This is the first in a series exploring the concept of American exceptionalism. On Monday, we examine areas in which other countries lead the way.
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) – It’s safe to say the first European arrivals to New England wouldn’t recognize today’s debate over whether America is exceptional.
Though the United States wouldn’t be born for another century and a half, the Puritans arriving in the early 1600s on the shores of what would become Massachusetts firmly believed they were on a mission from God.
In other words, they had the exceptional part down pat.
Fleeing what they saw as the earthly and corrupt Church of England, the Puritans fancied themselves the world’s last, best hope for purifying Christianity - and for saving the world.
The Puritans never used the word “exceptionalism.” But they came to see Boston as the new Jerusalem, a divinely ordained “city upon a hill,” a phrase Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop used in a sermon at sea en route from England in 1630.
“They were reinterpreting themselves as God’s new Israel,” Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero said. “They were essentially playing out the biblical story.”
To modern ears, that literal exceptionalist thinking could sound at once both exotic and quaint, which makes the idea’s staying power and influence throughout American history all the more remarkable.
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Nearly four centuries after Winthrop uttered the words “city on a hill,” President Barack Obama finds himself responding to charges from Republican challenger Mitt Romney that he has insufficient faith in American exceptionalism.
“Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do,” Romney said at a campaign stop this year. “You have an opportunity to vote and take the next step in bringing back that special nature of being American.”
Obama has pushed back on that claim, saying in a recent speech that “the character of our country … has always made us exceptional.”
Though the particulars surrounding the idea have changed, the bedrock belief that America is exceptional when measured against the arc of history and against all other nations has helped forge the nation’s defining moments, from the American Revolution and the country’s dramatic expansion west to the Civil War and both World Wars.
More recently, arguments about American exceptionalism have helped elect and unseat presidents – and have fed a debate about whether the phrase still has any meaning.
'An asylum for mankind'
For New England’s Puritans, exceptionalism was a religious idea with big political repercussions.
They thought the Protestant Reformation, which had been set into motion a century before, hadn’t gone nearly far enough in rooting out the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.
Puritans saw the pomp and hierarchy of the Protestant Church of England as too much like another papacy.
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In New England, Winthrop and his fellow travelers established a theocracy that they hoped would be a model for English Christianity.
“They had to succeed to bring about this promised apocalyptic history that would culminate in the second coming of Christ, hopefully to New England,” said Deborah Madsen, an American studies professor at the University of Geneva.
“To fail would be to fail the world on this grand, transcendent scale,” said Madsen, who has studied the idea of American exceptionalism throughout U.S. history.
With the stakes thought to be so high, there was intense social pressure among Puritans to adhere to a strict moral code.
Everyone looked for signs that they were among the elect destined for heaven and kept a watchful eye out for neighbors who might be backsliding. The starkest example: the Salem witch trials of 1692, in which 19 people were hanged in Massachusetts for allegedly practicing witchcraft.
“If the members of the community fulfilled their part in the work of sacred history, not only would the individuals find salvation, but the whole community would be saved,” Madsen said, summarizing Puritan thinking. “But if any individual failed to live up to this grand destiny, the entire community would be denied salvation.”
Being God’s chosen people, it turned out, wasn’t all roses.
America exceptional? Not by the numbers
As new arrivals and subsequent generations enlarged colonial America, the Puritans’ faith-based ideas were gradually secularized.
By 1660, it had become clear to the Massachusetts theocrats that they wouldn’t be exporting their ideas abroad anytime soon. That was the year the British monarchy was restored after a decade of rule by the Cromwells, putting an end to Puritan rule in England and re-establishing the Church of England as a political power.
And with new Enlightenment ideas making their way from Europe about a rational universe knowable through reason, the Puritans’ quest for perfect religious institutions gave way to a colonial quest for perfect political institutions.
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The democratic ideas that made up this new political exceptionalism owed plenty to Winthrop & Co.
“Puritans had mapped out the relationship between church and the community that included the seed of democratic participation,” said Madsen. “The idea was that everyone had rights but also responsibilities.
“By fulfilling their responsibilities and respecting the rights of others, they would achieve happiness through the social contract.”
That egalitarianism helped lay the groundwork for the American Revolution, though Madsen notes that “the terms of reference had changed from salvation to democracy.”
America’s revolutionaries were keenly aware that their calls for democratic government in the face of English rule were exceptional for their time.
“Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression,” Thomas Paine wrote in 1776 in “Common Sense,” which helped galvanize colonists toward the Revolutionary War.
“Freedom hath been hunted round the globe,” Paine wrote. “Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger. … O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
The Puritan vision of America as world’s godly beacon had been replaced by the image of the nation as the world’s workshop for political and social progress. America’s founders wanted to break with what they saw as the corruption of European politics and society, where a person’s status was mostly a matter of inheritance.
By contrast, the founders proposed in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
While other republics had come and gone, many of the founders who signed the Declaration - and, later, the Constitution - wanted the American Republic to endure forever.
This was city on a hill 2.0.
Reading the founders’ paeans to American exceptionalism - about aspiring to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” as the Constitution puts it - can put a lump in your throat.
But their vision excluded huge swaths of the population, like women and slaves. And other applications of the idea had their own dark sides.
Take Manifest Destiny.
As the nascent United States strove to expand westward in the 1800s, its leaders faced major problems, including how to justify taking land that belonged to Europe or that was occupied by Native Americans.
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Manifest Destiny – the idea that it was God’s will for the U.S. government to occupy North America or all of the Americas – offered a big part of the answer.
“A civilization that has the sanction of God is always the ultimate justification,” said the University of Geneva’s Madsen. “The idea was that God had made it manifest that the U.S. should expand. … It’s not much different than the idea of American exceptionalism.”
Like many facets of exceptionalism, the notion of Manifest Destiny wasn’t entirely new.
In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth of England had established herself as a divinely ordained monarch whose reign had been presaged by the Bible. That mythology, which inspired Puritan exceptionalism, had helped English plantation owners justify forays into what is now Northern Ireland.
In the same way, Manifest Destiny helped justify the United States as it laid claim to European land and forcibly removed tens of thousands of American Indians. Many asserted that the campaign was meant to civilize or Christianize the natives, making good on America’s “chosenness.”
And the American image of a continent brimming with virgin land – which denied the presence of American Indians there – synched nicely with long-held exceptionalist visions of an unspoiled and utopian New World.
“Our manifest destiny (is) to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions,” American newspaper editor John S. O’Sullivan wrote in 1845, arguing for the annexation of Texas, in what is believed to be history’s first mention of Manifest Destiny.
It’s hard to know how much America’s leaders truly believed in the idea versus how much they employed it for purely political ends. Manifest Destiny certainly had high-profile critics, including Mark Twain, who declared himself an “anti-imperialist.”
“If you’re a cynical person and you see something like the Mexican-American War as a land grab, you can say this idea of Manifest Destiny was construed to create a moral tissue for a war of aggression,” Boston University international relations professor Andrew Bacevich said.
The westward expansion was driven largely by Southerners who wanted to farm the land and expand American slavery.
But abolitionists like Frederick Douglass also appropriated American exceptionalism, arguing that the nation’s “peculiar institution” was evidence that America was falling short of its Christian mandate.
That abolitionist line foreshadowed a key argument of 20th-century liberals: If America is exceptional, it’s because of the decisions we make around justice, not because of innate “chosenness.”
By Douglass’ time, American exceptionalism was so deeply entrenched in the American psyche that it transcended religion. Abraham Lincoln, often described as a deist - believing in a distant, uninvolved God - was nonetheless a hearty exceptionalist.
“He believed that America was leading the way in history toward democracy and equality,” said Dorothy Ross, a history professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University. “At that time, Europe is still steeped in monarchs and failed revolutions, and America was still the only mass democracy in the Western world and believed that it was leading the historical way.”
Even the relatively unreligious Lincoln came to see the hand of God actively participating in American history through the Civil War.
“He gives to both North and South this terrible war,” Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, referring to God. “American slavery,” Lincoln said, was something that “He now wills to remove.”
The first president to say it
Despite its centuries-old influence, the term "American exceptionalism" didn’t emerge until sometime in the past 100 years.
Some historians say it’s unclear who coined the phrase, while others credit Joseph Stalin with doing so in 1929, when he admonished American communists for suggesting that the United States’ unique history could make it immune to Marxism.
In his reprimand, the Soviet leader decried “the heresy of American exceptionalism.”
Ironically, American intellectuals and eventually the broader public came to embrace the term, especially in the years following World War II, even after communists used the Great Depression as evidence of Stalin’s alleged "heresy.”
Just like President Woodrow Wilson had done in World War I, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman justified American involvement in World War II largely on the basis that the country had been chosen to lead and transform the world.
After the Second World War, “the United States had emerged as the strongest country,” said Johns Hopkins’ Ross. “Social scientists began studying things like national character and what makes America unique.”
American affection for the idea grew during the Cold War, as the U.S. attempted to distinguish itself from the “godless” Soviet Union.
“Our governments, in every branch ... must be as a city upon a hill,” John F. Kennedy said in a Boston speech just before his inauguration in 1961, citing John Winthrop by name.
In the ’60s and ’70s, however, American scholars and others began challenging the idea of American exceptionalism, mostly from the left and especially after the Vietnam War, which liberals criticized as a costly exercise in American hubris.
Historians began to see exceptionalism as a scholarly construct, a way of interpreting American history rather than as accepted fact.
Ronald Reagan illustrated the partisan gap around the idea, speaking of America as a “city on a hill” and attacking President Jimmy Carter for allegedly showing weakness on the world stage, including in the Iran hostage crisis.
“We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so,” Reagan told the first annual Conservative Political Action Conference in 1974. “We are today the last best hope of man on Earth.”
President George W. Bush employed similar rhetoric in his global “freedom agenda,” even after initially pledging a “humble” foreign policy.
Despite greater Republican than Democratic support for the idea (91% vs. 70%) , a 2010 Gallup poll found that 80% of Americans subscribed to the notion that the U.S. has a “unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.”
Boston University’s Prothero criticizes that definition of American exceptionalism, which he says is how most American politicians use the term today.
For John Winthrop, the shining city was an aspiration that depended on the righteous behavior of the Puritans, Prothero says, part of the social contract that laid the groundwork for democracy. Whether the city would in fact shine was an open question.
If the Puritans dealt falsely with their God, Winthrop had said in his 1630 sermon, there will be “curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”
In contemporary American politics, by contrast, Prothero says the idea of exceptionalism has been stripped of its conditionalism, becoming “a kind of brag.”
“Today, it’s ‘of course God blesses America,’ ” he said. “It’s presumptuous.”
Others have attacked the idea as little more than the kind of nationalism felt by citizens of countries all over the world.
“I believe in American exceptionalism,” President Obama said in France in 2009, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
But the president has since sounded a different tune. In his Air Force Academy commencement speech in May, Obama repeatedly expressed support for American exceptionalism.
“The United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” Obama said. “It's one of the many examples of why America is exceptional.”
In fact, Obama appears to be the first sitting president to publicly use those words, political experts say. Given their place in the modern American political lexicon, nearly 400 years after Winthrop first gave voice to the idea, he is unlikely to be the last.
1st U.S. President
"While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian."
–The Writings of Washington, pp. 342-343.
"Lighthouses are more useful than churches."
- Benjamin Franklin
batterfunk, a one liner does not a lifetime make. Lots of the founding fathers said lots of things. Bottom line America is a Christian country founded by Christians for Christians get used ti it.
Paul Revere's North Church did serve as a fine "lighhouse" indeed!
Ronald Regonzo: rubbish. Thankfully Jefferson put his two cents in at the right times to make sure that the ideals of freedom would be available to all regardless of religion. And thankfully, even though they all had Christian backgrounds, it is obvious to those of us with some education that the earliest intent of separation of church and state was to protect future generations from exactly the kind of misconception you are spewing here. Many of the founding fathers had fresh in their minds the religious persecution they or their parents had recently faced. It was of utmost importance to them to collectively make sure that their new government would be based on liberty first, trumping all ideals of religion, regardless of their individual leanings. It is to our benefit that they had such foresight – all you have to do is read the Declaration of Independence and the Const*itution.
Hello everyone. All are cordially invited to visit – thestarofkaduri.com
i did yesterday. looks like your typical religious zealot website selling ignorance.
The main thing the US excels in is Self Esteem!
The puritans were, like all arrogant people, quite evil in their own way and, as evil arrogant people are wont to do, became irrelevant, essentially as extinct as the dinosaurs.
But they are reborn every thanksgiving, a national day set aside to give thanks to God. Will we be hearing anything about you in 400 years?
Go explain your hypothesis to da boyz in the Detroit hood, Johnnie.....
will we be hearing anything from YOU in 400 years?
what's with the racist comments?
Hey, Booty Fool... this country doesn't suck. YOU suck.
President 39? what do you think? could replace Washington on the one by then.
never said this country sucks. but we can do better. pull your head out of your @ss and you'll see that.
The Puritans had more intellect, integrity, courage, creativity, faith, and just plain grit than you'll ever have Mr. Ignorant Judgemental Narrow Minded JohnfRichardson.
Lincoln said that we must be the "encouragement of the world." If we are that, then yes we are exceptional; if not that, if we are the bully of the world, then no.
The-problem with, "America", is-the-very-name, "America". Here-is-what-I-mean: the-Jesus-said that you-cannot-love the-riches of-this-world and the-riches of-the-kingdom of-the-heavens, and-the-name, "America", means, "Lover of riches.". Now, this-has-not-gone unnoticed by-God, who-notices all things. Here-is-the solution for America: change your name to Ameripobre. Amen.
Argument from false etymology! Tony fail!
The comments in this blog are just one example. Such sarcastic and angry people!! You would have to say that the "exceptional" Americans, if they ever existed, are no longer around. We are just exceptionally angry and shallow now. Shallow as in ignorant.
Actually, the puritans were pretty much permanently po'd and their preachers were quite the nasty little rhetoricians. So what you decry is what a lot of American pride has always been about.
of course we are. America has done in more in it's short life then some countries havent done in 5000 years. In all the time of human history, much of it has been has been enslaved, no freedom, indentured, and yet only in America has the light of freedom been so bright. Yes, America is exceptional....and those who hate us, well they of course say otherwise.
Hahahah, oh America.
The only time I can remember when people questioned America's greatness was during the Jimmy Carter depression.
In a sick way, we needed Jimmy Carter. There never would have been a Ronald Reagan without Jimmy Carter.
Sometimes ya just gotta know what you don't want before you know what you really want.
Barack Obama = epic fail.
Reagan was a president for the rich. trickle down economics? laughable. voodoo economics. without Reagan, we wouldn't be in the financial mess we're in. and we wouldn't have such a giant gap between rich and poor.
bottyfunk, Barry has to step up his game ... a lot... Mitt is in this thing and could win it.
Where are the jobs, Booty Boy? The liberal pseudo intelligentsia have run this country since the 2006 mid terms.
Where are the jobs?
i think it'll be close, but not that close. Obama will win handily. Romney just can't excite the republican base. herman caine was ahead of him not long ago. i just don't think that many people are going to be excited to vote Romney in november.
where are the jobs the republicans lost? overseas, where they sent them.
butterfunk come next year it could be a White house again. Barry could lose this thing and lose big
Cut the crap, Booty.... Where are the jobs?
Liberals have run this country since 2006. Poverty has nearly doubled. People are being encouraged to apply for food stamps - to stimulate the economy. Trickle up poverty abounds.
Where are jobs?
"Liberals have run this country since 2006"
yes, i remember when Bush was president and the liberals were running the country.
Why would someone not strive to be exceptional? Stop trying to pull everyone down to your level.
But maybe I can put it in terms you can understand... This is the only coutry on earth where the truly "poor" are fat. Not just fat but grotesquely fat. If you not like this country you can go live in a country where poor really IS poor! No running hot water. Maybe no bathroom. Probably no shoes. Definately no air-conditioning. Bad roads for everyone. No car for you. Limited Internet access if at all.
actually, more people in america would be happy if people like you left.
If people like us left, who would be left to support you, Booty Girl?
Mommy and Daddy?
I don't think so.
who'd be left to support me?
just your mom.
Somewhere between 25th and 37th in healthcare for our own population (depending on which parameters you use). The surest way to end up behind is to believe you have a right to be ahead just because of who you are. Being exceptional requires constant work and we have started coasting. Exceptional and most dangerous are not the same thing.
So what? Poverty is measured relative to the culture/country you're in. In this culture, even though the poor may have shoes and indoor plumbing – they have a hard time acheiving a level of comfort in our society. I bet you haven'tbeen in many poor homes in your neighborhood? I have been in a few – leaky roofs, stench, toilets backed up, and a neighborhood where you're likely to get shot at times.
You need to get away from Fox.....
Good post, septiq.... the truth is like a blinding light to a liberal.
"Why would someone not strive to be exceptional?"
Striving to be exceptional is a very different thing than simply declaring that you are exceptional.
I am all for everyone striving to make the USA exceptional. Then let the rest of the world decide if we succeeded.
Let-us-look-at-this, "American Exceptionalism", shall-we? First-of-all, how-many pre-born babies have-been-murdered by-their-mothers in-this-country, all-at-the-expense of-the-people of-this-country, not-to-mention the-expense of-the-babies, who-have-been-murdered by-their-own-mothers, in-their-own mother's womb? American Exceptionalism.... I-will-cut to-the-chase here. Here-is-the-problem with-America: America's pride. It-is-going to-swallow this-country whole, unless each and every single American swallows it whole, individually. Amen.
Except in the fevered mind of religious zealots, there is no such thing as a "pre-born baby." That is an absurd oxymoron.
Well stated, to the point, and very true.
We live in a imperfect world full of very negative things. On the other side there is plenty of good and certainly the US continues to be exceptional...
There is a reason why so many people all over the world resent Americans and think you're dangerous and partially crazy as a nation. This article outlines that reason very clearly.
There is also a reason why the United States went from being the envy of the world to what it has become today and that is also linked to the "reasoning" in this article. Tell a group of people that they a exceptional and special long enough and then watch everyone break rules (because rules are for everybody else) and most importantly, become complacent.
You Americans should stop staring at your belly buttons and start fixing the real mess that your country is in. "Exceptionalism" won't help you at this juncture.
Your comment needs more context. The American mess is not nearly as bad as the mess other countries experience. Some have better economies but worst ecology, some better education but are ineffectual globally. American's are unfortunately following a trend away from what their founders intended and this is creating a big debate. Will America become increasingly socialist and let the government run their lives, like so many in other parts of the world?
and what country are you from? America has been hijacked by Marxists. Our corporate world is absolutely riddled with corruption and we refuse to revolt. In a nutshell this is what's happening.
Phillipe: Sorry that France, Sweden or Canada or no longer the country you hoped it would be. America is a beacon, no other country in today's world would someone like Obama had a chance to become the head of state. Not in France, no in Sweden not in Canada. I am not a suporter of Obama, but the fact that my country elected someone with the ethnic and social background of Obama to be our president tells you how exceptional the USA is. The USA is not perfect, but after living in many countries around the world so called progresive and civilized, I chose the USA over all of them
You're seeing "socialism" where there is none.
You're being manipulated by very smart conservatives who have you and many others like you on a "fear of socialism bandwagon". You should be asking yourself about poverty inn America (how could a country tat put a man on the moon be so poor?) and you should be asking yourself why third world countries like China are surpassing you in everything from environmental standards to transportation standards. I remember a time when America was at the forefront of everything, that is not the case any more unfortunately.
But go ahead, keep being afraid of "socialism", maybe one will jump out from under your bed some day and teach you some common sense as opposed to that lovely fear that Fox "New" spews out daily.
I wholeheartedly agree, and I'm American. We've rested on our "laurels" for too long now. It's time to pull up our bootstraps and get back to work fixing this mess we've made. Not everyone subscribes to the idea that America can do no wrong. We are a nation built of people. People are never perfect and to think so of yourself is actually dangerous.
I'll tell you if we are exceptional. Just wait while I go check our math and science scores amongst the developed nations.
If we're not exceptional, trust me, it's because of deadbeats like YOU.
And if we're not exceptional, why are people willing to risk their lives crossing deserts or clinging to homemade rafts in shark the shark infested waters of the Florida Keys to get here?
This country doesn't suck. YOU suck.
Curt makes a good point, and the little weenie that doesn't even have enough creativity to make up a hand is the one that sucks.
Do you know who the strongest patriot is? It's not the deluded Fox Borg who thinks everything we do as a nation is by its very nature golden. The best patriot is one who understands our triumphs, and celibrates them, but also understands our weaknesses and our screwups, and doesn't make excuses for them, but instead has a clear and factual nature in the discussion as to how to overcome our messes and make this country better. Hey! torture and imperialism, for example? Let's not make escuses or provide blind subservience to national leaders that commit crimes against humanity but instead, let's point out the error of our ways and how we can make this nation better, both for ourselves and as a world citizen. The US COULD BE a world leader, an example for all nations; instead it is a dangerous wounded viper, dying due to its overexpenditures and its hegemonic overreach and its surrender to its Rentier Class which takes all and earns nothing through any effort, dying but still strong and dangerous and capable of lashing out and dealing any country a lethal blow, often with little reason. We can be better. And you know deep down inside your psyche and consience the path forward, never weak, but cooperative on the world stage and understanding that to be truly exceptional is not to be a killer and a danger but instead a friend and team member. We need to return this country to one By, Of, and For The People. All of Them, not just the warmongers and profiteers.
The US is definitely exceptional. I am sure it was "gods" plan for Europeans to come and slaughter the native inhabitants so that they could create a "divine" nation. :)
Well they were stinking the place up
Why don't you move somewhere you can be proud of yourself, Stewie?
we would still be exceptional if republicans didn't keep trying to muck things up.
The liberal left has run this country since the 2006 midterms.
Where are the jobs, opie?
What is exceptional? It exceptionally easy to borrow money in the US. Parking lots, retail establishments and the people are exceptionally large. Some americans spend an exceptional amount of time and energy boasting about how exceptional they are. And, as said in Thank You for Smoking, America is Exceptional because of the endless appeals process.
Do you have any idea what you're talking about, Joe?
If you have to tell people you are cool... you are not cool. If you have to tell people you are exceptional... you are not exceptional. If you even bring up the subject you are probably a private school elitist. Sorry Mitt – but this is so embarrassing.
You're proof of "Stupid is as stupid does".
Please, leave this country, and never return...
Exceptional... maybe we will have to answer for killing JFK.. new evidence has been found...http://youtu.be/nq-ZJ99qaCc
Everyone knows who killed JFK. It was the phone company.
Get a life, John.
What difference does it make now?
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.