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.
Could someone give me the opportunity to use Stalin in a post again? I have ever so much trouble with trying to say something if I can't bring Stalin into it.
If you hate America leave.... please
what a short sighted mindset
Christians hate America – they want to change it into Jesustan. They should leave.
Conservatives hate America and it's president. They hate that liberty applies to people who don't agree with them. They should leave
We can't leave we have to fight for the real America not this WAR for GOD crap they just want more power. Our America used to be that land of the free, but now its a giant bird cage. We have to stand up to our country when we feel its doing wrong to other nations that is our right we are not a Nazi country yet but their getting closer.
SY, the best thing you could do for this country would be to get an education.
CNN got scared of real dialogue and flooded this section with SPAM! Jerks.
As a citizen of North America who is of aboriginal decent, the idea that a group of people was given a "special" religious privilege to conquer and displace the native culture that was already living in North America is simply ridiculous. What type of loving and compassionate God would advocate taking someones land, destroying their culture, and waging a war to "convert" them to something called Christianity. This was a clear case using a so called "religious belief" to justify aggression and violence towards a group people who to thought and acted differently, and who just happened to have something that was wanted – land. Exceptionalism and Manifest destiny are misguided ideas created by men in order to justify a need to conquer, all under the the disguise of a religious belief. Aggression and evil in the name of God was alive and when the settlers first arrived in North America and it is still alive and well throughout the world today whenever religion is used as an excuse to dominate or control another culture or belief system.
Scary, delusional southern people. Please stop inbreeding. Leave your trailer for a few hours and become cultured.
Let the south succeed for good this time!
Its not true, America murders anyone that doesn't agree with Americas views. People have the right too live in harmony with out drones up their asses and CNNs feeding the beast so fat and blinding are youth.
This article is nice happy talk. "Exceptionalism" is associated with mental illness. Raskolnikov though he was "exceptional." He found out that he wasn't. If you want to understand American history you will have to go to primary sources. You won't find it in a "history" textbook. One example: We have DNA evidence that most of our "founding fathers" fathered (!) children with their slave girls, some of which were as young as 13.
Raskolnikov was a fictional character.
Warren Jeffs still thinks he's "exceptional".
@SRussell. Perhaps yall was an overreaching word. I was referencing chirstian fundamentalist.
@Liberalsareangry I did in fact read the arcticle, did you? You seem very defensive and threatened by my words. Perhaps you know they are true. You seem to only want to defend the status-quo. Maybe you are a paid right wing troll? Hmm...
To even consider the notion that the US was "chosen" by God is delusional and completely stupid. Shame on CNN for running garbage on their website.
CNN we don't want this crap on here. whoever posted this should be fired. I believe in god but but your just using GOD for your own agendas of world domination.
Sweetie, nobody at CNN is reading your posts.
Every country has this "we're number one" mantra that they cram down your throat from an early age. Patriotism is a tool used by the rich to get the poor to fight all their wars.
"Patriotism" is lipstick on the pig of nationalism.
Not just patriotism, either. "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." —Lucius Annaeus Seneca (5 BCE – 65 CE), Roman statesman
YES!!! This country is exceptional. Only in this country can the children of a poor immigrant family achieve their dreams and not have their life defined by class in which they were brought up in. Upward mobility based on hard work rather than blood linage is what sets us apart from most countries in Europe. We most do all we can to preserve the "American Dream" for without it we loose what makes us exceptional!
The American Dream is a lie spun by the rich to make us happy slaves.
Go back and read the cover story in Time last month that talks about how the American Dream is faring and you won't be quite so cheerful about how great America is any more.
America hates immigrants. Don't fall for their tricks to get your vote.
"Exceptionalism" is a total non-issue. It's just political chum, and the rubefish are biting.
Dan I will debate you anytime anywhere in anyplace if you have the guts.
Am I actually reading "God" chose America. This is the most ignorant headline I have ever read. What Kool-aid are you drinking?
Over 21 religions have over 600,000 to 2.1 Billion Members. There are most likely other life-forms in outer space. Top Military leaders, FAA, Astronauts, and Pilots and several people with NSA Cryto-level clearance in directly in charge of ICBM Silos, all these
ighly trusted and respected people form dozens of countries all say there are alien space shops they've witnessed and swore to testify before Congress under oath. (still hasn't happened, no surprise there) . These are very calm, stable, rational nuts n bolts type people all say there is other life.... oh but Allah, or Jesus, or St. This or that, or Buddha, or Maharaji.... one of those is the one true God, LMAO! So if so, if there are other life forms, is Jesus their savior too.
Your logic or lack there of is absurd.
#3 on that list is: Secular/non-religious... you know...those are the folks with brains and intellect, reasoning and common sense, etc.
Humanity's belief in religion has done NOTHING but divide us if you are not a member f their church that is, pilfered dollars from the poor, caused wars, create hates towards gays and human beings, make the populace complacent, afraid and ignorant, and trained them like cattle to believe they gotta follow your rules or they are going to some fictional place called-Hell. It is merely a power over those who need and want a scapegoat to explain what their low intellect cannot fathom, and 'absolve' their sins... you know those tare the oppressive judgements you put on other people from your deity, your church, etc.
This country has started more wars than any other country and not because it is the right thing or moral thing to do, because there are natural resources to be had for "national interests." For you people out there...that is the code word the Gov't ad News use to explain our desire for for oil and economic stability to feed our massive consumerism, corporate greed and Individual to where we now live in a country where we hardly know our neighbors because it is "all about me" these days.
Your Religions are destroying and dividing this world. We don't nee you to feed the homeless or any other service you provide. In fact, since your religions love to delve into right wing poltiics and other peoples lives judging them, telling them what is right and wrong according to your fantasy fairy-tale books so much, and wanting prayers in school, etc. I think it's about darn time your Religions start paying taxes on their billions.
THIS SAYS IT ALL: Science flies you to the moon, , religion into buildings!
Science and knowledge and open minds solve millions of diseases, cures sick people from cancer, tumors, etc, create millions of things that better our lives and move us forward into the future. What has "God" done?
There may be a God or Creator that cause this universe, and I actually hope there is something better than this place, but it s something no one knows what it is or may not even be there at all, maybe it was just the Big Bang, or maybe it was the Flying Spaghetti Monster for all I know.
But I Do know this:
Religions will be the death of this world and incite more hate and violence. Witness the Crusades, iqnuistion, The Ayatollah;s, Al Qaeda, and the list goes on and on and on and on and on and on.
Email me. Let's debate.
Good post, and I agree for the most part. Unfortunately science has been hijacked by corporations and twisted for profits in modern America.
God created all that exists which has made many things possible. You need to learn how to differentiate God our father from religions. Please read the bible so that you can find out his purpose for us!
America was not chosen to lead.The world calls on America to get out of the way until usually to late for lands to help themselves.At that point the people of America foot the bill in money ,lives and hardship.If you help your disrespected and if you do not help your disrespected.Most of the world today is nothing more than ungrateful ignorant snobs.
no just americans. go to another country, even canada and you will think differently.
This is what happens when you learn histoy from a church instead of from facts.
One truth, GOD's truth is that the Jewish people are His precious chosen. Because of them and their choices, we gentiles can thank Israel for being part of our own spiritual heritage. HOWEVER...the ground at the cross was made level when JESUS paid the price for sin once and for all. That means that ALL can now be one in Christ JESUS. He turns up the heat and time is short. Have you said yes to Him? Make no mistake...it's you He's waiting for and He wants you just like you are...
Mythology. There is No Truth of God that Man can know. You say its God's Truth because its your opinion.
What about all the other victims of the Roman punishment of crucifixion? Did they all save us too?
If he wants me just like I am, why do you keep trying to change me?
We were the hope of the world, until our heads got so conflated that we believe we can boss the world around by bombing, invading and occupying countries that were no threat to us. When we started justifying brutal torture, we lost the mantle of righteousness!
I like how Obama is the first sitting president to use the word exceptional when addressing the American people.
It's fascinating to see someone with so much passion for discourse, but without the intellectual firepower to back it up. Stay sweet, Nancy.
The doof that wrote this "article" goes off several mythology premises of our History to make the point of "exceptionalism". The first being the glory of the American Revolution. Firstly, we would have lost that war if it weren't for the French. They we turned around and told the French to stick it during their Revolution and they asked us for help. And the ONLY reason we aren't a British Colony again is becaus ethe Brits didn't want us back when they kicked ourButts during the War of 1812.
The French Revolution was hardly in the interest of freeing the people. It was about installing a dictatorship and manipulating the people. We disagree'd with the principals behind it. At the time the french helped with our revolution, they agreed with the principals behind it. Since the French revolution, the people have saved themselves, and we assisted them in doing so to the best of our ability as we saw fit.
You don't know the history of the French Revolution. It was indeed a People's Freedom Movement. Robespierre and his merry band of crazies just co-opted it....sort of liek the Tea SlugNutties and Jesus Nutbags have co-opted my GOP.
The Pilgrims came to America because they could not tolerate the religious freedoms spreading through Europe and the religiously free Europeans could not tolerate them trying to remove those freedoms.
And 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.
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.