 19th century version of American Exceptionalism translated in action to the genocide of Native Americans and the expropriation of their lands, even as far as the Hawaiian Islands.
Every nation wants some claim to fame. Nations in many parts of the world have been around for centuries or are part of a continuous civilization that goes back millennia. Their political, literary and artistic heritage are part of their claim to fame. Unless they are Native American, Statesiders lack deep roots in the Americas. So, instead of looking to past glory as their unique claim to fame, American exceptionalism gives them a vision of the future. Though, it is a very Eurocentric vision of the future.
Greatness does not appear to be a concept with one universal meaning but is rather context dependent. That is, it has a specific meaning in one setting and a very different meaning in another setting. This isn’t arbitrary but simply reflects assumptions that are being made among different cultures.
David Livermore is a professor with the Cultural Intelligence Center. He notes that due to history, geography, economics, biology and a variety of other factors people develop different survival strategies. These strategies shape the way they operate in the world, their perception of the world and what behaviors they value as a community. These strategies shape their attitudes and assumptions. Those attitudes and behaviors that one community might assume are admirable, another community would consider detestable. In one culture, you would eat from a common bowl with your fingers and when you were done you would burp loudly in appreciation for the good food. In another culture, such behavior would be considered crude. One practice isn’t any better than another, just different.
Livermore suggests that today anthropologists have identified ten broad categories of behavior that can be used to categorize cultures by where they fall on the spectrum of these categories. By comparing where a culture falls on the spectrum of these categories you can develop a profile of the culture’s major characteristics to compare the cultures, group them into clusters that are somewhat similar and see where individuals fall within their broader cultural profile.
I’m not going into detail on Livermore’s work but there are a few categories that might relate to the concept of greatness. One category is that of individualist versus collectivist cultures, cooperative versus competitive cultures, direct versus indirect cultures and particularist versus universalist cultures.