American exceptionalism is currently at the heart of a great debate over the country’s future and, according to one presidential hopeful at least, will be “one of the two or three deciding issues in 2012.” USA Today devoted its cover story yesterday to the storm of controversy that President Obama’s off-the-cuff remarks on the subject in Strasbourg last year continue to generate. According to a Gallup poll commissioned by USA Today for the story, three quarters of Americans fear that the country is at risk of losing its unique character.

Though the phrase “American exceptionalism” does get tossed around a lot, confusion reigns over its actual meaning. Before deciding whether American exceptionalism is a good or bad thing, whether it’s threatened or not and whether the President actually embraces it, shouldn’t we first figure out what it actually means?

Does it mean, as the USA Today/Gallup poll asked, that America “has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world?” Or does it only indicate that “America has a special place and role in the world,” as Mitt Romney writes in No Apology: The Case for American Greatness?

Is it nothing more than a fancy way to speak of patriotism, as President Obama’s remarks in Strasbourg suggest, suspecting as he does that all people believe in the exceptionalism of their country? Or is it in fact a form of jingoism, anchored in what The Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart calls “the lunatic notion that America is the only truly free and successful country in the world” and what Politico’s Michael Kinsley dismisses as the “theory that Americans are better than everybody else”?

Let’s start with what everyone can agree about: America does stand out from other countries—in particular other Western countries—on a wide array of measures. America’s economic might and military capabilities are unrivaled. Americans also give more to charity than anyone else and vote more frequently than anyone else (there are, after all, more offices open to election than anywhere else in the world). Comparative surveys also reveal that Americans are more religious than citizens of other advanced democracies. They also have more faith than anyone else in the the power of individuals to shape their own lives through hard work.

Since the numbers don’t lie, what’s all the big fuss about then? America’s number one in philanthropy, but Japan has the longest life expectancy and Luxembourg the highest per capita GDP.  Aren’t we all statistically exceptional in one way or another?

To really understand what sets America apart, we need to go beyond numbers to examine the heart and soul of the nation: the ideas of the Declaration of Independence. Unlike other nations that derive their meaning and purpose from some unifying quality—an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history, an ancestral land—America is a country dedicated to to the universal ideas of equality and liberty. The truths we hold to be self-evident apply to all men—not just all Americans.

As G.K. Chesteron noted: “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” As such, there is an American Dream—but no French, Greek or Australian Dreams.

In the most fundamental sense, America is an exceptional nation not because of what it does—but because of what it believes.

This understanding of American exceptionalism in no way implies that America has not often fallen short of—and at times even betrayed—these ideals. Nor does it imply that Americans are better than everyone else and are therefore somehow exempt from whatever rules may apply to others. As to whether it makes America “the greatest country in the world,” as the USA Today/Gallup poll asked, that depends on how you define greatness and is really a separate question altogether.

American’s dedication to the permanent truths expressed in the Declaration of Independence does however mean that it has a special role to play in the world. America has a responsibility to uphold freedom and the cause of liberty both at home and abroad.

America then, really is different. Not just in the way that all countries are different, Mr. President, but different in a different sort of way, so to speak. Exceptionally different, shall we say?