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.
It's schizophrenic then, isn't it – We beat ourselves and each other up so much about our negative elements currently and in our history; the flaws and fool foibles of our warped elected; the stymied working class, the failures of our productivity, and immigrants pecking orders; and who is a better citizen- so badly as if we were falling off the planet any second AND still try to sell exceptional ism? Schizophrenic.
The pilgrims were right – honor God and it will be well with you. Because in that Bible are preservation words to follow and live by safely and progress is made, for someone. You know, 'Without a vision the people perish'. It is not told enough to Americans that if you try you will succeed and if you imagine it and try you can build it or make a straight beeline to it. It's the attribute of human beings – our trait as well as our hair is for warmth. Part of the design.
As people migrate in search of better everything – or certainly freedom from want or deliverance from fear – it is a trait of mankind to consider his survival and progress as necessary; and divinely granted; and proof of virtue.
I like this article very much. After waking up being indoctrinated America, Mom and Apple Pie advertising of the post WWII – I see people all the time from other nations who wouldn't trade their country for America. But I wouldn't leave America either; unless forced out. I have bought into it – but it's too bad that we think our leadership is essential because of any more of a fact than we are a large participating country in the world. Because our divinely given exceptionalism, our 'city on the hill' pushes ammunition. Our image is of great conflict and meanness to it's own people. Our obviously biased slanted media; the fact of our wealth gap, education drop and imprisonment of it's own people on large scale numbers; is given wide berth. It feels Orwellian. 2 responses I had – well, this IS a pretty good sized country and the land was unbounded and vast – and Europeans had no concept of Native cultures? Slave trade was like the drug trade only in bodies. It was and is against all laws of nature and idea of creation and would fall to a judgement no matter what – the moral and righteous thing had to overcome the lowest form of man's inhumanity to man. Must not have – for we behaved unseemly and need to forever make more amends. 2nd – Reagan was ridiculous in this saying quoted here. "The last best hope for mankind." That's saying we are the savior of the world. Pish tosh. And Bush Jr and his Freedom Agenda but watch how you speak in America – Cheney & I may be listening type governance.
This kind of article is actually what is missing in our daily talk; we used to speak like this all the time – educating each other not tearing each other down. It's rare to find something like this. Apologies for the length here.
You are delusional.
"American Exceptionalism" is the "path of least resistance". A certain kind of American loves it because it means they can kick their feet up and stop trying - stop trying to grow as a citizen and stop ttrying to learn. Lazy Americans love the phrase.
Hey Jesus lovers, I've got hold of some magic Jesus pants that put you closer to the Lord! Please buy them! If you don't believe me, you have no faith. God will hate you and your children will all be gay liberals.
This story is completely absurd. Clearly, the impractical beliefs that believers have are brought upon by none other than emotional distress.
The Puritans were sick. They were drummed out of Europe for their dysfunctions, which they brought here. They forced children to sit for hours in hard backed pews listening to sermons and beat the sh1t out of them for squirming. Slavery of the mind has always been at the root of their "exceptionalism."
nail on the head. that's how christians add to the flock - brainwash their children.
"Exceptionalism" is just "nationalism" with a religious spin. America was initially successful because we had unlimited, lightly defended and undeveloped land, plentiful resources (like coal, timber, and oil) and a war-like population of people ready to take what they wanted. We are now declining because land & resources are more scarce, conquerable land is gone, and we are unwilling to embrace a more responsible leadership role in the World Community.
Absolutely correct. It's dangerous nationalism.
I agree with you about why America started strong, but I can't agree with your comments about America today other than insofar as there being much less land and resources per capita now. Among other things, taking a leadership role in the world is very expensive, at least if it involves anything more than serving as a role model in relation to civil and human rights.
Sokr Mom – I can see why you'd disagree with that part of the statement. By leadership role I didn't mean to solve all of the world's problems. I meant to set the example in energy, technology, education, statesmenship, civil rights, environmental stewardship, and tolerance towards race, gender and culture. We certainly have a military role – but I'd hope it would be our last option in international relations. The "cowboy" society can no long work in an interconnected world.
I love Rah the Sungod!! Oh wait, it's the year 2012...and I'm of white european descent...Go Jesus!!
America's continued exceptionalism is conditional on the people being a moral people...... moral does not necessarily mean religious. It means upholding what is right and good and true for humanity. And where there is freedom, there must be responsibility. If we abdicate responsibility for our individual pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness we lose our freedom. Hopefully, gov't will help and not hinder our ability to be a moral and responsible people.
Just when I thought CNN boards had been forever reduced to the same level of intellectual discourse found on the average Youtube video, I see a well thought out, intelligent comment. I am actually quite shocked. Kudos, and thank you.
I love Jesus so much I want him to bend me over and penetrate my holiest of holes.
John 3 vs 16-"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
John 8 vs 47-"He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.
Matthew 22 vs 37-40-"Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." Very simple for true followers of Christ but complicated for those who do not belong to Him.
Blah blah blah. That's what that sounds like. Ignorant drivel from an old book of ancient mythology.
"And the LORD spake, saying, "First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it."
Book of Armaments, Chapter 2, verses 9-21
Yeah, sure, that's fact. I can't find any reason at all to doubt a 2000+ year-old collection of Iron Age myths from a culturally insignificant region in the Middle East.
I painted my house puke green and have endured the scorn of my nabors, all for the love of you. Worship me. Give me money.
That quote is NO MORE REAL than quoting an L. Ron Hubbard book.
I can find no reason to doubt a guy who lived 2000 years ago to still be the most powerful man in the world. I can find no reason to doubt a guy whos words and actions are nothing but pure love. I can find no reason to doubt a guy who has had and still has more followers than any other leader in history. I can find no reason to doubt a guy who died in the place of deserving sinners. I can find no reason to doubt Jesus the living Son of God Almighty. Romans 1:20- "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
Have you read the bible by the way? It's a lovely little novel. He dies in the end.
Yea i have read the bible many time. Sadly He did die, but 3 days later He rose from the dead. Which is why His powerful holy name has so much life today. We all pass away but Jesus lives through out the ages as Most High. Correct me if im wrong.
Actually, what qualifies me as a "troll?"
You could look it up: en.wikipedia(dot)org/wiki/Troll_(Internet)
Use of multiple names, repeating discredited cliches just to get a rise out of people, having no interest in anything other than to inflame.
America was founded by slave owners. They killed most of the native people and stole their land. They also stole land from Mexico and Spain. Oh, but the bible says slavery is okay and that killing heathens is okay so I guess they did the right thing.
The only thing America is exceptional at is arrogance and bigotry.
America would do well to tone down the exceptionalism. Besides being insufferably arrogant, exceptionalism can be used to excuse all manner of shortcomings and crimes.
vulpecula. Very enlightening point. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion.
religion is going to die a quick death when the world is finally rid of the baby boomer generation. every child is born an atheist and thankfully now that we have the internet children are no longer forced religion blindly indoctrinated into them without having an alternative viewpoint available. Rick Santorum would never have existed without poor christians voting without using their heads and as far as im concerned that alone makes religion a rotten thing
As a boomer, I'd like to see that happen, but the kids are turning into fundies before our eyes. Guns and G*ds. They've been listening to the grandparents because both their boomer parents are both working their butts off trying to provide their kids the American dream. Meanwhile, Grandma and Grandpa, retired, playing golf, tooling about in the RV, and living off the working class (that would again be us useless boomers) and filling kids' heads with literalism....you know, tales of highways paved with gold and the good ole Leave it to Beaver days. It is a cycle that never seems to end.
I take offense at your saying retires are "living off the working class". Retires have worked and saved and earned their retirement. Don't confuse retires with people that have been on welfare their whole life.
Would not dispute that D. Also would not say that God, as I understand him, ordered these hateful actions.
Have you noticed the "Reply" option beneath the comment that you're responding to?
Bill Maher is a loser.
Actually Maher is often spot-on.
Bill Maher is a millionaire, are you? YOU are the loser.
Bill Maher is not a looser...but having a lot of $$$ doesn't make you a great person either: Koch brothers, Trump, Steve Jobs, etc.
I think calling America (exeptional),and suspecting that God himself had chosen America to lead the world is exaggeration,and Holywood imagination!
With all the goodness that America has to offer,it has its massive ills that it is inflecting upon itself,and the outside world!
With,according to some accounts,over a billion human beings from the original indian inhabitants of the soil killed to make space for the (exeptional) new comers,which was roughly half the count of human race back then...and with about 800 million blacks died while being transported as slaves,and thrown in the oceans,over the course of 400 years..and with over 50 armed conflects that we were,and still part of some of them,and resulted in death,pain..and beyond what is called suffering....................exeptional?...we are far far far away from even getting close to that!
Hollywood hates God
I didn't think it possible for a city to feel emotion. Please elaborate.
800 million? I'd love to see a source for those statistics. I imagine you're black and feel that you need to be paid back for all the oppression you never experienced.
You obviously have a weak math background! A billion Indians? C'mon, get your numbers straight you American hater!
Archer Bernard and Doreen Maysfield are the same person!!!
I think it's a little arrogant, the notion of American exceptionalism. How exceptional can a country be when 50 million of its citizens don't have access to health care.
So free medical care = American Exceptionalism? How narrow minded of you and very selfish, and typical of Leftism.
How about this Liberty = American Exceptionalism? How about "In God We Trust" = American Exceptionalism? Or how about "E Pluribus Unum" = American Exceptionalism? Let's call this the American Trinity created by our founders and the foundation of our exceptional country. No country has done more good in the world than America. No country has welcome immigrants (legal) more than America. No country has helped more countries become democracies than America without occupying the countries and stealing their natural resources.
So you leftist nuts! Leave this beautiful country if you hate what it's done and only want to focus on a very few mistakes we've had in our history.
God = Love. Atheism = Hate.
History is full of hateful actions done in the name of god. It's pretty asinine to say otherwise.
Argo, you are so without a clue.
Argo = genius
Not Really. Atheists don't send people who disagree with us to burn forever. Maybe a curse word here or there, but that's probably it.
Argo = Troll
Thank You, Richard.
I'm not an atheist, but I've known many who held far greater morals than many alleged christians. Perhaps is christians began acting a bit more like Christ.
Christianity = hate. Hate for anyone that isn't a Christian.
Christian God = hate. He send billions of people to be tortured forever simply for being raised in a different faith.
Please grow a brain.
Just to prove your point of God equalling love. If you came out as an atheist for hundreds of years of histlry, you were put to death. That's true love if I've ever heard it.
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.