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.
Photos: Faces of citizenship
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.
Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter
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.
What did the USA accomplish in Iraq or Vietnam. Just answer that. To hell with the USA. Mind your own business.
Thats a fantastically dumb quesion – the majority of wars are born of futility and end in futility.
Our country-----------------------–Was exceptional.
Notnymoor We are so divided it's maddening. We can be exceptional again. Remove all the labels except for one > AMERICAN!
"Was the United States choosen by god?" This is a simple question to resolve with an ounce of reason and logic. No the U.S, was not choosen by god, because there is no such thing as god.. Religion is a fairytale without any evidence to support it. Any rational and logical person would dismiss religion for the nonsense lies that it is.
The world will be a far better place once humanity has developed a coillective intelligence great enough to move past Faith based Religion in all its forms. Faith demands belief even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Faith demands the suppression of reason and logic. For this reason Faith based religion is an extremely dangerous meme in the human psyche that we will be far better offf without.
(Cute that there is a video of Bill Maher above – a very wellspoken intelligent non-theist who im sure will agree with much of my post.)
I think its exceptional that the US does so poorly compared to many less exceptional countries in education, health care coverage, tending to the needy,.....
amen amen amen!!!!
Ding Ding Ding, we have a winner! Well said.
Prayer changes things .
but its not UNHEALTHY either
Yes, atheism is it is the most vile form of human existence, created in lies, nurtured in theft and matured in murder. God bless
Yes, I prayed and my amputated leg grew back. Want proof? I now have 2 legs. Actually 3, and the 3rd one you can bite!
just sayin –
I love how you say things contradictory to all evidence – you go girl – being ignorant takes effort and youre giving it your all!
An atheist is without moral compass and given political power without restrain or remorse. History proves my position and sadly more so every day. God bless
just sayin –
Name one instance in hisotory supportive of your views on atheism. Please.
Atheism isn't healthy? Prayer changes things? This is all based on research I assume? Or are we adopting the common religious approach of pointing fingers and pushing fairytales based on human imagination?
Just Sayin: People like you set a poor example for religion. You are egotistical and blind, using your believes to judge others as evil and inferior.
Do you know what being an atheist means? Please elaborate on how not believing in the supernatural makes someone vile and/or a criminal?
Accept you know nothing and try to learn. Grow as a person, don't manufacture lies or insult people you do not know.
i love this country, but with that said i feel i have to look at the reality of what this video is about. We as a nation have lost so much ground i hope...i pray we can get it back. but. when you look at our nations math reading and science scores compared to the world, it makes you wonder. the Left attacks the Right and the Right attacks the left, in the middle of this battle is the future of this country. Wake up DC. we are losing.
Jesus is watching you poop.
The world seems to be getting worse each day. "Zombies are among us not the undead kind, but drug users who have given them self over to the substances. My ancestors came from England if they could only see this great nation now, and see that it has fallen. Obama has many faults, its not just him the senate and the rest of the government, make these laws and rules and just run it past him. We need a better government and a better president. Things won't change much, many people have given up on any kind of faith, seems no one cares about the future of children and what will become of this nation. I will try to live among people and roast in this heat. God Bless Everyone!
It's very dangerous for the US if our politicians believe that God is on the side of the US.
yep, thats how dictatorships start
When Lincoln was asked which side of the War God was on, he replied, "I pray that we (the North) are on His side." That's the humble and submissive way to view God!
God favors no one but the chosen. Enough said....
who are the chosen??
who is god?? which one of the thousands man has made are you talking about?
The tooth fairy gives you cash for teeth, enough said...
Mormon's do not have all the records. The original Book of Mormon was lost as soon someone wanted to date it. That is far inferior to other religions.
Wow, a religion not based on evidence!?
America was not "chosen"
It is a result of bad people doing bad things to other people
Spiritual striving and growth leads to economic prosperity and blessings. Spiritual decline and stagnation leads to economic decay and curses. America is heading in which direction?
Yeah, that's what I expected.
There's a great article about American exceptionalism and it's relation to modern Christianity at this site: http://www.sublimedirectory.com/teens
Just like the so called American Dream, i exceptionalism is another myth, an illusion in which name atrocities have been committed.
exactly...Imperialism of all kinds has played this card, till the deck crumbles
Exceptionalism is mentioned in this article too...
What's the difference between a christian and a typewriter?
The typewriter doesn't belong to a socially regressive organization that believes the human race must seek salvation in an omnipotent being whose son was tortured and killed over 2000 years ago because a woman made from a man's rib cage took bad advice from a talking snake.
What makes this country exceptional is the freedom and rights of it's people. The Puritans came here to escape a country that had a national religion, a country that's government could persecute it's people over religious beliefs. We have more freedoms in this country than any other country ever has, that is what makes us exceptional. Our freedoms are all based on being free of a monarch or totalitarian leader with complete control over us. Our freedoms are based on not having a government that has complete control over us, but rather, a government with limited powers given to it by the people. This has been slowly changing and that's why many feel we aren't exceptional anymore. We have traded our freedoms for freebies. We have given our government more control over our daily lives. We have wanted our government to be our parent and our provider and in the process looked the other way when the government overreaches and restricts our freedoms. If we continue down this road, our exceptionalism will be gone forever.
What makes You think that this country has more freedom then certain other countries ? Have You lived in other countries so You can be sure of this. As an immigrant to the US I cant agree with You. On the contrary . Dont You think that most countries in Europe are free countries with a highly developed democracy. A somewhat more humble view of the rest of the world would be nice !
Wasn't communism supposed to be Atheistic? How many were killed by Stalin? 20 million?!
So if killing people in the name of a set of beliefs is a prerequite to being called a religion then I think Atheism passes.
BTW don't forget those killed by Mao!
Neither of those you named killed "in the name of atheism". Read something.
You are a total moron if you think atheism is a religion.
What about the 70 million aborted babies murdered in the US in the name of atheism?
They were not killed for athiesm. These were dictatorships and the leader the god.
Keith: Get back on your meds
What are you gassing on about now, Keith? What does atheism have to do with abortion? You do know that the majority of women who have abortions identify themselves as religious, don't you?
No, I didn't think you did.
Gee Tommy, perhaps that's part of the reason this nation is in judgment.
Tom, you mentioned that you still had power? Be patient. God will get to you soon enough. Right now this judgment is directed at the Church that has taken His name in vain. The church has done nothing to stop the evil of abortion. Nothing to stop this whole gay marriage and removal of DADT. The church is compromising with evil people like you, Tom. That's what this judgment is mostly about.
He will deal with the heathen during the 3 1/2 year period known as the Great Tribulation. In the mean time, He is patient in hopes that even someone as vile as you will repent, Tommy. He has placed the burden of your eternal destiny squarely in your lap. If you go to hell, you will have no one to blame but yourself.
Keith, don't you get tired of being a crazy person?
Keith – Our country's in judment? Whatever happened to our free will? Are we being punished now, by your god? Didn't he promise us free will until his second coming? You've invented your own religion. Serving up any kool-aid to your followers soon?
Mao,Stalin and all the atheist tyrants murdered over a billion as atheists because their atheism allowed them to do it. More people have been murdered by atheists in the last 100 years than were killed in all previous centuries. To be an atheist is to value lies theft and murder. Know the sins by the company it keeps, atheism is a curable evil, repent and turn to God. God bless
It's more appropriate not to say that these atrocities were done in the name of athiesism, but holding the worldview of athiesism- that individuals are merely animals, another evolutionary product, and nothing more. Furthermore, athiests are accountable to no one but themselves because by removing God, they have elevated themselves to that position.
Atheism is not a belief, it is a lack of belief.
You idiots can keep reciting the same nonsense but it will still be nonsense. Totalitarian leaders abolish religion only to eliminate compete tion for power over the masses, not because they're atheists. Furthermore, there is not a grain of truth to your silly contention that atheists have no "morals" simply because they don't believe in some supernatural being.
There is a great book written by the Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker, "The Blank Slate" that adderesses the commonality between the Chinese revolution and Russian revolutions and many other great human catastrophies, at the heart of the cause of these events was not atheism. But a dangerous disbelief in an innate evolved human condition. The flaw that the communists had was that they believed they could engineer a new social mankind that would be different from our innate condition. Such as they believed children could be taken from parents and raised in a communal environment. This stands in complete opposiiton to our evolved instincts and causes great harm to any human parent and child. The root cause of much of the suffering by events such as these was a denial of an innate evolved human condition and a belief in humanity as a blank slate that could be educated to become different. The blank slate is another dangerous meme. We are not born as blank slates but born with innate human instincts and cognative components, that enable a degree of learning, but that contain a distinct humanity that must be understood in order to avoid causing harm to people.
The blank slate should be manditory reading for students. It is a great book that helps explain the causes of a great deal of human suffering. I reccomend picking up this book and giving it a read.
Actually – Stalin DID kill in the name of God – except he was God. Hitler constantly announced he was chosen by Providence (maybe not God per se, but a belief is some higher power) to do the things he did.
Atheism/religion has nothing to do with the country's fortunes. You really, really need to do some looking at History sometime, especially during our supposedly "Godly" era you refer to – say up until 1960 or so? Blacks were discriminated against, lower wage workers were employed in sweatshops, child labor was the norm.
Great Bill Maher clip:
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.