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.
Photos: Faces of citizenship
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.
My Faith: Why I don’t sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’
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.
Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter
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.
In the past, we were able to be exceptional by exploiting fertile land, slaves, vast and accessible natural resources, the innovation of droves of immigrants, and finally a huge manufacturing base and technological lead over the rest of the world. We depleted all those and finally surrendered that last one by refusing to fund innovation and infrastructure to protect the entrenched corporate status quo. The future looks dim to me.
America is and always will be great and exceptional, because of the multiculturism that helped make our Country that way.
What a crock that obama is involved in this belief. Selfish, arrogance and a socialist mind set is NOT one of America's priorities. Republicans as most true Americans do not want us down a zillion dollar hole we can never dig our selves out of.
Republicans are vehemently against multiculturalism, you dolt. You are a closet liberal if you believe it made America great.
This idea is what fueled the accepted genocide of a whole people of the North American continent. There is no innocence in the history of manifest destiny. The idea that one race or ethnic group is chosen by a god to conquer another group of people is simply created out of ignorance.
I guess all the furious liberals on here forgot to click the last item in the slideshow
most conservatives usually don't read to the last page.
Prayer changes things .
Only in your head loser, lol
TMR boy never says anything original, just pastes in the only 3 words he knows every couple of pages.
And GOD said 'There shalleth be this invention called the Internet. I hereby commandeth thee to troll it for months on end. Only thy trolling shall allow people to believe."
You've clearly lost your mind.
Nothing fails like prayer.
Yeah thats right, the small pox blankets, the raping and enslaving of the natives (why do you think half the whites in the good ol USE are part Native?), the utter contempt the 'americans' had for anyone who wasnt them, that's all good stuff aint it. GOD tells you to kill and you got no problem with it, even though its one of your commandments. This is why I want to get the F out of this country, and if any of you have the money to send me I'd glady take it. One less Social Security draw to worry about. I stopped celebrating Thanksgiving in my teens and Columbus day before I was 11 because I read enough to find out what really happened. You are all living in a hell created by the 'leaders' of this country especially for us. The president is a figurehead, does what he is told by the behind the scenes people. GET YOU HEADS OUT OF THE SAND.
Another one that has clearly lost his mind. Enjoy that 'other' place that is so much better. If we had our supreme dictatorship way, the world would be free of war and productive for all peoples. It's all those other countries and their viewpoints of how women should be treated, and how religion should rule people, etc. that gets in the way of peace. I hope you can find a way out of this promised land and be pathetic somewhere else. I can't wait to hear the excuse you make for your miserable life then. Lol
America truly is exceptional ... it is home to the world's most uninformed electorate.
Look who they elected last time.
Oh how fun it is to read the crazys. ;-). Have a good day everyone, and when you find some time take a chill-pill or drink a beer. America isn't going anywhere, for good or ill.
WHY AREN'T YOU FREAKING OUT!? FREAKING OUT IS THE ONLY SOLUTION
Yeah. It's all good. Our infrastructure is crumbling, our education system is falling apart and the middle class is failing, but as long as you can pretend that the U.S. is still number one, even as the rest of the world catches up (and surpasses, in some areas) it's cool.
Breath in. Breath out. Wax on. Wax off...
We will see this November if American Exceptionalism has any merit. President Obama has done just about everything you could do to thwart that concept. An exceptional America will throw him so far out of office he'll never come back, if not, then we are just one more bunch of sheep having been beaten down by an opressive government. Not exceptional but mediocre at best.
Funny. President Obama inherited an economy in free-fall, yet managed to keep it from crashing. I'd say that's pretty exceptional. And the promise to capture or kill Osama bin Laden was fulfilled on his watch. Not bad work. He endeavored to create an atmosphere of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans, but sadly that was impossible due to the divisive atmosphere created by the Rovian politics the Republican party embraces (to the detriment of our country). He's had to deal with the outright lies about his citizenship, and about his religion.
President Obama is certainly not perfect, but he has done nothing to earn the scorn of Americans, In fact, he has done much to earn the admiration of people who are willing to be honest about the subject.
What a load of crap.
creepy. Humans with over-sized egos and delusions of grandeur. America is simply the wild eyed child that was allowed to go out into the woods alone and do whatever it wanted. When the child grows up, will it have learned anything? or will it be full of itself and its pride for appearing so self reliant? ego
"The United States has been, and always will be the one indispensable nation in the world affairs. It's why America is Exceptional."
~ Barack Obama 5/23/2012
awesome. where do the funds come from? in the past we killed 80 million people in this land for such great accomplishment.
Yes we can!
America was a beautiful back in the days. Now it is a country falling apart by the day! The government is not for the people rather for themselves(elite). God will surely help us all. Our enemy is not America or Israel or Saudi Arabia. Our enemy is satanic forces and by God satan will be defeated soon
And the sooner we can stop believing in these imaginary friends, the sooner we can start to tackle actual problems.
Ok Ben....you're sounding a little bit like you've missed out on your meds. I'm not trying to be mean here, but seriously, do you really talk that way to your friends and family? If you do, you probably might find that most people recognize that this country was set up with the idea of The Separation of Church and State. God and Satan have nothing to do with this country. The problems in this country have been here all along...there are just more people now, so it's more evident. Stop blaming Satan. Who is this guy anyhow? Why does Satan get blamed for everything when nobody has even seen the poor git? Oh, nobody has ever seen God either and he gets all the credit for good things....LOL.
This just in. God officially declares victory. Satan defeated. War's over. Back to civilian life, and thanks for tuning in.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled program, already in progress.
Well the idea certainly hasn't been helping us the past few decades. I believe things are as bad as they are because we've done nothing but pound our chest, screaming greatness... all the while we start to lag behind in education, and in manufacturing. Most free country in the world? Give me a break, we lost that a long time ago, and we even have the largest incarceration rate in the world(I guess we still are #1 in a way). Public infrastructure? Not as important as military power. Middle class wages have been going down for decades, and politicians have convinced people that raising taxes on the middle class is a necessary, but raising them on the rich is "class warfare". Jobs? Well yours is gone because someone half the world away will do it cheaper, and it was allowed to happen because any criticism was met with "Hey! Don't hate on America! We're the best! Be glad you live here and shut up".
All the while that was happening, people walked around with their head held high thinking it doesn't get any better. If you can't admit you have a problem, you can't fix it, and thinking we're the best even though evidence will show otherwise has brought us to where we are. The worst part is, politicians have gotten us to believe that all of our problems are the direct result of the previous administration. This downfall has been happening for decades, Bush, Obama, they're just links in the chain.
How you got your religion: Mommy and daddy told you it again and again and again until you believed it. The people at that church they kept dragging you to said it too, again and again and again. And so you believed.
And everything that seemed like "evidence" after that was you using your imagination to interpret coincidence as God. But it was just coincidence.
Lack of a belief in an eternal God is the sign of the lack of education in the matter of the creation. Random choice of dna is 10 to the 150th power. That is .150 zeros. In every civilization of any kind of human beings there has been an innate neccessity to worship. Secular evidence of Jesus Christ is over whelming. The Bible explained many scientific things long before scientist discovered them. Study the big bang theory. The Bible tells what God did, not how he did it.
In this country most liberal socialist atheists never contribute to charity and came from white rich parents and so deal with guilt and mommy and daddy issues and want to redistribute others money thru the government because they themselves would rather yell about social injustice rather then actually do something themselves like volunteer or find a good charity
Punctuation is your friend.
"Let's eat Grandma!"
"Let's eat, Grandma!"
Tom – I don't give two sh–ts about proper punctuation on an internet forum
So what you are trying to say Matt, is that you don't want to pay taxes, and that you are only concerned with your own needs. In order to deflect attention from your personal greed, you scapegoat people who don't believe in your particular god. This is not surprising behavior from a christian; your entire belief system is based on letting someone else be responsible for your actions.
Matt and Paulie – two names, one very dim troll
What is really interesting about the studies that look at donations and faith/political ideology is that if you eliminate donations to churches that people attend (most of which is used to maintain the church and does not go to the needy) those 'liberal socialist atheists' are the largest donors.
The liberals, socialists and atheists that I know are the most kind and compassionate people you'd ever meet.
It is the right-wing idealogues and evangelical fanatics that are the most selfish and greedy.
Well said, Scoobypoo
Why Matt, we didn't know you were a liberal, socialist atheist. You must be to know so much about them! Good for you for pointing out all your faults!
And that's why your post doesn't make any sense.
American exceptionalism is an absurdity if it's based on the idea of "choseness." Most Americans believe in this false ideal of "choseness." American exceptionalism, the ideal of justice and equality, has evolved into this sinister sort of jingoism of exploitation and war mongering.
First, if these people actually read the Bible, the entire OT is the story of Israel and does not apply to other nations or times. It is not for application on how to run a country. It was to set up a land area and people dedicated to God where the Temple was to reside. Out of this people would come the Savior.
Second, if they insist it does, then instead of picking out the parts to annihilate people, read the part where 2 things from God continually led to their punishment-idol worship (which included throwing live children into fire), and oppressing the poor and aliens in their land.
Third the NT talks about the approach to nonbelievers. It is love and not worrying about their sin, but being focused on personal righteousness. 1cor 5.
God hears the cries of the oppressed, both believers and non believers. If we don't hear them, He will take care of it and we generally will not like it. His patience does not mean our time limit to do what is right is without limit.
How tasteful to have the painting "Manifest Destiny" as the CNN cover image on Canada Day – someone at CNN must have their head shoved really far up their rear this time....
America does not concern itself with third world nations
Hey! Captain america changed his name to "sh it", but kept the same old pig-tail pulling crush on all things Canada. Don't worry, James. He's just trying to say that he likes you.
America and it's exceptionalism would be a great discussion at an ethics class.
America can be great, but is not exceptional. It's that line of thinking that gets us in to trouble with other countries. If the Republican party would get out of the way and stop being obstructionists, we can ge great once again. I'm thankful every day that we have the intelligent and courageous President we 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.