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.
My Faith: Why I don’t sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’
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.
Utah is the most enlightened, cultured and open minded state in the country.
And I'm sure that you are not personally biased in any way.
. . . with the highest rates of rape, porn consumption, and anti-depressant use.
The USA is exceptional. I have been to thirty countries and I can say without a doubt it is exceptional. The hate and venom expressed by those above would not be tolerated, except in a free democracy.
The USA like any country is not perfect and it has made major mistakes in the past. Mistakes are NOT unique to this country. Name the country that is better and I will have no problem listing it's mistakes.
The fact that no other country takes in the numbers of immigrants that the US does is testament to the fact this is the best place on earth to live.
I've learned that comments like those above are born of political bias, personal religious bias (yes, I lump Islam, secularism, agnosticism, atheism, universalism together with Christianity, Judaism, Toaism, Budism, etc), ignorance or thinly vailed jealousy.
The idea of American exceptionalism is an idea that is meant to be uplifting. Not drag everyone down to the lowest common denominator!
I love this country very much. I love it enough to be proud to see that secular, representative governments modeled after our own have become the hallmark of progressive nations. I appreciate the accomplishments done in the name of America.
But I also love this country enough to acknowledge that it has flaws. You can't fix problems if you don't admit they exist. How foolish would we be, if we let this nation fail because we were too busy patting ourselves on the back to notice that our foundations were crumbling?
Hello everyone. You are all cordially invited to visit – thestarofkaduri.com
The US government uses mind control on it's citizens.
Apparently they have gotten to you.
What up homies? I is going ta church to get down wit da main homie, Jesuz.
There are things the US does better than other nations. There are things that other nations do better than the US. There are things that are great about the US. There are things that are definitely not great about the US. No person is perfect; that does not mean no one can be loved. You can love an imperfect nation. I would argue that if you truly love your nation you will constantly be working to improve it rather than to blindly worship it and insist that it is the best in everything beyond question (which is obviously not true of any nation).
Absulutely, let us not counfuse what we call "Exceptionalism" with blind Nationalism, every aggressive dictator has that, let us also remember that we have religious liberty and that means that each persons religion or no religion is entirley their own affair and not to be imposed on anyone else.
If America is exceptional beause we champoin liberty and democracy then yes we are, if as many seem to think American Exceptionalism means we have special privilges and are immune to international law, no we are not. America lead the world in these areas, yet we were one of the last in the western world to abandon slavery and it was only into the 1960's that the black population was given full rights. American exceptionalism is what we aspire to, not what we have lived up to, the 'unfinished work' that Lincoln allued to in the Gettysburg Address.
My comments are terrible and not funny whatsoever. In a just society, I would be put down.
The writer refers to Lincoln as a deist and then quotes speeches where he clearly says he believes God is at work in the world. Huh! America has been exceptional and the undisputed world leader in every category until Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was made law. That set up the slow evolution of America to a european style socialist nation. The liberal progressive agenda of the last century has transformed America from a nation of personal responsibility to a nation of government wards. The events of 9/11 set in motion a chain of actions and reactions (financial, military, government intrusion,etc.) that have weakened the nation and set us on a course of failure of epic proportion. As a Christian I believe in the blessing of God on our nation. I also believe we have done just as ancient Israel and turned our backs as a nation on Him. The result of this, just as in Judah, has been the invasion of a hostile enemy. In Judah's case they were granted the initial calamity as a warning. They ignored it. The end was their total destruction. So far we also have ignored our warning. I hope we don't end the same way.
haha you don't know what a speech by a politician is haha you're a typical christian (i.e.–an idiot) haha
Isn't it great that you can turn on Rush Limbaugh every morning and find out what your opinions are today? What would you do without him?
Yeah, I'm really glad that God cares about some human tribes more than others. It must be awful to live in a tribe, like say, Canada, that God loves less than our tribe.
Jesus is my boyfriend.
you people are tools, if you READ all of it you would see my RETORTS to these statements
Ha Ha, What an ultra maroon
my doppelganger can't read
† Atheism is a religion that makes you angry, stupid, brainwashed, ignorant & blind. Retort- Atheism is not a religion, so your first point is moot
† Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated. Retort- A "disease" by Websters definition is : "an impairment of the normal state of the living animal or plant body or one of its parts that interrupts or modifies the performance of the vital functions, is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms, and is a response to environmental factors (as malnutrition, industrial hazards, or climate), to specific infective agents (as worms, bacteria, or viruses), to inherent defects of the organism (as genetic anomalies), or to combinations of these factors" Don't use words that you don't understand or clearly don't have any meaning in your way of life.... AKA science
† Atheism makes you post stupid things (90% of silly comments here on CNN blogs are posted by closet Atheists) Retort- Post Stupid things? Like posting that Atheism is a religion when the very point of Atheism is the LACK OF ONE?
† Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle. Retort- LOL... No, just no.
† Atheists are misguided and causes problem in our religious & public society. Retort- Religious society no doubt... Public society? When was the last time a war was waged with millions of people killed in the name of Atheism and then compare that to the amount of people killed in the name of Christ.
† Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith. Retort- We don't believe the world was created 6000 years ago or that man was made from dirt and WE are mentally ill?
† Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.Retort- if people like you are going to be there.. then I'd rather not go.
† Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Hitler (Denied his faith later), Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders. Retort You are mistaking greed for atheism and using worst case situations to fit your goal.
† No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider'. Retort- Define "traditional". Also, we still celebrate Christmas.. just as a time to be with ones we love not to worship someone. No culture? I would list authors and actors but you would ignore them anyway.
† Atheists are angry, drug additcted and committ the most crime. Retort Actually most men and women in prison are highly religious.
† Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet. Retort- We don't try to "convert" anyone as it's not a religion. We just state what we see.
† Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people. Retort- then why are you so concerned about us if we are not real?
† Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved. Retort- now you are just reaching.
† Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency. Retort- LOL.... that is why the masses who are poor are highly faithful and those who are atheist are mostly educated at universities.
† Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history. Retort- wrong.. bad economics mixed with with an over extended empire led to the French Revolution.... pick up a book.
† Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists. Retort- Just because Atheism admits it does not know while the Bible does is not proof of factual evidence. If I say "I KNOW the universe was created by a giant purple space ape farting" that does not make it true.
† All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals. Retort- Partly true.. we DO believe in evolution, we DON'T believe that we should act like animals... we have EVOLVED past that point.
† 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) Retort- The Bible also says unruly children should be stoned to death. Deuteronomy 21:18-21
Fook the bible and it's outdated fairy tales.
You are sad. Good luck.
† S†alin! †
I am really obsessed with † S†alin! †
It's no coincidence that ne has that Jesus-cross right in the moddle of his name!
You are one F*** up Retar*ed Mofo. But mostly, just a stup*id troll
You sound indoctrinated.
There is absolutely nothing that makes America BETTER than Australia or Canada. Those who do think otherwise have their hand on their hearts and their heads up their a–es.
Less Socialism, more Christianity.
Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Christ "And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise (Americas); yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands." – 1 Nephi 2:20
yeahhh! mormons are freakin awesome!
Of course that's what the book of Mormon says. It was written by an American con man, as a tool to fleece the people who actually fell for his tricks. The thing that astonishes me is that people are STILL falling for this nonsense.
"And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent."
I have a revelation for you: You are dumb.
ohhhtayyy Big Sneezy. Whateva youz says.
seeing a bunch of anti-american comments is very saddening to me-
seriously guys. If you are not going to do anything but complain then move to canada or something. Be grateful for the rights and freedoms you enjoy here and thanks those that died so you can have them. its nearing the celebration of our Beautiful nations Independance-say thanks losers, or get lost.
That was hot. Do you want to hang out and maybe shower afterwards?
What a short sighted comment. One of our freedoms is our right to express when we think that the country needs to improve. Just because I don't think that America is truly exceptional anymore does not mean I don't love this country.
Yes, it is sad that we actually practice our rights. The Founding Fathers only wanted us to admire them, not actually use them.
well... some people obviously didn't know WHICH comments I was talking about... I didn't say anything about us not being able to express our opinions. im all for that. so...yeah... but for those who know what im talking about- kudos to you
Airwad is a fine example of hollow patriotism. To him/her, patriotism is nothing more than a gesture, like a flag lapel pin or a "God Bless America" bumper sticker.
Real patriots know that to love your country is to recognize it's flaws, and to do your best to correct those flaws.
"Praise unto Him, and He shalleth poop unto thine face"
Hot Carl (17, 18)
I beat off to the JC Penney catalog.
That takes me back.
It's good to have accomplishments in life.
Ezekiel 23:20 There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.
Yea, (s)he was there for us for the tanking of our economy and the crusades!
1/4 of Americans take the country for granted, another 1/4 are oblivious for what they have, yet another 1/4 can't stand America, but don't have the gonads to leave and unfortunately that only leaves a 1/4 that grateful to be in country / culture that is in it's panicle in freedom, wealth and opportunity..................bye, bye miss American Pie
American Pie? This all relates to Buddy Holly's plane crash?
Make-Up: You are apparently in the 1/4 that takes America for granted. Ignoring the problems of a nation doesn't make those problems go away. It just allows them to multiply.
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.