Imagery of Regent people and campus

Symposium Explores American Exceptionalism

By Rachel Judy | February 9, 2011

Dr. Hadley Arkes presents during the afternoon session.
Photo courtesy of University Marketing

In his farewell address in 1989, President Ronald Reagan spoke of the "shining city on a hill," a reference to Puritan leader and early governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony John Winthrop's early designation of America. At the time, Reagan saw the shining city as "a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home."

Now, more than 20 years later, questions are swirling over how true the image of a shining city is in America. Addressing this topic of American exceptionalism was the focus of the 6th Annual Ronald Reagan Symposium at Regent University. Held on Friday, Feb. 4, just before Reagan's 100th birthday, the symposium featured eight leading intellectuals discussing the future of America's greatness.

"All is not well with American exceptionalism," said Dr. Charles Dunn, distinguished professor in the Robertson School of Government and the symposium's creator. "Today it is a political football."

Exceptionalism can be defined as the belief that a country or society is unique or extraordinary.

The symposium began with Dr. James Ceaser, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. Titled "The Origins of the Idea of Exceptionalism," Ceaser's address explored the confusion surrounding the term exceptionalism, not the least of which is confusion over the definition. "Vague language leads to vague thinking," Ceaser said.

Next up was Dr. Hugh Heclo, the Clarence J. Robinson professor of public affairs at George Mason University. He spoke about the "Varieties of American Exceptionalism," expanding on Ceaser's idea that the term exceptionalism means different things to different people. Heclo sees character (what Americans are like on the inside) as the key to understanding the topic at hand. "If there's a future for American exceptionalism, I expect that it will be one of character, not mission or condition," he said.

Heclo was followed by William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard. Kristol explored the question "Is Exceptionalism a Myth? Has It Always Been?" "[American exceptionalism] isn't a call to avoid the difficult tasks of politics," Kristol said. "It's something that holds us to higher standards."

Dr. Daniel L. Dreisbach, professor of justice, law and society at American University, titled his address: "A Peculiar People in a Chosen Nation: Religion and American National Identity." He explained that everything about the founding was not steeped in faith but that the founding fathers saw the benefits of the Protestant mindset. "We miss a great deal about the founding [of the United States] if we dismiss American exceptionalism," he said.

Next up was Dr. Hadley Arkes, the Edward N. Ney Professor in American Institutions at Amherst College. Arkes' address, "That City on a Hill: Life in a Morally Demanding Place," explained that morals are the cornerstone of a nation and the "thing that made America exceptional."

Dr. George Nash, senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, presented "Ronald Reagan's Vision of America." Nash talked about how Reagan, more than any other president, devoted rhetoric to explaining America's purpose. "More than anyone else, his path to the White House was paved with a series of powerful speeches," he said.

Following Nash was Dr. Steven F. Hayward, F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Hayward's address, "Back to the Future: Ronald Reagan's Exceptionalism for a New Century," suggested that Reagan's legacy still has a profound impact on politics today. "Over the past decade, Reagan's reputation has soared with the American people and even with most liberals," he said.

Rounding out the panel was Michael Barone, senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner. Barone's presentation, titled "Restoring Reaganesque Exceptionalism in Politics," talked about a decreasingly positive view of American exceptionalism. "American exceptionalism has become unattractive to some people," Barone said. "It may be a hard sell in the world, but now some Americans even scorn the American patriotism that Reagan called for."

The Reagan Symposium is sponsored by the Robertson School of Government. The next symposium will be held on Feb. 3, 2012. The topic will be "The Future of Islam in America."


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