This is the first in a series exploring the concept of American exceptionalism. On Monday, we examine areas in which other countries lead the way.
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) – It’s safe to say the first European arrivals to New England wouldn’t recognize today’s debate over whether America is exceptional.
Though the United States wouldn’t be born for another century and a half, the Puritans arriving in the early 1600s on the shores of what would become Massachusetts firmly believed they were on a mission from God.
In other words, they had the exceptional part down pat.
Fleeing what they saw as the earthly and corrupt Church of England, the Puritans fancied themselves the world’s last, best hope for purifying Christianity - and for saving the world.
The Puritans never used the word “exceptionalism.” But they came to see Boston as the new Jerusalem, a divinely ordained “city upon a hill,” a phrase Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop used in a sermon at sea en route from England in 1630.
“They were reinterpreting themselves as God’s new Israel,” Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero said. “They were essentially playing out the biblical story.”
To modern ears, that literal exceptionalist thinking could sound at once both exotic and quaint, which makes the idea’s staying power and influence throughout American history all the more remarkable.
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Nearly four centuries after Winthrop uttered the words “city on a hill,” President Barack Obama finds himself responding to charges from Republican challenger Mitt Romney that he has insufficient faith in American exceptionalism.
“Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do,” Romney said at a campaign stop this year. “You have an opportunity to vote and take the next step in bringing back that special nature of being American.”
Obama has pushed back on that claim, saying in a recent speech that “the character of our country … has always made us exceptional.”
Though the particulars surrounding the idea have changed, the bedrock belief that America is exceptional when measured against the arc of history and against all other nations has helped forge the nation’s defining moments, from the American Revolution and the country’s dramatic expansion west to the Civil War and both World Wars.
More recently, arguments about American exceptionalism have helped elect and unseat presidents – and have fed a debate about whether the phrase still has any meaning.
'An asylum for mankind'
For New England’s Puritans, exceptionalism was a religious idea with big political repercussions.
They thought the Protestant Reformation, which had been set into motion a century before, hadn’t gone nearly far enough in rooting out the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.
Puritans saw the pomp and hierarchy of the Protestant Church of England as too much like another papacy.
My Take: How I constructed 'The American Bible'
In New England, Winthrop and his fellow travelers established a theocracy that they hoped would be a model for English Christianity.
“They had to succeed to bring about this promised apocalyptic history that would culminate in the second coming of Christ, hopefully to New England,” said Deborah Madsen, an American studies professor at the University of Geneva.
“To fail would be to fail the world on this grand, transcendent scale,” said Madsen, who has studied the idea of American exceptionalism throughout U.S. history.
With the stakes thought to be so high, there was intense social pressure among Puritans to adhere to a strict moral code.
Everyone looked for signs that they were among the elect destined for heaven and kept a watchful eye out for neighbors who might be backsliding. The starkest example: the Salem witch trials of 1692, in which 19 people were hanged in Massachusetts for allegedly practicing witchcraft.
“If the members of the community fulfilled their part in the work of sacred history, not only would the individuals find salvation, but the whole community would be saved,” Madsen said, summarizing Puritan thinking. “But if any individual failed to live up to this grand destiny, the entire community would be denied salvation.”
Being God’s chosen people, it turned out, wasn’t all roses.
America exceptional? Not by the numbers
As new arrivals and subsequent generations enlarged colonial America, the Puritans’ faith-based ideas were gradually secularized.
By 1660, it had become clear to the Massachusetts theocrats that they wouldn’t be exporting their ideas abroad anytime soon. That was the year the British monarchy was restored after a decade of rule by the Cromwells, putting an end to Puritan rule in England and re-establishing the Church of England as a political power.
And with new Enlightenment ideas making their way from Europe about a rational universe knowable through reason, the Puritans’ quest for perfect religious institutions gave way to a colonial quest for perfect political institutions.
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The democratic ideas that made up this new political exceptionalism owed plenty to Winthrop & Co.
“Puritans had mapped out the relationship between church and the community that included the seed of democratic participation,” said Madsen. “The idea was that everyone had rights but also responsibilities.
“By fulfilling their responsibilities and respecting the rights of others, they would achieve happiness through the social contract.”
That egalitarianism helped lay the groundwork for the American Revolution, though Madsen notes that “the terms of reference had changed from salvation to democracy.”
America’s revolutionaries were keenly aware that their calls for democratic government in the face of English rule were exceptional for their time.
“Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression,” Thomas Paine wrote in 1776 in “Common Sense,” which helped galvanize colonists toward the Revolutionary War.
“Freedom hath been hunted round the globe,” Paine wrote. “Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger. … O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
The Puritan vision of America as world’s godly beacon had been replaced by the image of the nation as the world’s workshop for political and social progress. America’s founders wanted to break with what they saw as the corruption of European politics and society, where a person’s status was mostly a matter of inheritance.
By contrast, the founders proposed in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
While other republics had come and gone, many of the founders who signed the Declaration - and, later, the Constitution - wanted the American Republic to endure forever.
This was city on a hill 2.0.
Reading the founders’ paeans to American exceptionalism - about aspiring to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” as the Constitution puts it - can put a lump in your throat.
But their vision excluded huge swaths of the population, like women and slaves. And other applications of the idea had their own dark sides.
Take Manifest Destiny.
As the nascent United States strove to expand westward in the 1800s, its leaders faced major problems, including how to justify taking land that belonged to Europe or that was occupied by Native Americans.
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Manifest Destiny – the idea that it was God’s will for the U.S. government to occupy North America or all of the Americas – offered a big part of the answer.
“A civilization that has the sanction of God is always the ultimate justification,” said the University of Geneva’s Madsen. “The idea was that God had made it manifest that the U.S. should expand. … It’s not much different than the idea of American exceptionalism.”
Like many facets of exceptionalism, the notion of Manifest Destiny wasn’t entirely new.
In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth of England had established herself as a divinely ordained monarch whose reign had been presaged by the Bible. That mythology, which inspired Puritan exceptionalism, had helped English plantation owners justify forays into what is now Northern Ireland.
In the same way, Manifest Destiny helped justify the United States as it laid claim to European land and forcibly removed tens of thousands of American Indians. Many asserted that the campaign was meant to civilize or Christianize the natives, making good on America’s “chosenness.”
And the American image of a continent brimming with virgin land – which denied the presence of American Indians there – synched nicely with long-held exceptionalist visions of an unspoiled and utopian New World.
“Our manifest destiny (is) to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions,” American newspaper editor John S. O’Sullivan wrote in 1845, arguing for the annexation of Texas, in what is believed to be history’s first mention of Manifest Destiny.
It’s hard to know how much America’s leaders truly believed in the idea versus how much they employed it for purely political ends. Manifest Destiny certainly had high-profile critics, including Mark Twain, who declared himself an “anti-imperialist.”
“If you’re a cynical person and you see something like the Mexican-American War as a land grab, you can say this idea of Manifest Destiny was construed to create a moral tissue for a war of aggression,” Boston University international relations professor Andrew Bacevich said.
The westward expansion was driven largely by Southerners who wanted to farm the land and expand American slavery.
But abolitionists like Frederick Douglass also appropriated American exceptionalism, arguing that the nation’s “peculiar institution” was evidence that America was falling short of its Christian mandate.
That abolitionist line foreshadowed a key argument of 20th-century liberals: If America is exceptional, it’s because of the decisions we make around justice, not because of innate “chosenness.”
By Douglass’ time, American exceptionalism was so deeply entrenched in the American psyche that it transcended religion. Abraham Lincoln, often described as a deist - believing in a distant, uninvolved God - was nonetheless a hearty exceptionalist.
“He believed that America was leading the way in history toward democracy and equality,” said Dorothy Ross, a history professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University. “At that time, Europe is still steeped in monarchs and failed revolutions, and America was still the only mass democracy in the Western world and believed that it was leading the historical way.”
Even the relatively unreligious Lincoln came to see the hand of God actively participating in American history through the Civil War.
“He gives to both North and South this terrible war,” Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, referring to God. “American slavery,” Lincoln said, was something that “He now wills to remove.”
The first president to say it
Despite its centuries-old influence, the term "American exceptionalism" didn’t emerge until sometime in the past 100 years.
Some historians say it’s unclear who coined the phrase, while others credit Joseph Stalin with doing so in 1929, when he admonished American communists for suggesting that the United States’ unique history could make it immune to Marxism.
In his reprimand, the Soviet leader decried “the heresy of American exceptionalism.”
Ironically, American intellectuals and eventually the broader public came to embrace the term, especially in the years following World War II, even after communists used the Great Depression as evidence of Stalin’s alleged "heresy.”
Just like President Woodrow Wilson had done in World War I, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman justified American involvement in World War II largely on the basis that the country had been chosen to lead and transform the world.
After the Second World War, “the United States had emerged as the strongest country,” said Johns Hopkins’ Ross. “Social scientists began studying things like national character and what makes America unique.”
American affection for the idea grew during the Cold War, as the U.S. attempted to distinguish itself from the “godless” Soviet Union.
“Our governments, in every branch ... must be as a city upon a hill,” John F. Kennedy said in a Boston speech just before his inauguration in 1961, citing John Winthrop by name.
In the ’60s and ’70s, however, American scholars and others began challenging the idea of American exceptionalism, mostly from the left and especially after the Vietnam War, which liberals criticized as a costly exercise in American hubris.
Historians began to see exceptionalism as a scholarly construct, a way of interpreting American history rather than as accepted fact.
Ronald Reagan illustrated the partisan gap around the idea, speaking of America as a “city on a hill” and attacking President Jimmy Carter for allegedly showing weakness on the world stage, including in the Iran hostage crisis.
“We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so,” Reagan told the first annual Conservative Political Action Conference in 1974. “We are today the last best hope of man on Earth.”
President George W. Bush employed similar rhetoric in his global “freedom agenda,” even after initially pledging a “humble” foreign policy.
Despite greater Republican than Democratic support for the idea (91% vs. 70%) , a 2010 Gallup poll found that 80% of Americans subscribed to the notion that the U.S. has a “unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.”
Boston University’s Prothero criticizes that definition of American exceptionalism, which he says is how most American politicians use the term today.
For John Winthrop, the shining city was an aspiration that depended on the righteous behavior of the Puritans, Prothero says, part of the social contract that laid the groundwork for democracy. Whether the city would in fact shine was an open question.
If the Puritans dealt falsely with their God, Winthrop had said in his 1630 sermon, there will be “curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”
In contemporary American politics, by contrast, Prothero says the idea of exceptionalism has been stripped of its conditionalism, becoming “a kind of brag.”
“Today, it’s ‘of course God blesses America,’ ” he said. “It’s presumptuous.”
Others have attacked the idea as little more than the kind of nationalism felt by citizens of countries all over the world.
“I believe in American exceptionalism,” President Obama said in France in 2009, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
But the president has since sounded a different tune. In his Air Force Academy commencement speech in May, Obama repeatedly expressed support for American exceptionalism.
“The United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” Obama said. “It's one of the many examples of why America is exceptional.”
In fact, Obama appears to be the first sitting president to publicly use those words, political experts say. Given their place in the modern American political lexicon, nearly 400 years after Winthrop first gave voice to the idea, he is unlikely to be the last.
There is no god.
But there isdog, and even when he is being a no-no-bad-dog, mine behaves much better than god acts in the Bible.
And, of course, Muslims believe God wants them to rule the world.
they have something in common with christians then.
Our Good Bombs have crosses printed on them
Exceptionalism s an excuse for neocon bullies to be international thugs.
Atheism is a fantasy for adults.
What is "fantastical" about it?
That doesn't even make sense, lol
christianity is a disease.
And Christianity is a myth for childish idiots.
Heck. That's just another belief
Hey look! TheCapitalistClown got home from his job as a condiment application technician at McDonalds!
Welcome back, buddy!
Christianity is akin to Greek mythology– its a bunch of hooey –
Not a fantasy........a way of life. There is no boogie man up in the clouds, if though you may think there is. You and people like you just can't deal with plain simple logic. There is no god, there never was. But people like Joyce Meyer amass fortunes and buy 17 million dollar corporate jets to serve their "god" but never pay any taxes like the rest of us have to. Phony creepy woman that she is. The more I see her, the more I'm proud to be an atheist. And I pay my fair share.
Love Thomas Paine. He was perhaps one of our most influential founding fathers. His role was arguably more important in founding this nation than many better known founding fathers like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, yet very few Americans today even recognize the name Thomas Paine.
Who is Thomas Paine and what did he do?
He was Stalin's buddy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
just sayin, most people think you are an idiot. You keep confirming it everyday.
thomas paine, an atheist, wrote articles that prompted our revolution.
America is on its way to becoming a failed-state, largely due to the narrowmindedness of religious types and other provincials.
Any sane, rational people would have given up this nonsense a long time ago, and/or taken a lesson from the Romans – possession of technology and organization does not equal greatness – it just means you can beat the stuffing out of everyone in your path, as long as someone doesn't figure out how to hurt you....
Are you from Mars? Religion is on the declines since your messiah took office and there goes the country......to say relgion ruins anything is pretty much stupid, The failed Soviet Union, Communist Mao China were all utterly athiest and against relgion and those with religious belief whom they did not tust (Sound familiar) those athiests Lennin, Mao, Stalin were also the worst mass murderers in history so try again......
Agree, Luckily the fundies are in decline. Churchs will soon be like most in the world, warehouses or rubble.
"Are you from Mars?"
What kind of question is that?
Obama has nothing to do with the decline of religion. The ease of access to information does. And trying to tie that decline of religion to the decline of the country is nonsense. Denmark has a high unaffiliated percentage of its population and it's actually doing pretty well. And you miss the very obvious point of using the USSR and China. They were DICTATORSHIPS. Whether a "godless one" like the USSR or a theocracy like Iran, it is not going to be run well.
it is surprising to see such crazy discussion on major national medium. this concept rooted in people especially the politicians' mind explain many things.
In point of fact, most modern nation states consider themselves to be exceptional–although in a variety of different ways. Exceptionalism is probably a necessary element of nationalism: to generate a sense of cohesion withing a population, and to separate the national population from foreign "others."
Most people that worked on the Space Shuttle to explore space were religious. Was the Shuttle Program a religious mission? No.
It is funny to watch liberals try to define what they don't understand. Just look up the definition of American Exceptionalism next time.
Where did you get the information about most people working on the space shuttle being religious?
He meant the NASA Janitor Corps
I grew up in a church in the Bible belt. I think I have a pretty good understanding and definition for what goes on there.
You want to be religious, go for it. Just stop trying write legislation about what people can do with other consenting adults, or what they can do with their own bodies.
And maybe you don't understand exceptionalism. It's something you earn, not something you inherit.
eatoyster- At the time 92% of Americans said they were religious. I am sure some prayed for a safe return after blast off, just like early Americans prayed for a safe passage to the west coast. But, this is where liberals get bogged down.
American exceptionalism is the theory that the United States is different from other countries in that it has a specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy. In this view, America's exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming "the first new nation," and developing a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire.
No where in the definition is religion mentioned. Media tries to redefine things.
But no US religious leaders reacted when god downed the Israeli astronaut over Palestine Texas. Now if that isn't an "exceptional" and biblical magnitude message from god, I don't know what is.
90%+ of scientists don't believe in god. sowwy.
bootyfunk- Nov 5, 2009 – According to the Pew poll, just over half of scientists (51%) believe in some ... in God or a higher power. 97% of the world's population believes in a God.
Liberal media is trying to REDEFINE American exceptionalism.
Prayer changes things .
....and religion has killed more people than non-belief ever did.
Stalin! I get to say Stalin! I have been waiting for the chance to say Stalin for quite some time now!
I'm pretty sure Stalin has something to do with something. He, uh, well, oh let me go look at that other website so I know what my opinion is.
But we've all prayed constantly for you to be struck dumb. . . and you are still here???
More people have been murdered by atheists in the last100 years than were killed in all previous centuries. God bless
STALIN, STALIN, STALIN!!!!
action changes things; prayer wastes valuable time.
I just love saying "Stalin." If my Froot Loops have gone stale, Stalin! It makes sense to me!
I'm an idiot! I know that christians kill and have killed more people in history than anyone! I'm just teasing when I try to blame atheists.
Athiesm in forced government well examples are old Soviet Union, Communist Mao China, Lennin, Stalin, Mao greatest mass murderers in history so the negatives with relgion? No that would be the negatives with mankind having little or nothing to do with true established religions or religious........
If I give myself a new name like "NativeBorn USA", nobody will know it's me! Even if I misspell "Lennin" the same way every time!
Most Americans are nothing but a bunch of fat, lazy, illiterate, narcissistic slobs who are raising a bunch of fat, lazy, narcissistic offspring.
as the enlightenment followed the darkness and intolerance of religion, so does, not justifying the current republican intolerance of humanity in the name of god
Regressives hiding behind the cross – nothing more.
that should be "the sad thing is that"...
And yeah Tom, I think Keith is unhinged in more ways than one.
Abraham Lincoln said it: Americans are the "almost chosen" people.
God is pretend. USA is evil land that was blessed with resources ... but wasted and blew them, now is S.O.L. We are Toast.
You are full of hatred. Most Americans are good and decent.
That may well be true. The American people will splinter apart to form independent areas like it was before. But one thing for sure is that your "Const-i-t-ution" will be the core piece that will survive. It is actually the best framework (a spectacular work) for re-structuring any kind of civilization. Maybe even as the centerpiece for when we start out inhabiting new worlds.
That is for fact what I see happening if the world does overcome the gloom of religion.
have hope. as reason and compassion win out, this world is made a better place.
Agreed, on several levels....
Reason and compassion are Christian virtues
Then apply some if you can.
No, they are not solely "Christian", just lying.
Oh you're going to bring up one name? Is that all?
Let's see how many people did Stalin kill with his own bare hands? Can you tell me?
Let's put things into perspective.. one man killing how many person in his lifetime? Let's see at most it take 2 minutes to kill a man/woman/or child.
Do some math. Or was it probably that Stalin lead in ideology? Of a religion or religious dictate to his followers whom are of the same mind? Let's see the make up of those same mindset.. what were the denominations of his followers?
Do some analysis on why you attach the killing to only one man. It is because of the desire to thin down on remembering the vast mob members' name.
Therefore you religious nuts like Hitler who lead his mobs are just that much stupider than everybody who can use reasoning.
Uh, Mr. Answer? Here is a hint:
Edgar Allen . . .
Hey look a dead man. He's the one responsible. lol
And the nazis believed in German exceptionalism. Whenever one group starts thinking it is better than another, it never ends well.
I know one thing for sure about the United States.. it has exceptional cranks.
These cranks that come out of the woodwork these days are doing their best at feeding off the poor suckers that are among the religious. In one way it's great and the other is just sad. The current American society -one that enjoys the instant quick fix and believes in magic- are just a funny lot and it's leading to a terribly uneducated populace. Such a shame.
Cranks are funny and endearing in most cultures – however, we've given ours the ability to spew nonsense at 50,000 watts from 1,000 radio stations nationwide. That's a problem.
Yep. I agree with you on that.
Manifest Destiny allowed the USA to justify such just and godly actions as deliberately infecting blankets with smallpox before distributing them to starving, freezing natives shoved onto reservations. Or the intentional massacres of entire villages of mostly women and children, like at Sand Creek. Yeah, good ol' Manifest Destiny – very "Exceptional" indeed. So very Christian.
And including quotes by Thomas Paine in an article trying to make the case that the Founding Fathers believed they were chosen by some god to create this country is another ridiculous load of crap. Thomas Paine openly ridiculed organized religions, particularly Christianity, in his Age of Reason and was a dedicated deist. Just more Christian ignorance.
Paine despised christianity.
Hokahey, and well put
You are a hater. Go join your brothers in Syria.
Don't forget George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were also Deists and John Adams a Unitarian. All none Christians.
It's you that is the hater. Go Enlighten yourself.
Langkard- I agree. And the author of this propaganda peace does not mention that the United states had been settled by the Natvie American, vast regions where cleared of trees, and they have a highly functional political system. However, disease, brought by filthy, smelly, un-bathing Europeans killed most of the Indians.
If there is manifest destiny then the hand of god was the cease pools and disease breeding grounds of Europe.
There is not a lot to be proud of when you factor in simple biology.
I agree, by the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, before any Europian had traveled far to the west, disease hadalready moved across the lands ahead of them years before. Measles, scarlet fever, typhoid, typhus, influenza, whooping cough, tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, chicken pox, and venereal diseases were all brought here by the Europians and wiped out almost half the Native American population before Lewis and Clark even arrived. And that was before the U.S. purposely started using biological weapons such as the infected blankets. Has anyone else read "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond? It's a great read.
Americans are exceptional. Except for all the average ones and all the below average ones. Which is most of them. But the rest would be exceptional one way or another. I guess.
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.