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Troubling Undertone in Obama’s State of the Union

President Obama gave his annual State of the Union address Tuesday evening, and it was a night with much to be thankful for.

Political leaders set aside their ideological differences and sat next to one another. There were no boos and shouting like last year.

Our elected representatives acted like the civilized adults we always knew they could be and hoped they would be. In addition, the president focused on broad ideas, speaking about needed changes in our nation in order to meet the challenges of the future that, by and large, most who were present could support.

Despite that positive aura, the underlying theme of the president’s speech troubled me. Less than five minutes into the address, I turned to my wife and remarked, “This is why people from other countries dislike us.” What elicited the comment?

The idea of American exceptionalism rooted in a belief in American superiority.

A recent EthicsDaily.com article rightly said: “As long as we demote American exceptionalism to American superiority, we may lose our devotion to the ideas that made and make us exceptional. As long as we equate American exceptionalism with being number one, we may fail to defend the things that make us exceptional: freedom of religion through separation of church and state, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and so on.”

The bulk of Obama’s speech focused on changes he believes need to be made for our country to thrive. The problem is not that Obama wants the best for the United States. The problem is not that Obama desires to see this nation prosper and thrive.

The problem is that his entire speech was couched in the language and informed by an ideology of superiority, seen clearly in his choice to frame the entire speech around the theme of “winning the future.” All of his ideas were good and addressed key issues that face our nation, such as education, environmental concerns, innovation, infrastructure. Yet the motivation for improving was to be better than the rest of the world, to be number one.

The more I listened, the more frustrated I became. And I like the president. I think he has good ideas, and I believe he has the personality and diplomatic acumen to actually work with a divided Congress to make progress in the next two years. However, I cannot comprehend why it is necessary for the United States to be number one in everything. Why must America be the best in education, the best in industry, the best in technology and so on.

To be exceptional? What is wrong with drawing on and taking advantage of the innovations and advances of other nations? Why this incessant drive to be number one?

I fear that the notion of American superiority is not only misguided but also potentially dangerous. Is the desire to be superior to all other nations a proper motivation for improving our nation? Might this desire to be number one actually compromise the ideas on which this nation was founded and which make this nation unique?

Might the continuation and resurgence of haughty attitudes toward other nations make it more difficult for world leaders to find a way to work together toward a more just, peaceful, prosperous, equitable, enduring world for all?

What might be possible if we sought to stand and work alongside our fellow inhabitants of this wonderful world instead of in front of and ahead of them? What good might come if we gave up the attitude of supremacy and sought the cooperation of all the world’s nations? What hopeful future might be possible if we gave up the rhetoric of superiority and sought the good, prosperity, hope and future of all peoples?

Zach Dawes and his wife, Peyton, are pastors of First Baptist Church in Mount Gilead, N.C. He blogs at Scribblings.