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.
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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.
The only religions I like are Rastafarians and Polygamist Mormons. If I could be a rastarfarian and have a few wives I would join that church tomorrow.
The FSM forgives your heresy.
I promise I wouldnt drink or smoke tobacco.
This is unbelievable! That people buy into this tale is truly amazing. What incredible egos we have here in America to think we are the chosen ones. I'd guess that the billions of "other" human beings on the planet might beg to differ. This is why religion is so harmful to the betterment of the human race. It is divisive and based on stories that cannot be proven.
many things being said this morning on here would warrent a punch in the mouth in real life. I guess we live in a country of cowards.
You mean the type of coward that threatens to punch people in the mouth on an anonymous blog?
I didn't threaten anyone and I never would. I just stated a fact, not an opinion.
Hey Karl, I think that coward aN just backed down. haha
A punch in the mouth is the absolute opposite of exceptionalism. Violent hissyfits are not "god's will" or the American way. People who talk like you do are causing America to become a third world country over night with dumbed down views of complex realities.
You also can't tell the difference between a fact and opinion. Apparently you think "opinion" is "what the other guy says", while "fact" is "what I say". Doesn't work that way in real life, my friend.
It's nonsense. If it were true, America's army would be alone defending the free world. And America, tiny in size and population, would be the richest country in the world by a considerable margin. And the rest of the world would be doing anything to get here. Like China and North Korea.
what's wrong with your budget for such a tiny population? some fraction obviously breed their brain out to ruin your budget
You just go right along deluding yourself that America's military is "defending" anything other than obscene profits for the military-industrial complex. George Washington had it right when he called it the Department of War and downsized it after the Revolution. Since the Madison Avenue PR guys came along and relabeled it the Department of DEFENSE there's bee no slaking their appet¡te, until now the Pentagon spends more money than every other military on the planet COMBINED.
Way to hide behind the internet everyone. Now children, you really shouldn't spit on each other. Oh yes, I almost forgot.. being clever doesn't mean that your especially intelligent. It just means you really haven't grown up.
Jesus? we killed 80 million 200 years ago, not much memory, we do not talk about that every 3 days in CNN. The point is to kill right ones.
your hidden as much as anyone. Hypocrite.
Actually, that's my initials and last name. Feel free to look me up ;-)... and oh yes, 2+2 = 4.
Mike James Kirkland, I heard your record from the 70s on youtube. Very classy. haha
Oh, I refined my search to "m j kirkland 2+2=4". Sorry to hear about your death in 1956.
Take everybody's 401-K and put it on one giant fund to bail out the union pensions.
Support the Service Employees International Union.
Because the rich aren't paying their fair share.
just goes to show, how TOTALLY EVIL THE Ttards are. When a Govenor of a state WILLFULLY REFUSES FREE MEDICAL INSURANCE FOR THE POOR, that can ONLY BE VIEWED AS MEAN – MEAN – MEAN – AND EVIL. Since the Federal Government will pay for this health insurance FULLY , WHY CAUSE THE POOR TO SUFFER?..................Just WAIT Ttards, when THIS TRUTH IS BROADCAST TO THE INDEPENDENT VOTERS OF YOUR STATES...............YOU WILL BE VOTED OUT ON YOUR EAR.
Put those who resist in jail.
On your ear? That might hurt.
fully paid for .. pffft.. where do you think that money comes from? the tooth fairy..
Oh.ya. the gov printing presses.. Bet they're being prepped right now .. they will printing so much flipping money at full steam it won't be funny.
only Americans could be so delusional as to think GOD chose them to lead the world. How ridiculous is that ? And where do we rank worldwide on the education scale? Make me laugh.....this is such outdated conservative philosophy that the thought truly borders on simple stupidity.
Oh yes, play that game. Enlighten us!
actually many countries in the past, and even the present believe they are by divine right ment to lead the world. And they are all backed up by their religions.
and Spain...England...Germany....Portugal...France...Belgium...Sweden...Denmark...Holy Roman Empire...Poland...sorry the list is too long
A quick trip through the posts herein reveal that many view the United States in a negative light, some are violently disproving while many others are merely cranky an out of sorts. In spite of all that this country has done 'wrongly' and despite the pain and travail this nation has visited upon others, individually and collectively, I think that at this point in history it is safe to recognize that America and her citizenry have been, in the main, a force for good and all humankind id better for that.
America is her people and all people are not kind, good, truthful or benevolent in their thoughts or actions. Thus, given the rather messy political system under which we labor, mistakes have been made. But likewise because of that same system, we have more often than not rectified the errors of the past, recompensed those that we have harmed and more than any other nation before us, quietly and with little fanfare, offered our blood and treasure to those in need.
That we have yet to craft the 'perfect society' is not from lack off effort but rather because of the basic impossibility of the task. Whether or not you believe in God, manifest destiny or the American Dream, I defy anyone to honestly say that there is another nation on earth in which they would willingly go to live the balance of their life.
I live in this great nation because my great-grandmother left Wales at the age of thirteen, emigrating to Canada by herself because, as she said, "I did not wish to see any more of my men die in the mines." Three years later, she and her husband, also a Welsh emigrant, moved to Deadwood in the Dakota Territories and began a new family of Americans. That was and is the great promise of America.
.....send my SSI and 401K to........CANADA............THEY VALUE THEIR CITIZENS................
and meanwhile, the mines have all closed in Wales, there are no more men dying underground and once again the valleys are green. When your ancestors emigrated the times were quite different and America was still on the upswing. Today, America has seen her best days and we are looking forward to generations of illiterate, disfunctional individuals who have nothing to contribute to society or their own lives other than take up space.
To karina–Pack your bags and leave. Perish the thought that you might continue to live is such a dysfunctional country.
Most Americans are nothing but fat, lazy, illiterate self-indulgent slobs and their children are fat spoiled brats. America chosen by God – I think NOT.
The rich must pay for their sins.
Obama2016: Hitler also blamed the wealthy (mainly jews)
and which category does that put you in?
realy? most americans are illiterate and selfish? then what does that make you? u must be more then just ignorant.
you said it....many think it.....
it used to be exceptional.. but now its not even mediocre... the gov has thrown the baby out with the bathwater... it doen't mean anything anymore..
Thanks for nothin. since that's what you have to do anymore.. nothing.
The greatest irony in our culture today is the self described 'Intellectual.' The fact that we continue to survive with these egotistic, narcissistic, and frankly stupid people is truly what makes America exceptional.
You are free to be anything you want in the USA. Rich poor gay straight religious or not. I dont have a problem with any of those types of people. I do have a problem with the people who want to take away that freedom.
The Obama administration has continued to push God out of America and allow the persecution of Christians who are following their conscience (with the recent healthcare mandate which requires taxpayers to pay for other people's abortions and other immoral things), to Obama's excessive support of Planned Parenthood (which makes 90% of its profits from abortion–this is on public record, so look it up) and on pushing gay marriage (as the norm) which has caused Christians to lose their jobs (because they would not cooperate in sponsoring or assisting a gay marriage ceremony).
I will not vote for Obama no matter how great his speeches. I do agree with many fiscal ideas of Democrats, but I feel that one must do the right thing morally (and allow religious freedom in this country too). Obama's administration is taking away the rights of Christians.
You're right. Christians are under tremendous oppression in this country, with the government screwing them at every turn. That's why, in the last 20 years alone, their percentage of the population has declined ALL THE WAY from 86% to 84%. P00R, persecuted, oppressed babies.
Fight the man, Mei! They're lulling you into a sense of false security with those tax exemptions. Don't take their bribes. Insist that your church pay its fair share so they're not beholden to The Man. (You know which man I'm talking about, don't you? The extra-tan Christian-hater that ends every speech with "God bless America"?)
Try reading the other articles on CNN today –
Jesus was the first universal healthcare provider.
And, just because someone's rights are preserved doesn't necessarily mean someone else's rights are violated. Well, maybe the rights to be bigoted and prejudiced.
97% of Planned Parenthood's services are health related preventative- as in PAP smears.
ObamaCare, or RomBamaCare), only requires you to pay a tax if you have no health insurance and are leaching off everyone else. Are you a freeloader?
Nobody is trying to make gay marriage the "norm." Just accepted for what it is- two gay people who love each other to commit to each other for life.
A nobody is persecuting Christians. Paranoid much?
Maybe the 'Big Guy' 'chose' the US at one time & if he did, he's probably pulling his hair out right about now, LOL The US is turning into exactly what we were trying to prevent – A Fascist State – Sieg Heil ! ! !
From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.
It made sense then. It makes sense now. It will make sense tomorrow.
My favorite example of this was the Great Leap Forward when 40 million people where starved in China.
That's a lie! 40 million people didn't starve. They ate well. Mao was a hero who saved lives.
On the other hand, the Founding Fathers were all slave owners.
In your case, "exceptionalism" means "exceptionally stupid."
America needs a visionary like Chairman Mao.
Because the rich suck.
I would like to echo the comment "exceptionally stupid.". This one's a live one.
Obamatil2016, you sir or madame are a complete idiot. Your musings are straight from a person who is undoubtedly very unhappy with this great country. In this instance I recommend you immigrating to a country that stands for your idiotic beliefs and rantings. That said, this country was founded with the belief that all people have the right to practice their religious beliefs and live the life they choose to live, free from persecution. The founding fathers and citizenry fought tooth and nail, spilled their blood and many gave the ultimate sacrifice to give us the right to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to bear arms and the freedom from persecution. We are losing piece by piece these freedoms, and I sincerely pray to God that he allows the good citizens of this country to realize that we are on the road to ruination if we continue down this path that is currently stripping us of our right to keep God first in directing the leadership of this great country.
I to find America exceptional. I also fond it degrading in education, science, manufacturing compared to the 50s. More and more young people are using drugs or abusing prescribed drugs. Less and less people are graduating college (in the 50s blacks and other minorities didn't really go to colleges) and today it seems they font even want to. Atheist protest the bible and God which has changed America for the worse. Students ago praying in school and the crime rare for a up. Parents are no longer to discipline their kids and more people are in the judicial system than any other time in history. Or an any other country. America is not exceptional because the majority of pepper don't believe its worth the fight
America's ultimate downfall will be caused by the continued belief that Exceptionalism and Christianity are related!
The free market economy must end. The only true freedom is socialism. Rich people don't pay their fair share.
And Ronald Reagan was the devil.
Whether God chose America to be exceptional is not really the point. The point is that if the America doesn't take the lead, SOMEONE ELSE WILL. And do you really think this "someone else" will be as benevolent (or less malevolent), as America?
It would depend on who took the lead. It could be an improvement.
It could be worse but...it would take an exceptional country to be worse.
You say "Whether God chose America", But for many Americans, the question is who's god, and for many more, the question is totally moot, seeing how there is no god. When one religion controls America, it will no long be America.
Let me try living under Swedish hegemony for a decade and I'll get back to you on that.
In this day and age some still believe in the supernatural. When will people come to terms with reality? We can't progress as a species or even hope to survive without a concrete knowledge of our planet and the dynamics of our solar system and galaxy. Relying on faith is a huge step backwards.
Granted that faith is profoundly stupid, but we don't need ALL of us to be geniuses for the human race to advance. All we need is one genius at a time. The rest of us can learn from what they do.
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.