At the heart of King’s statement is not only a prejudicial mindset but also a profound pessimism about the strength of the values the congressman says he wishes to preserve. The country thrived because those values were not the preserve of a specific ethnic or religious group but could be embraced by anyone regardless of his background or faith. It is not naïve to assert that this hasn’t changed even while the skin color of immigrants is darker today than it was in the past. That is the essence of American exceptionalism. To think that only white babies can preserve this legacy is a betrayal of conservative principles that are rooted in faith in the law rather than race.
As noted, King subsequently stated that he did not think virtue depended upon blood. Nevertheless, while Tobin upholds a vision -- not the only one, obviously, -- of American exceptionalism, he rejects a vision of what could be called Islamic exceptionalism. "The fact that some immigrants or their children reject American democratic traditions or embrace violence is certainly discouraging," he writes, "just as it was a century ago when anarchists and violent leftists posed a threat that inspired the same kind of fear we experience today." In other words, Tobin rejects the idea that Islam is essentially incompatible with American values in an exceptional, unprecedented way that makes all comparisons with past nativist outburst irrelevant, arguing instead that all people who have judged any culture incompatible with American values are equally wrong. It would appear that one cannot be both an American exceptionalist and an Islamic exceptionalist in the sense I've just described, since the American exceptionalist admits no possible exception to his rule that people from any cultural background can recognize the appeal of American values and choose them over his native values. What makes America exceptional, presumably, is its uniquely universal appeal, to which no one is inherently immune. But given how many native-born Americans of ancient pioneer stock espouse values incompatible with "American" values as defined by Republicans, the confidence exceptionalists express seems somewhat misplaced.
Republican criticism of Rep. King exposes a divide within the American right on the subject of culture. King and Tobin might well agree that "multicultralism" as espoused by Democrats and people further to the left isn't good for the country, but while each man presumably champions an "American" culture, it's not clear whether they agree on what that culture is. On the right, there's been an ongoing debate between those who see the U.S. as a "propositional" nation whose "culture" is defined by its founding documents -- the Declaration, Constitution, Federalist papers, etc. -- and those who define the culture in more cultural terms, as a matter of "blood and soil" or as part of a larger, pre-existing culture to which Americans still owe loyalty and to which immigrants must assimilate more thoroughly than the "propositional" proposition may require. This debate has been obscured, to the chagrin of the exceptionalists and "propositional nation" types, by the current imperative to define American civilization negatively as not Islamic, not Hispanic or not something else. But doing that only begs the big question, even as it postpones the answer for a time. At some point, however, people will want to know just what (or who) they're defending from the irreconcilable Other. Is it a culture defined by the Republican party? By the Christian Right? By the longshots in the white nationalist movement? What makes American culture distinctive if not exceptional? It won't do to say "freedom," since just about every culture on earth espouses some vision of freedom -- even the monotheists who see obedience to scripture as freedom from enslavement to self. If it were just "freedom" then no one would dispute the "propositional nation" idea, but once we get past "freedom," once someone suggests that true citizenship means more than simply knowing you're free, it becomes less likely that everyone on the current Right will agree with any one notion of what American culture is. That doesn't mean a consensus isn't possible, but it might take more work and more debate than many people are willing to undertake just now. And that's why King's recent comments made many people uncomfortable. Whether he intended to or not, he raised questions that probably will have to be answered eventually.