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.
The ideology of American Exceptionalism is as rotten, vicious and cruel as the old Soviet system ever was. Exceptionalism has been an excuse to lay waste to and plunder the resources of the land, drive animal life to the point of extinction and kill off millions of Native Americans while taking over the land and it's resources.
Well sais sir.
Well said sir.
Yes, and in perhaps the most twisted way, making many think that the US is, and will always be a Christian nation. Thank goodness at least the authors of the Const.itution at least had the quality of life for future generations of all people in mind (even if it has been mis-used and mis-interpreted quite a lot since).
This conceit has led us to being the most war hungry nation on the face of the Earth. Let's look at who we have attacked shall we ? Remember, none of these countries invaded our soil :
> Canada (invasion and torching of New London, later named Toronto
> Mexico (spanish american war)
> Native American lands (spread of small pox)
Interesting also that all the other colonies (Canada included) peacefully gained independence from the UK without firing a single shot.
This reliance on violence as a hallmark of our problem solving is to the detriment of our development as a mature nation. We are like a rich spoiled brat with too many toys on the world stage.
Meanwhile, others look on in ridicule as our supposed perfect Democracy has devolved with our blessing into a corporate oligarchy akin to the rule of Lords seen in Europe in the middle ages.
If I distilled my thoughts on the issue down to a rant it would sound a like that ^
Canada was part of the British Empire during the War of 1812 and was used as a command center and a source for troops, so yes, Canada essentially did invade the US, though not the Canada we know today. Also Mexico was never involved in the Spanish-American War, hence its name, and by the time the Puritans set foot in the New World, Native Americans were mostly immune to small pox since 99% of them had been killed off by it when it was accidently introduced by the Spanish. Check your history.
You are missing many invasions from your list.
Joel.. your numbers and dates are far off. You don't get to excuse non-Spanish settlers by claiming the spanish killed 99% of them before we did anything.. sorry.. smallpox doesn't even have a 99% mortality rate among native americans. your numbers and dates are fiction made up to make you feel better.
Alex, Ireland and Kenya had to overthrow British imperialism through the sacrifice of their blood as well.
I read your essay and found it interesting and informative, but: "Puritans saw the pomp and hierarchy of the Protestant Church of England as too much like another papacy."
The Anglican Church is not a Protestant Church. It is "The English Church" as there is a "Roman Church".
We did not take our cue from Martin Luther.
The Church of England cut ties with the Roman Catholic Church during the reformation period, just like all the other "protest"ants.
Seeker: Not all protestants protest the same thing. Most protestant denominations are actually recent inventions... spin-offs if you will, and most have no consistency in their teachings.
Regardless – Seeker is correct. All Christian churches that are derivatives of Roman Catholicism are considered protestant. When the Anglican Church was established by Henry VIII it WAS a 'spin off' (if you will) of the Catholic Church. Just because it wasn't part of the reformation movements of Martin Luther or John Calvin doesn't make it any the less a "protestant" religion.
The only thing Americans are exceptional at is creating generation after generation of morons who serve the international banking race.
I would think the last thing you would want is to call yourself the "chosen people".. Look what happened to the last bunch who claimed that... Millennial of suffering and unpleasantness.. Careful!
Obama is a self-e vowed Christian who prays daily for guidance in leading this country (his own words). This quite frankly, scares the hell out of me, just as when Bush did it.
Almost as scary as when Romney consults his Magic Mormon Spectacles for answers. It's all fiction and there's no excuse for anyone in this country believing in scary fairy tales in the year 2012. The disproof of the silliness is mountainous but goes right over the heads of the fearful sheep (no, not flock – SHEEP) People whose own accomplishments are so meager that they take credit for Jesus' words as if they have the same morality. Using god's name in vain on a daily basis to "pray" for what they want. How exceptional are a people that are largely incapable of real critical thought and fully capable of mass murder in the name of a delusion? Not at all.
Gee Ms. Jackson, you sound so tolerant of other people's beliefs.
Ya know what objective .... MOST politicians have no clue how most Americans live. Even Obama-christ REALLY has no clue how "most" American live.
What does "American exceptionalism" have to do with Mormons? Nothing other than the fact they are currently a focus point because of Romney. As a Mormon, I don't agree with Romney. He has no clue how the average family exists.
We have to be very careful with this. Romney has his own interpretation as to which God it was. Was it the Man who became a God then together with Mary bore Jesus another man who became another God. Is Romney meant to lead us then become a God himself. He thinks so.
John Gast's, "America Progress" is the most offensive painting I have ever seen.
There is no doubt. It is a corruption of our history as a nation and melds it to an evangelical Dominionism that is anything but moral.
Not all of the painting is showing. I saw the full one. He showed all the native animals and Native Americas fleeing in desperation and horror in front of the blue-eyed, blonde angel.
This thinking and hubris are Manifest Destiny, a form of brainwashing to dismiss genocide. This nation genocided twice as many Native Americans as Hitler killed Jewish. As the article reflected, these brainwashed but evil voices still exist.
You're wrong Star, 99% of the native population was killed off before the Puritans set foot on American soil, you can thank the Spanish for that one. There weren't even enough natives left to make your statement true
Actually JoHel, there's never been an accurate count of the native population, only argued estimates, and the Spaniards never made it far into the northern continent, staying mostly in the central and southern zones. How many natives were killed by Spaniards in what is now New England? So... where'd you get the 99%, the racist propaganda put out by Northern Europeans to disparage the Spaniards?
One way or another through history, world powers had atrribute to their gods, their conquers. It is not unusual. And all previous world powers, despite what they thought, are gone.
Yea? Didn't work out too well for you in 1812? Watch your Ps and Qs or we will have to make another little visit to Washington.
Where did you learn history, hoser? Who do you think won the War of 1812? It wasn't Canada as it didn't exist didn't exist until 55 years later (July 1, 1867). It wasn't the British who never accepted getting their collective butts kicked in the 1770's and tried it again in 1812. It was US.
SouthernCelt, looks like someone else needs to check their history too. Saying the US won the little sideshow to the Napoleonic wars in 1812 is ridiculous. Most historians attribute it to a draw as neither side gained/benefited from the little spat!
The concept of American exceptionalism is absolute nonsense, and has created huge problems in the world. What's as bad is even within the US those who believe in exceptionalism apply it to their own group, so internally we are divided. I'll let you figure out which group has the self-righteous complex.
Yet another group of people who think that 'land' was given by God to fight and bleed over... to just ONE group...
Funny – sure I'm an atheist – but not brought up that way.... just became that way when I reached an age that saw the consistant and overwhelming hipocracy....
Ha ha ha
“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Sinclair Lewis 1935
Just EXACTLY so ! ! !
It is NOW knocking on our doors ! ! ! . On the Right side, too ! !
Fascism is here! A Hispanic US citizen in Arizona has to carry his passport or be presumed to be an illegal alien if the cop is having a bad day.
Our hubris will be our undoing.
You are correct, sir. It's a shame that we refuse to look at the things we need to change, choosing instead to believe we are the greatest nation on earth and ignoring the collapse happening right in front of our faces. We were a once great nation, by the people and for the people, but have become a corporate state, worrying about nothing more than profits and shareholders. Definitely not a sustainable system of government, but here we are - "American Exceptionalism" is nothing more than a slogan.
Like every other empire, this one too will inevitably fade into history, replaced by something else. It's just a blip on the cosmic radar screen.
I have an "exceptional" love for reality.
This essay is an incredibly large pile of doggy doo-doo
His flaw is assuming America is great. America is great only in the eyes of Americans! lol What an idiot!
Why, because you disagree with it? Exceptional Arrogance!
Only problem that I have with the Republicans like Sarah Palin Newt Gingrich The Bush's, is their idea of American exceptionalism is they believe it stands for the UNITED STATES having the RIGHT to go all around the GLOBE and rightfully BULLY all other Nations on earth as to our Viewpoints, Wants, Needs and Desires etc! That has NEVER EVER been my idea of AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM!!!!!!
Since I came here from Ireland, I've realized that the concept of America is truly exceptional, as is its marvellous const.itution. Sadly, the people of America themselves are generally far from exceptional, and have no grasp at the concept of personal liberty, gladly consuming mass amounts of prolefeed to distract them from the fact that their individual freedoms are slowly eroding.
Gulp, gulp - Down you swallow it ! ! !
I have to disagree on the slowly part. Since Bush has been elected and the "Patriot" act was first created then allowed to continue with the decision that corporations have the same rights as people then unlimited money can be spent on elections it has been a fast lost of rights. The people are fighting very hard to give up their rights. The whole Tea Party is based on giving up rights, getting rid of separation of church and state, taking away the riights of groups they don't like, giving up the right to have a shared taxation in favor of the rich paying no taxes etc. Their is a large group of people that have a cult like mentality and do as they are told at church, by Fox, by Rush etc. Keep on fighting to get healthcare back to where if you had a health care need the company could cancel your policy because you put a wrong date on the form when you signed up and you could never get another policy, to pay for those that decide they don't want to pay for health care when they feel like going to the Emergency room...
I agree, and it is happening everywhere, I heard Ireland passed a 'blasphemy law' awhile back. Religion burns both ends of the personal freedom 'candle' as it actively works to take away personal freedom and at the same time distracts us from the freedoms we lose. It also keeps us ignorant about how and why the freedom we have works.
I'm glad to hear someone from another country's positive view on the const.itution. I think the people who wrote that had an incredible amount of foresight and thoughtfulness about the quality of lives of future generations. Sadly, as an American, I also have to agree with your comment about people in America today. A big challenge today, where over-population in the information age is perhaps the biggest problem of all, is for people to start to realize more that they are infringing more and more on each others' personal liberty. Obviously, there needs to be some sacrifice from everyone when we are more and more living on top of one another.
Very true. And unfortunately as there becomes more and more unexceptional Americans, America will follow the same path.
Saddly You got the right...................
I wonder why God hated native Americans. In the simplist of terms–North America was easier than Africa.
God didn't and doesn't hate Native Americans. In the people who came, and spread across America, there were 3 kinds. Those that truly belonged to Him, Those that pretended to belong to Him, and those who didn't care about Him. Gods only desire is to bring the Gospel to all mankind, including the Native Americans. He did not ordain the plowing over of the Native Americans, the suppression of women, or the use of slaves. But He used those with the knowledge of His truth, carry the message to all. The country became successful, because His message was carried by it. Now it falls, because the majority of us have turned our backs on Him The message was, and is about His Son, Jesus.
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.