“We live in a country, the greatest on earth, our flag stands for freedom and what it is worth. She stands in the harbor, Ms. Liberty calls, all have gave some, but some gave it all for me to be blessed.”I recently saw a video of a church congregation singing this song on TikTok. As they sang, a church member waved the American flag. It has left a lingering discomfort in my heart. Try as I might, I simply could not square the image of the flag with the Christian lyric. As someone who grew up outside America and the Western world, I find it strange that American Christians would think of themselves as somehow being exceptionally blessed by God. This phenomenon, I believe, is a symptom of the problematic association of American supremacy with religion. 

I have always had a bit of a problem with American exceptionalism because it is dangerous, at times xenophobic, and by definition exclusionary.  I want to dig deeper, here, into the ways in which the involvement of religion makes the whole situation significantly worse. The first and most immediate danger here is xenophobia. With the rise of globalization, America has become home to many visitors, some who stay longer and intend to settle down. From international students like myself, all the way to refugees from crisis stricken countries, the message sent to us is clear — you don’t belong. This is what is so insidious about the involvement of religion: you are much more likely to believe that America is the best if you heard it from a trusted religious leader, as opposed to a fleeting comment online. The problem here is that religious institutions regularly and systematically perpetuate this notion that America belongs to a certain kind of person. The seeds of xenophobia are sown in the church pulpits. The same xenophobia and ignorance that causes them to furrow their brow in disdain and ask — “Singapore? Is that a suburb of Beijing?” The same xenophobia that continually discriminates against children on the basis of their immigration status. The same xenophobia that causes the United States to inflict prejudiced travel bans on countries in the East and Africa.

The idea that America is a land specially chosen by God to excel above and beyond other countries can also have devastating geopolitical effects. American exceptionalism, fueled by a religious conviction, is used to justify horrific acts of violence — violence driven by the conviction that America is always right. For example, the recent U.S. exit from Afghanistan garnered media attention precisely because it was supposed to be a “good” war to free people from oppression, to spread the ideals of liberty all around the globe. However, this haste to spread American exceptionalism led to more devastation than peace. American exceptionalism with a religious conviction garners political support for long drawn-out war campaigns that are expensive, futile and that get closer and closer to a sort of neo-colonialist behavior. 

A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking with a pastor, and I mentioned how glad I was to go to a church affiliated with the national Presbyterian Church of America. He swiftly interrupted me with an important reminder — “Presbyterian Church IN America, actually. And if I could, I would get rid of the word America from the name.” To want to associate the comfortable life one often enjoys by being an American with some sort of divine providence is the natural instinct of this country’s population. Beware, however, of its pitfalls and its problematic logical extremes. In a world already devastated by misinformation, discrimination, racism and xenophobia, there is not room for one more weapon of devastation. Christianity is a religion of peace and justice, not inequality and supremacy. If you truly believe that God loves everyone, then you cannot believe that God loves America more. 

SHI WEN YEO  is a junior in Morse College. Contact her at shiwen.yeo@yale.edu.

 

SHI WEN YEO
Shi Wen Yeo is a junior in Morse College. Her column, “Through the stained glass”, runs every other Wednesday.