The Patient Body: Remaking American Exceptionalism

By Ann Neumann

For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Matthew 25: 35-36

Facets of American Exceptionalism have long been used as a wholesale justification for ignoring—and even enforcing—the country’s systemic inequality. Though not coined until the 1920s by American communist Jay Lovestone, the idea of American Exceptionalism today incorporates Puritan theological concepts and colonization (later characterized as Manifest Destiny), Enlightenment self-reliance, and what Alexis de Tocqueville praised as “the nation’s promise of class mobility.” Broadly, the term means that America is special, blessed and directed by God’s moral hand, just in action and intention. But as applied to policy, at home and abroad, the story that the country has told itself about its specialness has wrought both good and bad—on each side of the national belief that hard work and application guarantees every American religious freedom, liberty, and financial security.

In a brief but handy history of the term’s use, Peter Beinart wrote that the postwar interpretation, epitomized by the concept of upward mobility and summarized by sociologists Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset, prevented unrest among the poor. “The American poor didn’t seethe with class resentment and turn to revolutionary ideologies because upward mobility gave them the chance to rise,” they stated. Today, as President Trump pursues his “deconstruction” of American government, the uses of American Exceptionalism, particularly as applied to one of the most basic health issues the country faces—hunger—is instructive. And it hints at an opportunity within the Democratic Party (its voters, if not its entrenched leadership) to incorporate counter-definitions of American Exceptionalism.


Political leaders—both Democrats and Republicans—have always shaped the meaning of American Exceptionalism for their own purposes, redefining it as needed. On the campaign trail in 1992, Bill Clinton told an audience at Notre Dame that they could become productive members of society through hard work and “moral principles”:

I want an America that offers every child a healthy start in life, decent schooling and the chance to go on to college or to job training worthy of the name, not only because that’s essential for our economic success but because providing opportunities is how we fulfill obligations to each other and the moral principles we honor.

His subsequent 1996 “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act” required that “entitlement” recipients quickly find jobs.

Former Clinton advisor and Brookings Institute fellow, William A. Galston, has further expanded upon the particularly American intermingling of hard work and faith. He wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2014, “The United States does continue to differ from most other developed democratic countries. And the heart of that difference is religion. The durability of American religious belief refutes the once-canonical thesis that modernization and secularization necessarily go hand in hand.” Elsewhere, he’s called American Exceptionalism “a moral lingua franca with global reach.”

In a 2013 address meant to rally support for a military strike in Syria, then President Obama remarked that America is “exceptional” because it heeds the call to save the lives of those in need. A flurry of commentary about American Exceptionalism ensued. Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio then wrote in an essay at the conservative National Review that, “History teaches us that a strong and engaged America is a source of good in the world.”

Conservatives like Mitt Romney, who launched his unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign with a focus on poverty, and Newt Gingrich, who wrote a book on American Exceptionalism, A Nation Like No Other, have both applied American Exceptionalism characteristics to inequality. They subscribe to a version of American success that privileges “self-reliance” without reckoning with its corollary, the inability to get ahead or even get by. Policies enacted under this version of the country’s stated values become a double bind for those caught inside discriminating systems: liberty is really the freedom to make better choices; higher employment rates are dependent on unfettered capitalism; and Christian faith becomes the imposition of morally correct behavior, like marrying, to improve lives.

Obama shifted the definition of American Exceptionalism to include the integration of various types of people, like himself, who came from a racially mixed family. Beinart writes,

For Obama, what made America exceptional was its ever-expanding circle of inclusion. By overcoming its history of bigotry, and building a society where people of different races, ethnicities and religions lived in harmony, America overcame the tribal hatreds that marred other lands and became a model for the world.

Donald Trump, according to Beinart, has turned at least the foreign policy aspect of this version of American Exceptionalism upside down, applying a fearful nativism to his foreign and immigration policies. But the ways that Trump has addressed domestic inequality, and specifically hunger, are nothing but the old American Exceptionalism resurrected: work hard and you will eat. Trump has no religious bona fides; his party espouses them for him. Paul Ryan, a Catholic who has designed the failed Obamacare replacement and is touted as the Republicans’ budget expert, wrote in his 2014 book, The Way Forward, about how his faith and his economic policy are intertwined:

The federal government has a role to play, but it’s a supporting role, not the commanding one. Its job is to give people the resources — and the space — to thrive. Two principles of Catholic social teaching — subsidiarity and solidarity — can help show the way here.

Subsidiarity, he explains, is an idea that’s “echoed in our federalist system,” and holds that problems “should be handled at the lowest level at which it’s possible to achieve a successful resolution.” The family. The Church. The soup kitchen. And solidarity “holds that we have a responsibility to stand together with our brothers and sisters — and there are social and moral goods that can only be gained through the broader society.” Charity. Yet, Ryan has no explanation for why these principles haven’t yet alleviated poverty and hunger. His objective is to remove social support from the federal budget.

What such cuts will do to those already struggling to feed themselves is hard to fathom. But a look at one program, Meals on Wheels, and the current administration’s designs for it, is instructive.

Take St. Joseph’s Community Services and Meals on Wheels in Merrimack, New Hampshire, one of only two Meals on Wheels providers in the entire state (Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter is the other). The number of elders in New Hampshire who struggle with hunger is estimated at 27,011, or 10.3% of the state’s residents over the age of 60.[1] More than 21% of those seniors live at or below the poverty line. And New Hampshire is doing well when you consider the number of poor seniors in other states. Texas (31.2%), Louisiana (35.6%), Arkansas (35.8%) and Mississippi (40.9%) have some of the highest proportion of poor elders in the nation.

Which makes last month’s news that the new Trump budget proposal will cut Meals on Wheels particularly devastating. Any veil of cynical justification wielded to support the Republican Party’s fiscal objectives fell away when the president delivered his budget proposal.[2] The cuts are breathtaking and extraordinary, not only for their strategic cruelty, but for the minuscule percentage of the budget they represent—and for the health and financial burden that many cuts will pass on to other already-burdened social service, health care and safety systems.

More than 2.4 million elders received food from Meals on Wheels in 2015, via more than 5,000 organizations run locally and predominately by women. What Meals on Wheels doesn’t get from its primary government funder, the Community Development Block Grant Program, it does from corporate sponsors like Subaru, PayPal, Lyft, Kellogg’s and Home Depot. (I’d rather the program’s funding came from right-minded, reliable and sustained government taxation of corporations, but I digress.)

A 2015 study by Brown University’s Kali Thomas, and funded by the AARP, shows that the benefits of Meals on Wheels programs are greater than elders’ full stomachs. The program saves money. In addition to better nutrition and daily social contact, the study shows that receiving Meals on Wheels resulted in fewer falls and hospitalizations for elders. According to the study, the primary benefits of home food delivery include: improved mental health; decreased isolation; improved self-reported health; increased feelings of safety; and increased ability to stay in the home. The secondary effects are: reduced healthcare visits and reduced rates of falls, which, as I’ve written here and here, are the single leading cause of hospital admissions for elders. Falls cost Medicare alone an average of $31 billion a year.

The backlash to Trump’s proposed cuts was resounding. Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce wrote:

Who in the hell zeroes out Meals on Wheels? Who decides that a program that spends $3 million to help volunteers feed the elderly and infirm in their communities is something that the country can no longer afford? Who are the men in the meetings who make this kind of call?

Charity kicked in. Donations to Meals on Wheels surged. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who became the subject of media attention when he refused to stand for the National Anthem last fall—donated $50,000. But unless Trump’s efforts to cut the program’s budget are defeated, the same problem—without the media blitz to raise awareness—will occur next year. Already precarious and underfunded, hungry seniors will suffer.


Our government has long shirked the moral responsibility of caring for “the least of these,” preferring to blame those in need, rather than systemic injustice or even the inability of many to be productive members of society.[3] We have done so in part because American Exceptionalism has provided a religious cover for our national ideology of self-reliance. When the American faith (a conflation of nationalism and self-determination) is based on the belief that unlimited mobility exists for all, so long as they make the right moral decisions, those who are subject to unfair and unjust social systems are blamed for their economic plight. Our cultural and legislative will to support them is faltering; we are failing to see economic stability as a national cause and instead we are ascribing it to individual incompetence. So here we are today: our federal budget treats hungry seniors as a drain on the national budget, as lesser citizens, rather than as members of our society worthy of support. In the perverted parlance of this administration’s American Exceptionalism, funding Meals on Wheels, then, is un-American and unexceptional, as though responsibility and compassion have been turned on their moral heads.

As the Democratic Party falls apart after the election of Donald Trump, as it grapples with how to put itself together again, disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters are making solidarity with Black Lives Matters protesters, and Women’s Marchers, Catholic social justice warriors, Fight for $15 supporters, and suburban moms who want better public schools are working together to finally shake off the inequality built into our systems. “American exceptionalism is not a set of enduring national characteristics that a president can undermine. American exceptionalism is a story that America’s leaders tell about what makes America different,” Beinart wrote. Perhaps uprisings in the wake of the election can give us new leaders who will redefine what makes this country special.


[1] Food insecurity is a concept that refers to the social and economic problem of lack of food due to resource, physical, or other constraints, not voluntary fasting or dieting or for other reasons. Food insecurity is experienced when there is uncertainty about future food availability and access, insufficiency in the amount and kind of food required for a healthy lifestyle, and/or the need to use socially unacceptable ways to acquire food. Food insecurity can also be experienced when food is available and accessible but cannot be utilized because of physical or other constraints such as limited physical functioning by elders.

[2] Trump’s budget proposals do not represent an approved budget; rather they are a template for Republican legislators as they prepare the budget, which will have to be passed by both the House and the Senate. What Trump’s proposed cuts do, in their extreme and ruthless tackle of discretionary spending, is make vulnerable the programs he has targeted. Any “walk back” in the approved budget will seem like a moderation.

[3] There is controversy over who Jesus meant by “the least of these” but it continues to look like a side-show distraction regarding social and religious obligation and defies centuries of interpretation.


Past “The Patient Body” columns can be found here.


Ann Neumann is author of The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America (Beacon, 2016, now in paperback) and a visiting scholar at The Center for Religion and Media, NYU.


Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.

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