SALT LAKE CITY - “American exceptionalism” is a school of thought among historians that this nation is qualitatively different from all other nations. “America marches to a different drummer,” one Scottish political scientist summarized the doctrine. “Its uniqueness is explained by any or all of a variety of reasons: history, size, geography, political institutions, and culture. Explanations of the growth of government in Europe are not expected to fit American experience, and vice versa."
I believe that American exceptionalism is real. But I also believe that there exists a sort of “Utah exceptionalism.” What is it that makes Utah unique and different, and what might that mean for the rest of the country?
In a wonderful monograph entitled “Exceptional Utah,” published a year and a half ago by the Sutherland Institute, author Paul Mero makes the point, in the subtitle, that Utah is “Leading America in Faith, Family and Freedom.” Mero, the president of the public policy think tank, also shows how these Utah values positively impact the quality of life for all of the state’s citizens.
“Utah exceptionalism is not about what Utah has. It’s about what Utahns give,” writes Mero. “It’s not about what Utahns acquire. It’s about what we sacrifice (and why). Sacrifice is the basis of Utah exceptionism. And it is exceptional not only in modern America, but throughout the modern world
“Our culture of sacrifice permeates these three pillars of life [faith, family and freedom]. It is revealed in our charitable service and giving, in our family structures and intergenerational bonds and in how we understand freedom as an ideal.”
The statistics on how faith is manifest through service and charity are impressive. The volunteer rate in Utah is 44.2 percent, versus second-best Iowa with 37.8 percent, and worst New York with 19 percent. In annual volunteer hours per capita, Utah clocked 87 hours, versus second-place Alaska at 59 hours, and lowest New Jersey at 24 hours. In charitable giving, Americans give an average of 4.7 percent of discretionary income to charity; Utah’s percentage on average is 10.6 percent.
What do these numbers add up to in real life? Frequently they speak to a level of close connectedness that comes from serving and being served by our physical neighbors. Like Mero, I’ve lived most of my life in Virginia and Illinois. There are pluses and minuses to living in every state. But in those states, my relationship to my neighbors was different. I didn’t see them on Sundays and I didn’t know them as a well as I know those with whom I attend religious services. This changes even simple acts, like a walk around the neighborhood.
In regard to family, Utah also does exceptionally well. It has the lowest abortion rate, the lowest percentage of cohabiting households and the lowest percentage of unwed births. It has the second-highest family size in the nation (Hawaii is first), and the 11th lowest percentage of children living in poverty. For the second time in two years, the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley recently ranked Salt Lake City first in promoting absolute economic mobility for lower-income children among the nation’s 100 largest cities.
Utah’s dense networks of kinship have some startlingly practical benefits from a research point of view. Dr. Vivian Lee, dean of the University of Utah School of Medicine and CEO of University of Utah Health Care of the University of Utah, recently explained how strong family linkages within the population, plus a cultural commitment to genealogical research, allowed the Utah Population Database Shared Resource to identify genetically based risk factors for breast cancer, colon cancer and melanoma.
So what do strong faith traditions and extensive nuclear and extended families have to do with freedom? This, in essence, is the true point of Mero’s essay: Freedom must be distinguished from its frequent synonym, liberty. To its staunchest advocates, liberty is both a means and an end. But freedom’s end is human happiness.
On this view, an unchecked libertarianism – insisting that casinos be legalized and unregulated on the theory that an adult has the right to lose his or her wages through gambling, for example – errs in neglecting to account for the societal costs of licentious behavior.
“If our goal is happiness in a free society, we need all of the elements to be healthy and vibrant – stable and autonomous families, effective religion, a pervasive culture of charity, pristine private property protections, truly free markets, an unwavering commitment to personal responsibility and governments that reinforce and sustain each of those elements through our laws,” he writes.
The story of freedom is about discovering and cultivating the better angels of our nature. Our nation readily accepts the principle of sacrifice in the defense of our freedoms. That is something that our armed forces do every day. So why can we not see how central sacrifice is to our existence, as a people and as a nation? Utah is exceptional. But it is exceptional in same way that America itself remains a blessed and promised land. Let us work to convince our countrymen about how central faith, family and freedom are to preserving a cherished American exceptionalism.
Drew Clark is opinion editor of the Deseret News. His email address is [email protected].