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.
You are exceptional all right your the only country in the world where they teach that the Lock Ness monster is real.
Christian school in Louisiana: Loch Ness Monster exists, disproving theory of evolution
It's "you're", dumbazz. What some private Bible-banger school teaches is hardly the norm.
Embarrassing, and pitiful, for those who hold any such thoughts.
What's so funny about truth,justice, and the American way?
If you like to take your ideology from the vague simple-minded catchphrase of a fictional comic book character, hey, go for it!
That sort of shows how stupid you are ya it is fictional but there is a person writing it show their worldview,
From p. 1
Exceptional? Only because the USA is the Land of Milk, Wheat, Corn, Soy Beans, Rice, Oil, Coal, Iron, Natural Gas, Hydroelectric/Nuclear Power and Coal. (Plus, she takes in a lot of smart people like A. Einstien and E. Teller). Mix that in with the Consti-tution and Bill of Rights and top of the line military units and you have a formula for exceptional success in making a better world.
If I truly believed in American exceptionalism, (and I do, and my family and I have been to other nations and viewed/experienced the distinctive difference) I would not sit in a church for 20 years where the pastor used God's name to damn this nation.
We are at this place in time because America has drifted away from God. It does not matter what God you worship as long as you worship. America was exceptional but it has slipped into a time of evil.
We have a choice in November of saving the Free America that our forefathers gave us and our fathers and grandfathers in the military fought with their lives to preserve or we can continue on this path of decline into socialism and the erosion of liberty and freedom.
The choice is clear to me
Some elements of our War on Terror and Aggression:
-Operation Iraqi Freedom- The 24/7 Sunni-Shiite centuries-old blood feud currently being carried out in Iraq, US Troops killed in action, 3,480 and 928 in non combat roles as of 09/15/2011/, 102,522 – 112,049 Iraqi civilians killed as of 9/16/2011/, mostly due to suicide bombers, land mines and bombs of various types, http://www.iraqbodycount.org/ and http://www.defenselink.mil/news/casualty.pdf
– Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan: US troops 1,385 killed in action, 273 killed in non-combat situations as of 09/15/2011. Over 40,000 Afghan civilians killed mostly due to the dark-age, koranic-driven Taliban acts of horror,
– Sa-dd-am, his sons and major he-nchmen have been deleted. Sa-dd-am's bravado about WMD was one of his major mistakes. Kuwait was saved.
– Iran is being been contained. (beside containing the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Baghdad, that is the main reason we are in Iraq. And yes, essential oil continues to flow from the region.)
– North Korea is still u-ncivil but is contained.
– Northern Ireland is finally at peace.
– The Jews and Palestinians are being separated by walls. Hopefully the walls will follow the 1948 UN accords. Unfortunately the Annapolis Peace Conference was not successful. And unfortunately the recent events in Gaza has put this situation back to “squ-are one”. And this significant stupidity is driven by the mythical foundations of both religions!!!
– – Fa-na–tical Islam has basically been contained to the Middle East but a wall between India and Pakistan would be a plus for world peace. Ditto for a wall between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
– Timothy McVeigh was exe-cuted. Terry Nichols escaped the death penalty twice because of deadlocked juries. He was sentenced to 161 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole, and is incarcerated in ADX Florence, a super maximum security prison near Florence, Colorado. He shares a cellblock that is commonly referred to as "Bombers Row" with Ramzi Yousef and Ted Kaczynski
– Eric Ru-dolph is spending three life terms in pri-son with no par-ole.
– Jim Jones, David Koresh, Kaczynski, the "nuns" from Rwanda, and the KKK were all dealt with and either eliminated themselves or are being punished.
– Islamic Sudan, Dar-fur and So-malia are still terror hot spots.
– The terror and tor-ture of Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo and Kuwait were ended by the proper application of the military forces of the USA and her freedom-loving friends. Ra-dovan Karadzic was finally captured on 7/23/08 and is charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the law of war – charges related to the 1992-1995 civil war that followed Bosnia-Herzegovina's secession from Yugoslavia.
The capture of Ratko Mladić: (Serbian Cyrillic: Ратко Младић, pronounced [râtkɔ mlǎːditɕ], born 12 March 1943) is an accused war criminal and a former Bosnian Serb military leader. On May 31, 2011, Mladić was extradited to The Hague, where he was processed at the detention center that holds suspects for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). His trial began on 3 June 2011.
– the bloody terror brought about by the Ja-panese, Na-zis and Co-mmunists was with great difficulty eliminated by the good guys.
– Bin Laden was executed for crimes against humanity on May 1, 2011
– Ditto for Anwar al-Awlaki on September 30, 2011
– Ditto for Abu Yahya al-Libi on June 5, 2012
Do you copy & paste here often?
Often? Try always.
The information was provided for Righty's benefit.
Just go shopping at your local Wal-Mart and you will see how "great" the average person is in this country. I particularly like watching the fat pigs who ride around on the motorized wheelchairs because they are too fat and disgustingly lazy to walk.
I was raised back in the bad old days to love my country. I still do, warts and all. If that makes me some sort of a nationalist or whatever they're calling it these days, so be it. As for all the US citizens who keep bashing the US, belittling it, for everything from the actions of people long dead to current politics, I hope they know that if the nation lands flat on its face and doesn't get up, they'll have first and foremost themselves to blame, for people do not fight for what they do not love. They just gripe a lot, and never lift a finger to try to remedy anything.
You do know, don't you, that the only people who ever make things better are the ones who are dissatisfied with the way things are?
Richard, I'm not talking about the dissatisfied, I'm talking about the haters. I'm talking about the people who bash everything they can think of about the US, but who Don't do anything about it, and there are a whole lot of them. They gripe about things that can't be changed without access to a time machine and want us all to feel guilty about. They harp on about our politicians, but keep voting the same old thing into office without ever demanding change from within. They carry on about the Indians and the slaves and the Latinos, but have no viable solutions to offer. And they are seeming legion these days, you no doubt know some of them. You can certainly go onto the blogs and comment pages and see their many posts.
I'm paid by the mormon church to post things against atheists because they are our biggest threat!!!! The voices tell me that too!!!!
Stealing and lying two atheist values proven again. God bless
If you are going to steal somebody's screen name, at least TRY to be funny.
just sayin, why do you think you have the power to bless people in gods name? You're so hateful on here and yet you think god would love someone like you? What are you talking about stealing? You're crazy man.
What do you consider funny argo? You're a mormon? That might be funny...
Yeah, be funny like me! Here is my joke – it is mine, I invented it, and it is the funniest joke in the world.
A kike, a fag and a nigger walk into a bar and they get lunched! LOL!!!!!!!!!!
oh argo, what a sad waste of skin you are. It must be hard for you to get out of the asylum these days. I know it's hard for me...but one day we will meet...I can't wait for that day. I love you!
We know this is an impostor because he knows more than 3 words and actually responds to comments, unlike TMR boy.
You're not Mormon, that much is clear. Please stop posing as one.
Most Americans are nothing but lazy, fat, illiterate, narcissistic slobs who are raising lazy, fat, illiterate, narcissistic children.
American Exceptionalism is an idea but it's not unique to American History. Rebrand it in any other culture or time period and you can have Romans espousing the same ideals using a different god as their guide or Nazi Germany espousing the superiority of their "Volk" as destined to inherit the earth.
So your comparing America to Nazi Germany? Really?
Personally I believe deeply in the power of SATAN. I think that he's so misunderstood and hated for no reason! My therapist told me that I hate atheists because I long to be one, but at the same time I love Satan so much that I can't give up believing. I do hate atheists, but then, that might be my medication talking...awwwwwww, poor atheists, poor me! Satan rules!!!
You are actually CORRECT! Satan is ruling right now, and this is they the earth is on the brink of destruction.
Puckles, you ignorant twit, there is no Satan, except in your silly comic book. What is ruining our society is the tenet that we are all equal, that the useless are equal to those who achieve great things. This is why things are going to the hoi polloi.
I know puckles! And Satan has you here to help him destroy the world and he's so grateful for that! Thank you and praise Satan!
Wow. I thought "just sayin" was deing sarcastic, but "puckles" is the real deal. haha
"face palm" every time I hear some nut job seriously talking about Satan, I worry for our race.
Brad this is just some tard copying screen names and spouting idiotic things.
This entire premise is we're more exceptional than anyone else is actually kind of silly – because it would really only be valid if other countries actually believed it to – they don't – so we end up legends – but only in our mind.
20 million Mexicans streaming across the border, and Cubans drowning every year trying to float here might think differently. And NO, we are not perfect.
You hit the nail on the head, Mark!
Argo, I don't think the drowned are thinking anything right now.
fine V, add the word "risking" in front of drowning, and my statement has merit.
Manifest Destiny and this mindset genocided twice as many Native Americans as Hitler killed Jewish. America has been exceptional at warring, genocide, hubris and devouring the Earth.
Manifest Destiny and brainwashed, societal voices have served us well.
So we would better-off living in long houses, making beads, and wiping our bottoms with leaves?
This really isn't believed by the masses in the US, a few of our more nutty religious folk, but that is about it. A very large number of Americans are realizing more and more that we are to involved in world affairs. Hopefully that is a trend that will start coming to an end.
All of you who are posting about how bad America is have probably never wore the uniform to defend her and more than likely voted for Obama. If you hate America go to North Korea where they hate America too and the government provides everything for its people. No bad ol capitalist there.
Take your assumptions and put them where the moon don't shine
Dave, you're a dumba$$.
Working towards greatness means recognizing both your successes & failures. The US has had both. When we ignore our mistakes we miss a chance to be better. Constructive criticism is not something to be feared. In fact, it should be sought out. The US is not strong because we all believe the same thing. We are strong because we have conflicting views yet can work together towards the goal of improving our nation.
I never take seriously anyone who refers to an inanimate object as "she" or "her". It's a sign of a loose screw somewhere, and where there's one there's likely to be more.
What you don't seem to comprehend, Dave, is that blindness isn't love. If you loved your country, you would take an honest look and realize that this nation is in trouble. We have a crumbling infrastructure, a failing educational system and rampant corruption. Our military has been stretched to the breaking point.
Unless Americans are willing to see the problems, they will never be solved, and if they are not solved, the United States will become little more than a third world country - weak and poor and ripe for exploitation.
America stopped being exceptional when "me first" took over for "what can I do to help?"
Yep. 1960's and 70's ruined America.
I think it was more the 80s, "greed is good" mentality. Of course, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy were just the icing on the cake.
Prayer changes things .
Ah, now here's the real TMR boy, coming round regular as clockwork to repost his regular 3-word lie. This is the pure quill, my friends, accept no subst¡tutes.
"If you have to tell people you're a lady, you are not."
Einstein didn't proclaim his genius. Michael Jordan and Ted Williams didn't tell people that they were the greatest of all-time. They let their works speak for them. Yet, Americans talk incessantly about exceptionalism as if talking makes it so. America isn't great because we say it is, or because we were chosen; it's great because we worked to make it great. Instead of arguing about whether we're exceptional, let's put our energy toward being exceptional.
Weel said. Thank you Charles.
Oops, well said. Sorry about the previous typo.
I agree Charles, and I want to add that this article doesn't help with your point because it really does speak to the narcissistic tendencies that ALL human beings share, not just Americans. The writer would have been better served by pointing out WHY the United States is still an exceptional nation amongst nations, even amongst other Western democracies. Instead, it bloviates with a self-congratulatory tone that seems more interested in dogma rather than inspiration.
Charles, YOU are exceptional!
Well said, Charles.
It has NOTHING to do with religion and faith. They're belief in myths.
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.