The Augusta ChronicleIs America truly exceptional anymore?Is it automatic that it will be?The notion of American exceptionalism — the sense that America is unique and special in the family of nations — has been with us since at least Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville’s glowing scouting report on this still-young nation. Most Americans have come to believe in it, especially since the World Wars of the last century and America’s post-war rise, first to one of two world superpowers, and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world’s only remaining one.American exceptionalism is often misunderstood as mere nationalism or patriotism. President Obama, still backlit from his historic election as the country’s first black president, was asked at a European summit last summer if he believed in American exceptionalism.”I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he said.It was a gracious answer, certainly, but misguided. What he defined in his reply was not American exceptionalism at all, but a sense of national pride common to most nations. That kind of pride lapses into vanity and arrogance quite easily, and its foundation is hubris.American exceptionalism, on the other hand, leads more to humility and gratitude.If America is special — and we think it is very much so — it’s not because of us necessarily; we are put together much the same as others on Earth. What is special about America, and what makes it exceptional, is that it is founded solely upon principles and ideas, rather than on ethnicity, as most other countries are.Those principles and ideas are the highest known to man — primarily individual liberty and rights that flow from God, not government. This is why the Declaration of Independence, in its infinite wisdom, says all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”Unalienable rights are those attached to us by the Divine, incapable of being separated from us by anyone, including any government.This principle has become an American birthright.Together, our founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights — establish the freest nation in history, giving Americans the most opportunity of any country on Earth to be themselves, to achieve what they will, and to reap the rewards of their work and character.This is why others risk everything and leave much behind to come here.We have failed too often to live up to those ideals. But the fault lies not with the structure we were given, but what we have done with it. When used as directed, this country works better than any human institution ever devised.In short, it is America that is exceptional; Americans are just lucky enough to live in such an extraordinary place.That realization should make one humble and grateful, not boastful or arrogant.Yet, many of us carry on today as if America’s exceptionalism is all about us, that the country’s exceptionalism has somehow been transferred to our DNA — that we’re big man on campus and always will be, ’cause, hey, we’re Americans! Rules that apply to ordinary people don’t apply to us.Were that the case, perhaps we could carry on any old way and remain an exceptional nation. We could eat and drink to excess, growing to obscene and unworkable sizes; we could eschew commitments and marriage and cause handfuls of babies, maybe each born of different one-night vessels of self-gratification; and best of all, we could wallow in sloth and consume other nation’s goods and services, using money borrowed from future generations to do it all.And when we get in a pinch, we could simply take from productive people and give it to others, without regard for how hard one party or the other works or how responsible one party or the other is.Clearly, of course, we are doing all these things and more that only destroy the exceptionalism that was handed to us. To our unending shame.In New York state, leaders can’t agree on a budget, and Gov. David Paterson is predicting “unimaginable chaos around the state and the greater metropolitan area” if a government shutdown is necessary.In Washington, as our debt climbs above $13 trillion, Congress isn’t even going to write a budget. It’s that bad.You have to ask: Is America still exceptional? And if it is, how long can it remain so, while current generations ignore the principles that got us here and carry on as if there’s no tomorrow?