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.
Tge problem with "exceptionalism" is that eveyone thinks they are exceptional. Its mythology.
Always remember that you are a unique human being, just like everyone else.
The whole idea of "exceptionalism" is even more rediculous than the idea that God exists.
Way to write an article to give the christian fundamentalist a platform from which to shout. Lucky most Americans are ignorant of this dark past. I however, am not. The idea that we were chosen by god to occupy the entire North America is ABSURD. We committed heinous acts of genocide against the indigenous population. All this for some un-pleasable Christian fundamentalist that will only be happy when the whole world is white anglo saxon protestants. Yall are no better than the Muslims!
You do realize that, by "y'all", you are describing 313,000,000 people, right?
Steve you did not read the article. Get off of your pedestool, it's silly and comedic, we're laughing 'at' you.
I would say that at one time this country was exceptional and even today we have some signs of it but over all we've lost that mantle and until our government, federal and state, move towards providing a proper future for it's people I think we are less than exceptional. We are only exceptional in our efforts to create war and weapons.
Dude, wiki exceptionalism.
i see where you're coming from but i take a different outlook. Our exceptionalism in the globe started to falter when the people relied on government instead of governing themselves.
@LiberalsAreAngry – Actually, we've always relied on government, which is why we're the economic force in the world to be reckoned with. Government makes possible, water systems, electric grids, sanitation, public education, armies, research. Without government we are a bunch of people rubbing sticks together to stay warm.
The reason our exceptionalism is faltering is because technology is disseminated. We no longer have the exclusive rights to knowledge (as if we ever truly did). Today we have to complete with other nations, other people who also want good things for their families. Other nations who still prize education. Our exceptionalism is faltering because we've forgotten what it takes to keep us on top, ie well educated citizens. Well, that and the rest o the pack is now keeping pace.
From here on in, it's going to take a lot o sweat, dedication and hard work, from citizens, and government... working as one. Although I quite sure that paradigm doesn't mesh with your Tea Party view of the world.
What in the f*** is happening to CNN?
Plummeting ratings, and desperation.
Interesting that the Author mentions that Lincoln was a deist, but neglects to mention that Thomas Paign, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were also Deists. They were not by any stretch Christians. And in the times that defined America the most, The American Revolution and the Civil War, our Presidents were not Christians.
That is because deists can make decision impartially.
God: Your mission Mr. Pilgram, if you decide to accept it. To come to the Americas and decimate the indigenous population. And then once you've established world domination, exploit, through slavery, every people on the planet. Now, pick up where Adolph left off.
Pilgrim: I don't get it. I thought we weren't supposed to kill.
God: I'm God... I get to be inconsistent. Don't question my will, you insignificant maggot.
Pilgrim: Yes. God is great! America's exceptional. KILL THE INDIANS! KILL THE MUSLIMS. Exploit children throughout the world in the name of God and his chosen corporations. Yes indeed, God is great!
God: Yes I am great. Now go, and kill in my name.
If you study statistics, you recognize that an awful lot of naturally occurring things distribute themselves along a bell-shaped curve. The tails of the curve are the exceptions, the extremes, the outliers. Just by dint of the way nature works, there will always be SOME exceptional cases.
But it's important to remember that the curve has 2 different tails, at opposite ends. While it's great that the USA is the richest nation ever, it's not so great that we're the most imprisoned nation in the history of the planet. While we were FIRST in nation-scale democracy, we're LAST in adopting the metric system.
Sometimes being exceptional is nothing to brag about, and I'd be willing to settle for a simple mediocre.
American Exceptionalism is a nice concept and ideal that both parties use to get people to feel good about themselves. However, I feel that people who feel that we are still the best need to to open their eyes. 46% of people believe that the world was created by an invisible man in the shy less than 10,000 years ago. I'd stop there, but I'll go further. We have an education problem that we treat like an algorithm instead of understanding the underlying causes. We have a health care system than large amounts of people can't get access to and cause many families to go broke. We have a prison system that somehow is turning into a business. We spend more on the military than any other countries by far( a new-age British empire). We have people who want it all without paying for it. We have started to embrace anti-intellectualism , which makes people who have studied how the world works for years somehow more biased than your average Joe. We have given those at the top more money with the absurd notion that that will pay for itself. We have embraced black and white thinking, where you either villianize either capitalism or socialism without realizing that both can work in the company of either other, as has been shown in the past.
If that your vision of exceptionalism, than you are easily impressed my friend.
I've got a suggestion for you. GO TO FRANCE!!
Much of the world, and American's own opinion of America's place in the world, has been shaped by Hollywood. Think how many times we have seen John Wayne save the world. The US may be first in military spending, and first in % of citizens incarcerated, but is sadly lagging behind other industrialized nations on issues like education, medical care, religious freedom, environmental stewardship, etc. Yes, to paraphrase an old saying, right wing Americans will defend your right to freedom of religion, as long as your religion is the same as theirs.
Fu.ck off with your nonsense. I'm not one to cut and run from the country that I love or a challenge. I'm not fu.cking blind either, unlike a lot of people.
lady bear, I agree. Much of what most think of our history is a myth and propaganda. I still think that this can be an awesome country, but it's not going to get that way by itself.
I'm surprised you didn't mention the OT with the "chosen" Jews whose Torah was the basis for the NT, both of which include many texts advocating imperialism, "exceptionalism", nationalism, invasions that often included genocides, a great deal of racism and bigotry, and was used by all those people in your article to inform their activities.
And I'm sure there are many history professors who, upon reading your article, would gnash their teeth at your treatment of American history.
It is only a small step from exceptionalism to dictatorship. When the first manifest itself into the belief that the exceptional have the right to dictate to the rest, then the exceptional are nothing more than a petty dictators hiding behind the facade of exceptionalism.
Amazing...we've been the one country with the guiding beacon of peace, yet you even hint that we were headed to dictatorship..... folks from around the world want to come HERE for a reason. Wake up!
Healthnut, how can you possibly claim the USA has been a "guiding beacon of peace" when we've attacked or occupied half the nations on Earth at one time or another? Google "map of us military bases around the world" and see what you get. THOSE are America's "good-will" ambassadors as much as our tourists and the Peace Corps. Aren't you aware that we spend more on our military than EVERY OTHER NATION ON EARTH COMBINED!? Peace? Beacon? What have you been smoking!?
This article pretty much said that Christianity has been the justification of the systematic slaughter and uprooting of the Native Americans. I suppose we can add their deaths to the long list of people killed under the name of the Christian god.
Your thinking solves nothing and helps no one. It is more division and hate. What can. You say that will help or heal?
The article does not say that.
I wasn't aiming to answer problems with this issue.
One of the problems I see though is that intolerance of others. So instead of further trying to understand these kinds of people we rather not associate with them or just kill them off. It was done towards the Native Americans, Blacks, poor people, and now Muslims are the big target since 9/11.
The only thing that will heal this country is for people to respect when their fellow Americans have different beliefs and work together on common ones again. Until then, things will continue to go downhill
This theory is arrogant, inhuman and unchristlike, like America itself. American History is rather an example of hollow religiosity with a very bad track record of human rights abuse and genocide with an unhealthy splash of making Jesus a corporate war mascot.
What is "Christlike" though? Since the beginning of Christianity it has been nothing but a religion of violent expansion.
Christ-like would probably be adhering to the man's words, not much to do with religion since his words actually predicted the Roman Government using his name under false pretenses to conquer, as an anti-christ.
Does this FACT anger you ?
Comments made by those people from the Civil War era to Obama are utterly ignorant and stupid. How can you claim that American was "chosen" to lead the world? Pfft. America does not even have enough money to spend and has been borrowing for years. How pathetic!
I would dare to say that there are indeed a few chosen people and at times certain groups of people have led this species forward and some certainly have not.
Some will die out and go extinct if they do'nt soon get their act together and change.
Just look at those fine folks in Chicago.,
The black ignorant thug class is still murdering their own kind in the streets over drugs even after decades of useless drug war prohibition and public education they still kill each other!!!!
Stupid is stupid does.
So., Yeah "certain" people.
I'dd even bet on that "certain" peoples were even led by and instructed by God himself.
If you ignore the Law and the Rules about nature you will die or be killed.
So follow God and His Law and Natures rules.,
What is so hard about this??
Yeah., I "believe"
I believe some groups of people are going to meet the dinosaurs soon.
Believe a Revolution is coming.
"Either the people change on their own or they will be changed by force through the powers of government"
"So follow God and His Law and Natures rules. What is so hard about this??"
THAT'S what so hard about it.
Last night I went fishing under the stars in the nation with the most freedom on earth. I thought about my dead uncle whose boat I was using. He had a half track shot out from under him in France 1944. Three crewmen died. He enjoyed the outdoors and never complained much. After the war I guess he (and the rest of the "Greatest Generation") had a strong appreciation for the United States of America. I also had 4 other uncles that served and 3 of them were wounded in combat. I thought about them too. I served in USMC during Gulf War. Felt it was an obligation to defend my nation. When I see people on this board comparing America to Nazi Germany I think of my uncles. Laying on Remaggen bridge bleeding from a gut shot in 1944. In Italy 1944 bleeding from a leg wound. Hmmmm. Think they would take exception to comparing America to Hitlers Germany.
But of course you yourself are perfectly willing to compare America to Nazi Germany. It's just that you see only the differences, not the similarities.
We all appreciate the sacrifices made by the soldiers who served this nation. However, you do not honor them by being blind to reality. You do not honor them by resting on the laurels they earned and ignoring the fact that this country is falling down around you.
Being a patriot is not simply wearing a flag pin and yelling U.S.A.! Being a patriot means choosing the good of the country over your own personal desires. The future cannot be saved by living in the past.
I think what your Uncle did was amazing, and wonderful. But we're not talking about the value of sacrifice for your country. We're talking about what sort of ideals that country should embody. While your uncles' friends were dying, other peoples' friends on the German side were dying too. They were dying for a different set of ideals – ideals, it sounds like, we both don't care much for. And in their society (as well as Soviet society, for that matter) people "didn't complain much" either. The point is, next time we ask our young people to give their lives for our country maybe we should do a little less blind flag waving and spend a little more time examining the ideals we're asking them to give their lives for.
If USA is so exceptional why is there 30 other countries I'd rather visit or move to?
Well go then.
what are you waiting for...Please leave
Funny commentary by Bill Maher:
Every country and people has adopted the mantle of exceptionalism or chosen by god over time. Every one has failed over time.
Execptionalism give us an excuse not to work hard to compete, change and do the right thing to update our democracy.
Our people can't be exceptional because they are merely a melting pot from all the unexceptionable places.
Our system of government was exceptional when it was first started since it was the first government to serve the people versus the people serving the government.
However, we have failed to update our democracy and make it better. Now, we have a corrupt crony capitalistic democracy which gives us a rising poverty rate, rising wealth inequality and dropping middle class. Our laws are bought by big money.
If we don't change and work hard to compete, we will ride our illusions of exceptionalism right in the history books behind Rome and Greece.
"FAILURES ALSO OCCUR when the interests of a decision-making elite conflict with the interests of the rest of society. The elite are particularly likely to do things that profit them but hurt everybody else if they can somehow insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions.
Such clashes are increasingly frequent in the United States, where the high-flyers and the wealthy live in gated communities inhabited by people like themselves; their conduct and decisions impact on a society with which they have little connection."
“ The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been two hundred years.
These nations have progressed through this sequence:
1. From bondage to spiritual faith;
2. from spiritual faith to great courage;
3. from courage to liberty;
4. from liberty to abundance;
5. from abundance to selfishness;
6. from selfishness to complacency;
7. from complaceny to apathy;
8. from apathy to dependence;
9. from dependency back again into bondage.”
Sir Alex Fraser Tyler: (1742-1813) Scottish jurist and historian
The thought process that would come up with such nonsense is that of a child.
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.