How American Exceptionalism Works

By: Dave Roos

America Exceptionalism at Work

America is undeniably exceptional is several ways when compared to other wealthy, industrialized nations.

For starters, Americans are far more religious. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 54 percent of Americans say that religion is "very important" in their lives. Compare that to other countries of similar wealth and demographics like Canada, where only 24 percent of people agree that religion is very important, or Australia and Germany, both at 21 percent [source: Gao].


In fact, Americans have much more in common with citizens of poorer countries when it comes to religious conviction. For example, high percentages of people in poor countries like Indonesia and Ghana say that belief in God is essential for living a moral life, while most North Americans and Europeans believe the opposite, that it's possible to be a good person without faith in God. America is very much the exception among Western countries, with 53 percent insisting that God is necessary for moral living [source: Pew].

There also seems to be a correlation between America's exceptional religious faith and its ardent optimism. Again, citizens of poorer and more religious nations are much more likely to say, for example, that today is a "particularly good day." In Nigeria and Colombia, nearly 60 percent of people have a highly positive view of their day, while wealthy but largely secular Germany sits at 21 percent and Japan a dismal 8 percent. The U.S. rides both its religiosity and its wealth for a whopping 41 percent of people with a positive outlook [source: Gao].

America's wealth is exceptional by another less positive metric — inequality. More than 41 percent of the entire world's personal wealth is owned by Americans, but America ranks at the bottom when it comes to spreading those riches around [source: Sherman]. The richest 1 percent of American households, for example, controls nearly 39 percent of the nation's total wealth, while the "bottom" 90 percent holds only 22 percent of the total [source: Egan]. While America leads the pack in inequality, it's closely followed by Sweden, the U.K. and Indonesia [source: Sherman].

Then, there's America's love affair with guns. The Second Amendment protects every American's right to "keep and bear arms" and boy do they ever! Americans own an estimated 265 million to 310 million firearms, nearly enough for every man, woman and child in the country to pack some heat [source: Kertscher]. Sadly, gun homicides are 25 times higher in the U.S. than other wealthy countries [source: Fox].

Finally, there are policies that are enshrined in laws in the rest of the world that are non-existent in the U.S. The U.S. is one of a handful of countries that does not mandate paid maternity leave, and the others in this category are small developing nations. Of course, many U.S. companies offer this benefit to their employees, but they don't have to, unless they live in one of the few states that have mandated some type of paid maternity benefit.

Why is America so different from other countries? You have to go back to the birth of the nation.