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.
The only thing we do better than the rest of the world is get fat. We are not exceptional. We are pompous warmongers who let our own population die of preventable illness.
While I believe there are aspects of America that are exceptional, our constant declarations of superiority over the rest of the world are not among these. I believe that our exceptionalism must speak for itself. If it does not, then demanding we constantly define ourselves as exceptional and superior to everyone else when our performance doesn't merit it is embarrassing.
Prayer changes things. I like period juice.
Prayer changes things .
your ignorance and studity isn't healthy for you, your kids and this nation.
Your ignorance & stupidity isn't healthy for you, your kids or this nation.
Prayer doesn't change a damn thing! Never has.
Blindly submitting oneself to religion and one way of thinking is much more detrimental to one's health than atheism.
Prayer changed Stalin from a Georgian Orthodox theology student into a bloodthirsty dictator.
To steal a name on an anonymous blog it is not too far a leap to lying. Credibility shot. God bless
I should have been a priest.
When did CNN from a news website to a religious one?
I'm getting tired of all these non-stories like "the president's faith", and crapdoodle like this.
Then why did you come here on this article?!
Few 100% true Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things:
† Atheism is a religion that makes you angry, stupid, brainwashed, ignorant & blind.
† Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
† Atheism makes you post stupid things (90% of silly comments here on CNN blogs are posted by closet Atheists)
† Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle.
† Atheists are misguided and causes problem in our religious & public society.
† Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
† Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
† Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Hitler (Denied his faith later), Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders.
† No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider'
† Atheists are angry, drug additcted and committ the most crime.
† Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
† Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
† Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
† Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency.
† Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
† Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
† All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
† The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
† Countries where Atheism is prevalent has the highest Suicide rate & Communist countries = Atheism!
**Only 2-3% of the U.S. are Atheists/Agnostics VS. over 90% who believe in God (80% Christians) in the U.S.**
† † Our Prayers goes to Atheists to be mentally healthy and seek their creator † †
PS! the USA is a † nation and will always be. You know it's true and stop being ignorant and arrogant!
(Take a look at our federal/state holidays, 99% of our presidents, blue laws in parts of the nation, the majority of people, some laws, calendar, culture, etc.)
LOL! thanks for the good laugh. my favorite part is:
"Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle."
LOL! we're atheist that worship a christian angel/demon made by a god we don't believe in.
you are brain-dead.
I'm not sure if that's a joke or not....but I find it interesting that most of the spelling and grammatical errors in these messages seem to be posted by pro-religious types.
Just saying, is all.
Replace "Atheism" with "Christianity" and it makes more sense.
You give me chills up and down my spine, and not in a good way.
I found another way to say "Stalin", and another name to do it under!
Life is good today.
Obvious troll is obvious
Don't be alarmed, these nice gentlemen in the white coats are here to take you on a little trip. Yes, it is a funny looking jacket with those extra long sleeves.
My snuggy-jacket is here?!?!?! Oh boy!!! Can I have my happy pills and go sit in the soft room again?
I can't wait to shower with my new teammates!
Some things to remember, the Puritans were so isolationist and xenophobic they were asked to leave the extremely open Netherlands, which took them in when they left England, and the government there even paid for the voyage to leave. When they got to America, the descendants were so religiously intolerant that they literally drove other Christians out on pain of death, Christians who would then found Rhode Island. These are the 'exceptionalists' on which our country was founded. We can do better in the future.
Leave it to CNN to try to link "exceptionalism" with religion.
How about the simple FACT that is IS exceptional in granting freedoms to the people.
Those who don't believe our freedoms are exceptional simply don't understand the limited number of rights that have been "granted" to the "loyal subjects" of other nations. They think they have freedoms, but the have nothing like the Bill of Rights.
America used to be exceptional. Then Obama entered the Oval Office.
Seriously? We are to believe that the Dunce-in-Chief that was in there for 8 years with his leash-holder didn't damage our standing in the world one iota?
and made it better. i guess you yearn for the days of W.
That's a very uneducated statement.
CNN's job is to present the news not promote 1 religion down throats of educated people. Why is this American conceipt emblazened across the main page?? phukkin joke!
Who said? CNN can do whatever it wants. They have news, opinion and analysis. I think this article is fascinating and very appropriate for this independence season.
Similar to Old Testament Israel, when America is humble and obedient to God we are exceptionally blessed. When America is arrogant and proud God can't use us or bless us.
So the Babylonians are comin' to take J Pete into exile.
Which god? Zeus? Thor? Allah? Vishnu? Krom?
America: Land of the Free, Home of the Vain.
You have to remember that the professors quoted in this article are more than likely Secular Humanists. To whom religion is anathema. Speaking of hubris, the vast majority of our college professors think that rational thought will take them where ever they want to go. Ignoring that they are making the probably unconscious decision from the start to postulate and hypothesize God out of the picture. Once one is left with a "devinely secular" view of the world, well, then everything is relative and there are no absolute right and wrong, only opinion. The great strength of religions is that they give an absolute standard by which we all should live. Regardless of the religion. Something Secular Humanists cannot do.
"The great strength of religions is that they give an absolute standard by which we all should live. Regardless of the religion. Something Secular Humanists cannot do."
wrong wrong and wrong. Humanist ethics are far superior to the 'morals' of christianity. compare:
the bible says to kill disobedient children, non-virgin brides.all, anyone working the weekend and g.ays. the bible supports slavery. are those the christian 'values' you're talking about?
You're right, there IS no absolute right or wrong. Christians and Muslims will sometimes disagree, Catholics and Protestants will sometimes disagree, and Methodists and Baptists will often disagree. Even people within the same congregation can disagree on some issues of morality. That said, there is a certain morality that is inherent thoughout humanity, including proscriptions on murder, theft, and lying, but these have more to do with the social contract our civilization has developed over millenia than with religion.
A standard written by man of course – that's what you meant to say right....because your glorious book wasn't written by God it was written by man! That's why it's full of flaws! Your logic being one of them.
In the last decade there has been a major push to see that everyone is treated equally – done to the point where there are no grades, no winners in sports, programs to assist minorities, programs to help anyone outside of the mainstream and everyone gets a trophy and a certificate. Equality is a wonderful thing – but how can anyone be exceptional if everyone and everything is equal?
you're exaggerating. there are tons of prizes and awards issued to exceptional people every year. so you're premise is false.
Incorrect. They still give grades in school. they still give awards based on merit and they still assign sports positions based on ability. This is an over-the-top, conservative talking point that has never been true outside of a few very rare exceptions but is repeated ad infinitum by the right.
I know that I will catch hell but this belief in American exceptionalism has cause American so much death and misery. It has led to the US to so many wars. One of the greatest unknown America was Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, two time recipient of the Medal of Honor. If any man knew war, it was Smedley Butler. Here is part of what he has to say about US and our many wars:
"War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.
I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we'll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.
I wouldn't go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket. " Search for "War is Racket" and read about this American patriot.
Religion causes wars.
Thank you C S. It doesn't get said enough.
Show me who makes a profit from war, and I’ll show you how to stop the war.
Henry Ford, US industrialist (1863-1947)
America is a bully not a world leader and it is bound to fail because it is a bad bully that is simply pretending to be a leader. Sooner or later another Bush will come and he 2 will kill millions so that rich Americans can have more. Look, u silly people, ur are what u get fed on TV, in Movies, News....etc. Ur not Free becasue u live in a dream that is anightmare to billions and especially to those who ur government deem collateral damage in its wars and battles for superiority. American oil companies alone are a mafia that is preventing the world from breathing anything but oil and CO2, 1.5 million Iraqis would testify to that.
LOL Coming from a country that lags behind the stone age.
CO2? you know CO2 is good for the planet right?
Most of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does not come from the burning of fossil fuels. Only about 14 percent of it does
Carbon dioxide accounts for less than ten percent of the greenhouse effect, as carbon dioxide's ability to absorb heat is quite limited.
I'm verbally abusive to my chickens and that makes me feel bad.
We have an exceptional president and a spoiled rich kid running against him.
That is the funniest thing I've heard today. Obama may have used the word "exceptionalism" in his speech but he certainly does not believe in American Exceptionalism. I guess that's what happens when you aren't born here.
Stalin, Mao Lennin, greatest mass murderers and represives in history and all athiests, manifest athiesm....
no one murders in the name of atheism. and i think you left out Hitler, a christian.
Try something a bit more original, or at least pause and have a thought about what it is you are trying to claim instead of parroting idiot fundie talking points. Unless you accept that thinking is just too darn hard for you...
If you're not a Native American, you're not native born. Besides, you think all the people you listed were atheists. They weren't, they just said they were.
he was baptised Catholic but was not a practicing one.
They don't kill in the name of Atheism........that's rich
They were also all dictators. Try again...
Bootyfunk- Hitler was raised a Christian, practiced as a Muslim, an later evolved into atheism. Sounds a lot like Obama.
guess you haven't read hitler's book, mein kampf, where he talks about god and christianity and being on a mission from god to kill jews. i guess you don't know that nazi belt buckles read, "in god's light". hitler was a christian – deal with it.
atheism leads to mass murder, lying and stealing, known facts. God bless
government cheese, your statement about Hitler or Obama practicing Islam is hilarious. Go read a book.
And just sayin, Martin Luther said "lying for Jesus" was just dandy.
government cheese, you're trolling is very weak.
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.