This is the first in a series exploring the concept of American exceptionalism. On Monday, we examine areas in which other countries lead the way.
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) – It’s safe to say the first European arrivals to New England wouldn’t recognize today’s debate over whether America is exceptional.
Though the United States wouldn’t be born for another century and a half, the Puritans arriving in the early 1600s on the shores of what would become Massachusetts firmly believed they were on a mission from God.
In other words, they had the exceptional part down pat.
Fleeing what they saw as the earthly and corrupt Church of England, the Puritans fancied themselves the world’s last, best hope for purifying Christianity - and for saving the world.
The Puritans never used the word “exceptionalism.” But they came to see Boston as the new Jerusalem, a divinely ordained “city upon a hill,” a phrase Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop used in a sermon at sea en route from England in 1630.
“They were reinterpreting themselves as God’s new Israel,” Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero said. “They were essentially playing out the biblical story.”
To modern ears, that literal exceptionalist thinking could sound at once both exotic and quaint, which makes the idea’s staying power and influence throughout American history all the more remarkable.
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Nearly four centuries after Winthrop uttered the words “city on a hill,” President Barack Obama finds himself responding to charges from Republican challenger Mitt Romney that he has insufficient faith in American exceptionalism.
“Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do,” Romney said at a campaign stop this year. “You have an opportunity to vote and take the next step in bringing back that special nature of being American.”
Obama has pushed back on that claim, saying in a recent speech that “the character of our country … has always made us exceptional.”
Though the particulars surrounding the idea have changed, the bedrock belief that America is exceptional when measured against the arc of history and against all other nations has helped forge the nation’s defining moments, from the American Revolution and the country’s dramatic expansion west to the Civil War and both World Wars.
More recently, arguments about American exceptionalism have helped elect and unseat presidents – and have fed a debate about whether the phrase still has any meaning.
'An asylum for mankind'
For New England’s Puritans, exceptionalism was a religious idea with big political repercussions.
They thought the Protestant Reformation, which had been set into motion a century before, hadn’t gone nearly far enough in rooting out the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.
Puritans saw the pomp and hierarchy of the Protestant Church of England as too much like another papacy.
My Take: How I constructed 'The American Bible'
In New England, Winthrop and his fellow travelers established a theocracy that they hoped would be a model for English Christianity.
“They had to succeed to bring about this promised apocalyptic history that would culminate in the second coming of Christ, hopefully to New England,” said Deborah Madsen, an American studies professor at the University of Geneva.
“To fail would be to fail the world on this grand, transcendent scale,” said Madsen, who has studied the idea of American exceptionalism throughout U.S. history.
With the stakes thought to be so high, there was intense social pressure among Puritans to adhere to a strict moral code.
Everyone looked for signs that they were among the elect destined for heaven and kept a watchful eye out for neighbors who might be backsliding. The starkest example: the Salem witch trials of 1692, in which 19 people were hanged in Massachusetts for allegedly practicing witchcraft.
“If the members of the community fulfilled their part in the work of sacred history, not only would the individuals find salvation, but the whole community would be saved,” Madsen said, summarizing Puritan thinking. “But if any individual failed to live up to this grand destiny, the entire community would be denied salvation.”
Being God’s chosen people, it turned out, wasn’t all roses.
America exceptional? Not by the numbers
As new arrivals and subsequent generations enlarged colonial America, the Puritans’ faith-based ideas were gradually secularized.
By 1660, it had become clear to the Massachusetts theocrats that they wouldn’t be exporting their ideas abroad anytime soon. That was the year the British monarchy was restored after a decade of rule by the Cromwells, putting an end to Puritan rule in England and re-establishing the Church of England as a political power.
And with new Enlightenment ideas making their way from Europe about a rational universe knowable through reason, the Puritans’ quest for perfect religious institutions gave way to a colonial quest for perfect political institutions.
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The democratic ideas that made up this new political exceptionalism owed plenty to Winthrop & Co.
“Puritans had mapped out the relationship between church and the community that included the seed of democratic participation,” said Madsen. “The idea was that everyone had rights but also responsibilities.
“By fulfilling their responsibilities and respecting the rights of others, they would achieve happiness through the social contract.”
That egalitarianism helped lay the groundwork for the American Revolution, though Madsen notes that “the terms of reference had changed from salvation to democracy.”
America’s revolutionaries were keenly aware that their calls for democratic government in the face of English rule were exceptional for their time.
“Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression,” Thomas Paine wrote in 1776 in “Common Sense,” which helped galvanize colonists toward the Revolutionary War.
“Freedom hath been hunted round the globe,” Paine wrote. “Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger. … O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
The Puritan vision of America as world’s godly beacon had been replaced by the image of the nation as the world’s workshop for political and social progress. America’s founders wanted to break with what they saw as the corruption of European politics and society, where a person’s status was mostly a matter of inheritance.
By contrast, the founders proposed in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
While other republics had come and gone, many of the founders who signed the Declaration - and, later, the Constitution - wanted the American Republic to endure forever.
This was city on a hill 2.0.
Reading the founders’ paeans to American exceptionalism - about aspiring to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” as the Constitution puts it - can put a lump in your throat.
But their vision excluded huge swaths of the population, like women and slaves. And other applications of the idea had their own dark sides.
Take Manifest Destiny.
As the nascent United States strove to expand westward in the 1800s, its leaders faced major problems, including how to justify taking land that belonged to Europe or that was occupied by Native Americans.
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Manifest Destiny – the idea that it was God’s will for the U.S. government to occupy North America or all of the Americas – offered a big part of the answer.
“A civilization that has the sanction of God is always the ultimate justification,” said the University of Geneva’s Madsen. “The idea was that God had made it manifest that the U.S. should expand. … It’s not much different than the idea of American exceptionalism.”
Like many facets of exceptionalism, the notion of Manifest Destiny wasn’t entirely new.
In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth of England had established herself as a divinely ordained monarch whose reign had been presaged by the Bible. That mythology, which inspired Puritan exceptionalism, had helped English plantation owners justify forays into what is now Northern Ireland.
In the same way, Manifest Destiny helped justify the United States as it laid claim to European land and forcibly removed tens of thousands of American Indians. Many asserted that the campaign was meant to civilize or Christianize the natives, making good on America’s “chosenness.”
And the American image of a continent brimming with virgin land – which denied the presence of American Indians there – synched nicely with long-held exceptionalist visions of an unspoiled and utopian New World.
“Our manifest destiny (is) to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions,” American newspaper editor John S. O’Sullivan wrote in 1845, arguing for the annexation of Texas, in what is believed to be history’s first mention of Manifest Destiny.
It’s hard to know how much America’s leaders truly believed in the idea versus how much they employed it for purely political ends. Manifest Destiny certainly had high-profile critics, including Mark Twain, who declared himself an “anti-imperialist.”
“If you’re a cynical person and you see something like the Mexican-American War as a land grab, you can say this idea of Manifest Destiny was construed to create a moral tissue for a war of aggression,” Boston University international relations professor Andrew Bacevich said.
The westward expansion was driven largely by Southerners who wanted to farm the land and expand American slavery.
But abolitionists like Frederick Douglass also appropriated American exceptionalism, arguing that the nation’s “peculiar institution” was evidence that America was falling short of its Christian mandate.
That abolitionist line foreshadowed a key argument of 20th-century liberals: If America is exceptional, it’s because of the decisions we make around justice, not because of innate “chosenness.”
By Douglass’ time, American exceptionalism was so deeply entrenched in the American psyche that it transcended religion. Abraham Lincoln, often described as a deist - believing in a distant, uninvolved God - was nonetheless a hearty exceptionalist.
“He believed that America was leading the way in history toward democracy and equality,” said Dorothy Ross, a history professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University. “At that time, Europe is still steeped in monarchs and failed revolutions, and America was still the only mass democracy in the Western world and believed that it was leading the historical way.”
Even the relatively unreligious Lincoln came to see the hand of God actively participating in American history through the Civil War.
“He gives to both North and South this terrible war,” Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, referring to God. “American slavery,” Lincoln said, was something that “He now wills to remove.”
The first president to say it
Despite its centuries-old influence, the term "American exceptionalism" didn’t emerge until sometime in the past 100 years.
Some historians say it’s unclear who coined the phrase, while others credit Joseph Stalin with doing so in 1929, when he admonished American communists for suggesting that the United States’ unique history could make it immune to Marxism.
In his reprimand, the Soviet leader decried “the heresy of American exceptionalism.”
Ironically, American intellectuals and eventually the broader public came to embrace the term, especially in the years following World War II, even after communists used the Great Depression as evidence of Stalin’s alleged "heresy.”
Just like President Woodrow Wilson had done in World War I, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman justified American involvement in World War II largely on the basis that the country had been chosen to lead and transform the world.
After the Second World War, “the United States had emerged as the strongest country,” said Johns Hopkins’ Ross. “Social scientists began studying things like national character and what makes America unique.”
American affection for the idea grew during the Cold War, as the U.S. attempted to distinguish itself from the “godless” Soviet Union.
“Our governments, in every branch ... must be as a city upon a hill,” John F. Kennedy said in a Boston speech just before his inauguration in 1961, citing John Winthrop by name.
In the ’60s and ’70s, however, American scholars and others began challenging the idea of American exceptionalism, mostly from the left and especially after the Vietnam War, which liberals criticized as a costly exercise in American hubris.
Historians began to see exceptionalism as a scholarly construct, a way of interpreting American history rather than as accepted fact.
Ronald Reagan illustrated the partisan gap around the idea, speaking of America as a “city on a hill” and attacking President Jimmy Carter for allegedly showing weakness on the world stage, including in the Iran hostage crisis.
“We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so,” Reagan told the first annual Conservative Political Action Conference in 1974. “We are today the last best hope of man on Earth.”
President George W. Bush employed similar rhetoric in his global “freedom agenda,” even after initially pledging a “humble” foreign policy.
Despite greater Republican than Democratic support for the idea (91% vs. 70%) , a 2010 Gallup poll found that 80% of Americans subscribed to the notion that the U.S. has a “unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.”
Boston University’s Prothero criticizes that definition of American exceptionalism, which he says is how most American politicians use the term today.
For John Winthrop, the shining city was an aspiration that depended on the righteous behavior of the Puritans, Prothero says, part of the social contract that laid the groundwork for democracy. Whether the city would in fact shine was an open question.
If the Puritans dealt falsely with their God, Winthrop had said in his 1630 sermon, there will be “curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”
In contemporary American politics, by contrast, Prothero says the idea of exceptionalism has been stripped of its conditionalism, becoming “a kind of brag.”
“Today, it’s ‘of course God blesses America,’ ” he said. “It’s presumptuous.”
Others have attacked the idea as little more than the kind of nationalism felt by citizens of countries all over the world.
“I believe in American exceptionalism,” President Obama said in France in 2009, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
But the president has since sounded a different tune. In his Air Force Academy commencement speech in May, Obama repeatedly expressed support for American exceptionalism.
“The United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” Obama said. “It's one of the many examples of why America is exceptional.”
In fact, Obama appears to be the first sitting president to publicly use those words, political experts say. Given their place in the modern American political lexicon, nearly 400 years after Winthrop first gave voice to the idea, he is unlikely to be the last.
America is exeptional because we have LIBERTY. No other reason.
LOL had liberty until about a week ago.
Rich people suck.
good point, Paulie. Also the Germans invented electric generator. They patented rada technology before WW 1.
Question: What is her name? Hint: She says in her heart, ‘I sit as queen, and am no widow, and will not see sorrow.’
America IS in the Bible...but by another name!
If I say it again and again, it must be true! That's how my parents brainwashed religion into me!
Mommy! Daddy! I'm being a good little Jesus boy, just like you wanted!
Christianity in the USA is not compulsory. Islam however is quite compulsory especially if your country follows Sharia law.
What's your problem with Sharia law?
You're a racist.
The only reason any country has a chance to survive is separation of church and state... Way to go, America, WAY TO GO.
Liberal communist democrats remind me of nazis. Just not in power yet.
America was originally based on slaver but oh, I forgot, the bible says slavery is ok. We stole the land from the Indians, but the bible says they're heathens so, I guess that was ok too. We stole some land from Mexico and Spain too. Yeah, we're exceptional – exceptionally arrogant bigots.
You really are brainwashed. Free your mind from liberalism and become an independent rational thinker
Obama will punish the rich for what they've done to the poor.
All rich people deserve to put in re-education camps.
Any time you want to leave for someplace else, feel free.
mat, to be rational you need to look at quality of nuts in your team. If you can not kill people in other country for your sustainability and value of dollar, time to get rid of some in this land, we did that 200 years ago, can not wait to do that again.
American exceptionalism is the theory that the United States is different from other countries in that it has a specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy. In this view, America's exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming "the first new nation," and developing a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire. This observation can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the United States as "exceptional" in 1831 and 1840. Historian Gordon Wood has argued, "Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy."
First person to actually use the phrase "American Exceptionalism"? Joseph Stalin.
Excellent point. American Exceptionalism is under attack from religious mystics and student revolutionaries, who both believe they are "saved" or superintelligent, while demanding the obedience of the public through the initiation of force.
Atheist Communist states & pagan rulers have killed more people then anyone. Mai Say Dung killed 49 million alone. Then factor in the ancient Mayans and Aztecs who sacrificied people and then the ancient Pagan romans killed probably more then anyone.
That's according to the christians, who destroyed all of those cultures, stole the land, enslaved the people and then wrote the history books.
Christians have killed their share, millions in the Crusades, thousands in the Inquisition, more in the Salem witch trials, even today, we have the "New Crusades" in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Christian" slave owners started this country and stole the land from the "heathen" Indians, they killed Indians by the thousands as well. Yep. Christians are soooo superior.
@Matt Are you saying that being atheist had anything to do with it?
You guys dont understand the basics. You see in the USA we still have freedom of religion (at least for now)!!!! In other countries you follow their religion or they decapitate you. There are no athiests in Iran.
Unfortunately, freedom of religion is threatened by dimwits like Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachman, the Tea Party and most of the so-called "Evangelical" politicians. Try saying something in public against Christianity. You'll receive death threats, have your property damaged, your kids will be bullied in school, etc. etc. etc. You think we have freedom of religion? Think again.
America is exceptional in its belief of free speech and individual rights.
It doesn't mean America will be the richest, it wont have its ups and down (down now). We will have to stick to these principles and fix the downs.
@Mrglobal when you say America is exceptional you imply "out of ordinary", "extremely uncommon"...I can name at least other 30 countries with free speech and individual rights that are on par if not better. How is that "exceptional"?
That was a very good article. I have often wondered about that concept and how it was started. I believe we have to fight just as hard today today to keep our freedoms and liberty as back then because the nature of man is greed and suppression.
God bless America and all of our brothers and sisters world wide... And I mean that as everybody!
I completely agree with the idea that America was a chosen destiny by GOD to BLESS the Nations but, if AMERICA forgets its MISSION may vanish the VISION.
America sucks. I like Europe better. We need to be more like Europe.
Europeans are cool.
America was not chosen by any god to do anything. Hopefully people keep rememberign that and dont get into the trap of a theacracyl.
GOD did not chose america or any other nationality or country, WE have identified the Isrealites and that's all. The isrealites descendents are the kind of people who listens to GOD"S, SON and do what they are told. All know the results of disobedience when it comes to GOD's SON when HIS words fall on ears that hear and still refuse to be obedient, HE brings swift judgement of HIS own to nations who do not do what they say they will do, no communications testing, nothing security wise more important than what HE says, their is nothing more important than getting HIM what belongs to HIM. Your prayers does not take presedence over HIM, the FATHER and HOLYSPIRIT acknowledges the SON's every request. So I ask them, everything that they have for me give it to me, nothing from man or woman because of your unwillingness to do the right thing and continually telling LIES, because U feel your way is best, wrong I am not some child king whom you hand out when you feel like it or what you feel like. Both the FATHER and HOLYSPIRIT are my eternal guardians and they give E. whatever E. wants without human intervention. So no thank you to anything you have to offer, this is real bad for the "americans" you can do nothing for me ever and WE mean that, know that this generation will NOT be here for eternity. ALL because of disobedience, remember, I am the only one who can go to Paradise. So there you have it there are now 2 Heavens Paradise and the Universe. Earth is Earth and that is all and those who parish going forward goes to the ground and from DUST you were created and DUST you shall return. Michelle had it correct some real bad stuff is going to happen and I will tell you this, you would rather have demons, terrorists, aliens and even collasals come against you than GOD. Now you ALL shall know what the the FATHER meant when HE said fear the lord your GOD. the egyptian curses was nothing this is a brand new thing, HE is the GOD of the NOW!
My next door neighbor is rich.
I hate him.
Prayer changes things .
Trolling does not.
Catholics should be put in concentration camps.
How is American Exceptionalism any different than telling a child that they're a special snowflake just because they exist? America is not the greatest country, but those of us who live there should be striving to *make* it a good as we can.
Without America you might live in Greece or Portugal maybe the UK. No CNN. No cell phones. No computer. No electricity...all American inventions. What else? No plastic. No television. No light bulbs. No Thomas Edison.
Why are there no 'like' buttons in the belief blogs?
Have you ever been to Portugal, Greece, or the U.K? They actually do have cell phones, computers, and electricity.
Light bulbs were invented in the U.K., computers came out of inventions in the U.K., Germany, and France, television and cell phones...OK they were mostly American inventions. Edison...a third rate hack who stole many ideas.
This is an exceptionally bad article. I've heard of giving your imaginary god credit for a lot of things but this is crazy. Making Tebow win made more sense.
It really is just sad what it has come too in this country. All these religious people can do and say what they want and push their beliefs on people and they have no proof anything they believe is true. People look to Christianity and other religions and it's sad they just can't live life if they don't believe in "God". People still talk about the holocaust till this day and about how bad it was and they have every right too with the slaughter that went on, but how is it everyone forgets about the crusades? Millions murdered because of people who were Catholics/Christians/Muslims on a mission for a man they have never seen. How do people not find that insane? Christianity and Islam and every other ancient religion has never been peaceful yet people walk around like nothing ever happened. Christianity has been violent through out a majority of it's existence and the muslims have been just as violent too. I am so sick of these people parading around like they are so much better then everyone yet they have no proof of anything they believe in other then Jesus actually existed along with Muhammad which is up for debate if they were the same person according to some. All religion is was a way to keep people in line so they live in fear but felt soothed at the same time, a way to get money from people and a way to give power to those who have a dangerous need for it. Where in the bible does it say there has to be a pope? Did you see when the pope was in mexico? That was the scariest sight I have ever seen, people flocking to this guy like he is a "God" (no pun intended) for most things that go on today if you want to say something exists or happened a certain way you need actual proof to support what you are saying. Yet for some reason over the last thousands of year people have not been required to show proof for why their religion is correct and have been able to slaughter millions with no consequences. Religion should be one of the greatest things on this planet but people have twisted it over thousands over years and changed it to what they wanted it to say and the fact people can't see that after all this time is just sad.
@Tjber89 I support 100% your point of view on religion.
@Paulie The rest of the world is not Afghanistan....there are plenty of other exceptional countries, but most Americans just think there is no place like the US. Every time you make a statement like that you just prove to the rest of the world of how little you know about this planet and how limited is your vision of life. I feel sorry for you.
.........EXCEPTIONAL??????............At 24th in EDUCATION..................Sure, exceptionally,.....STUPID...................
Why dont you move to Afghanistan or another Islamic country where young girls arent allowed to even GO to school and when they do they face the chance of coming home as body parts in a hefty bag.
Trex the only reason we don't rank higher in education is because our poor urban areas have been taught to be government dependent, thus no real effort to become education on their part. This brings the average down. And do you really think villages in 3rd world countries like India or Somalia even have any meaningful measurement?
you think you nuts are cleverer than nuts in Afghanistan? you are out of the track of evolution since 1960s "civil rights" movement. All should be eliminated by Edgar Hoover.
The rest of the world refers to 'American Exceptionalism' as 'Yankee BS propaganda'...
Without Christians and Republicans we wouldnt even HAVE a United States for you ingrates to complain about. We would be a slave owning confederacy with no civil rights or sufferage.
ooooooooooooooooh, sounds like the Ttard Heaven,.......................................................................Somalia............
trex: the people YOU voted for wanted all those things and in a way still do!
With out Christians we also wouldn't of had the crusades, remember the event when you idiots marched around slaughtering people who didn't believe in your religion when you had no proof it was factual in the first place. We would have child molesters in the churches, or a history of you taking peoples money under false pretenses, and we would of started to try and figure out science hundreds of years earlier instead of using "God" did it as the reason for everything. Use your brain although I am not sure Christians have one.
tjber: The crusades only slowed the muslim horde than is overtaking the middle east. Maybe it would have happened 1000 years sooner and you would get to press your forehead to a rug 5 times a day.
Paulie posts moronic remarks. All deities are fiction. All of them.
Meanwhile, American Exceptionalism is OVER. The Republicans shipped it overseas for a few sheckels more. Hoors.
Haha, you're a true idiot, indeed. The republican party of yesteryear was far different than it is today. Christianity has been the building block of failure since its' inception. Note the Middle Ages.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.