Spectators help raise a 36-foot American Flag during the Fourth at the Fort event at the Fort Pitt Museum, Monday July 4, 2022, in Pittsburgh. Credit: Matt Freed

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Recent signs that an era of intolerance may be coming prompts some thoughts on democracy and what makes America great.

The phrase ” American exceptionalism” is often used to mean that we as a people are inherently different, better, more deserving than “others,” uniquely blessed by God, or having greater wealth or power.

There is another understanding of exceptionalism that comes from Thomas Jefferson’s proposition in the Declaration of Independence, reaffirmed in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, that all men are created equal — all human beings have inherent worth and are deserving of respect and opportunity.

This proposition is the foundation of democracy. It is also exceptionally demanding. It requires tolerance of people whose appearance or habits or views make us uncomfortable. It requires recognizing and accepting that our own pursuit of happiness may be different from that of others. It requires opening ourselves enough to see and hear those we view as “other,” recognizing how we are like them as well as how we differ.

What’s exceptional about America isn’t that we’re more blessed, rich or powerful than others. What’s exceptional is that we sometimes take our nation’s founding proposition as a guiding light, letting it prompt us to be the best persons we can be, practicing openness, humility, tolerance, generosity and compassion. As has been true throughout our history, we are challenged today to do the exceptional, to rise above intolerance and practice the virtues that make democracy’s founding proposition a reality.

Stephen McKay