Bombast, blasphemy, and the bastard gospel: William Stringfellow and American exceptionalism.
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Johnston, Marshall Ron.
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William Stringfellow (1928-1985) was a Harvard-trained attorney, social critic, and popular theologian. His theology and the social and political critique it engendered were developed against the backdrop of American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism refers to the consciousness of moral uniqueness and superiority that characterizes the popular American national image. This consciousness has been expressed in various ways and has referred to different aspects of the sociopolitical framework that defines the country. Politically, American exceptionalism has been expressed in the terms known as the American Creed, the emphasis upon individual rights and the implication that this creed could be and should be universally believed. Economically, American exceptionalism has been associated with the Protestant work ethic, the myth of the self-made man, the American dream, and the sanctity of property. Theologically, it has been expressed most explicitly in the notion of the chosen nation, divinely called for the purpose of spreading its values throughout the world, and in the more specific idea of America as a Christian nation. Pervading Stringfellow’s work is a constant critique of all of these notions. In almost everything he wrote there was an implied or explicit critique of America’s national ideology, especially its theological justifications. Consequently, the following is a study of Stringfellow’s thought, with particular reference to his criticism of American exceptionalism. His critique may be summarized as follows: Claims of the nation for morally unique status are bombastic in that they are contradicted by many empirically observed injustices and are blasphemous in that they imply a promise to free citizens from death in its various forms, which is something only God can do. Furthermore, some forms of these exceptionalistic claims reflect a bastardized version of the Gospel in that they presume to announce a form of salvation to the world, politically, economically, and, in some cases, religiously.