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.
America is the best proof there is no god...
Reagan next to Lincoln?, Really????
I am sure that you will all be patting yourselves on the back about now (4th of July and all that), but if you refuse to look at yourself square, in the mirror, and admit you r faults, past and present, you will always be just another bag of wind. Or, maybe a spent Roman Candle drifting off into the night sky...
Timely article. Take a look at "Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph" by Dennis Prager. It came out last month and it is well worth a look/read.
dennis prager is a religious kook.
Certainly not in the eyes of the far left and its leaders.
wrong. i'm on the left and it matters a lot to me. i want an atheist in the white house, someone who uses reason and compassion, not religious dogma to shape policies.
Exeptional input on the marriage of the politics and religion....
Did I miss the part that explains of the gluttonous commercialism that often intertwines the three into one?
if having god in your life means you believe you are happier or live now a more full life thats all grand.....all i see is a less then true appreciation for the living and one who'd rather worship the dead and senseless.
if not having god in your life means a meaningless life well again all i see is a less then true love of life and a yearning for death.
both are pointless – just live, be happy....why does one need god in it? god doesn't come down and su ck your di ck....everything after conversion is the same only with a sense of meaning....basically, you lack an ability to adjust outside the age of reason so you require a "god" that replaces your parents as the rule maker and enforcer....wow, thats sad.
side note, if you require a non-existent being to tell you how to live and die then you may have any one of many mental ailments....might want to get that checked.
the hippypoet :)
God Bless You Hippypoet!
Spirituality is not optional, at least in the Human species.
Neither is imagination or creativity...
BUT, like your ability to dream and fantasize, it should not over-rule your judgement of how to deal with the real and the present. I'm pretty sure, for instance, that "Jesus" never stopped a Lion from eating a Christian in the Roman Coliseum.
BUT, they probably died "happy", if that's what you want to call it.
Spirituality, just like our imaginations, have created great works of art, literature, music, painting. It bends our minds to view this ordinary world in a "different light". It gives us "hope" on a dark, oppressive night. It entertained us when everything else seemed drab. And, it inspired our children to go out in the world and do "better".
What's not to like? A few Inquisitions and Witch burnings (don't forget Jihads and Crusades) and you non-believers come un-hinged...scheeez
wouldn't that be more of a damning being the position i take on said god?
that was an insult and you owe me a sorry and you better mean it or your god will see you as being selfish and full of spite – what would saint peter think?
seriously, what would jesus do? have some wine and lay with some dudes!
The closer were are to God, the better we are.
well the cops have been looking for a man named jesus....if you have information leading to his arrest its a crime not to tell!
The US is divided, and that division continues to grow. The nation was built on a number of ideas brought forth by a number of different individuals. Now, the stupid drivel of stupid political parties has ended our exceptionalism. We have lowered our xpectation of our leaders. Now, we are going political party tribal, the first step in reaching third world status.
get rid of the 2 party system. it's broken.
I'm afraid the future of America is about increasing masses living brainlessly on ever-increasing welfare, until it implodes...unless we hit the reset button first. And yes, there are many as nice or nicer places on earth.
@Paul, you meant to say corporate welfare.
The writer forgot to mention that the notion of "American exceptionalism" went hand in hand with the notion of "Aryan supremacy" so blatently espoused by leaders of the era, notably Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, who learned it at Harvard, by the way. The American westward expansion was merely the latest phase of the "westering" Teutons, having migrated from the Caucasus, by way of the German Forests, then Brittany. Roosevelt and others firmly believed in white superiority, and feared we would destroy our exceptionalism by intermingling with inferior races. I suggest reading James Bradley's "Imperial Cruise" for a good take on this "exceptional" period of our history.
FOR ONCE – I DON'T NEED A FACELIFT!
First of all, to use the Bible as a basis for your argument automatically renders it invalid. The Bible is not a factual accounting of anything. So there's that. But secondly, I am willing to be real money that the overwhelming majority of Bible-thumpers have NEVER left the confines of the United States (let alone their own counties), and actually have no real right to say ANYTHING about how awesome they think America is, in my opinion. Did you know that in Europe, our closest relatives since anyone who is white in this country unequivocally traces their family's origins back to there, LAUGH at our insistence that we're the greatest nation on Earth...and rightly so.
The U.S. has contributed great things to the advancement of human kind, this cannot be denied, but those days are LONG over. The U.S. in 2012 is a train wreck of a country, but people still brag about how awesome it is...but can't explain why. No health care, terrible infrastructure, atrocious public schools, a society that places more value on working hard rather than working smart...so many work until they get sick (and even then still show up to work because they don't want to be viewed as a liability to their boss), religious intolerance on a massive scale, a citizenry that knows absolutely NOTHING about their own country's history apart from what they see on the History Channel or hear from Glenn Beck (apparently).
I have friends in Germany, for instance, who take incredible offense to how many Americans know more about the 7 years of Nazi rule in their country than they do about the how Germany has been governed in the 70 years since the fall of Nazism. If that's not propagandizing at it's most potent, what is? FYI, life in Germany is actually better than life in the U.S. in MANY ways...they have strong unions, make decent wages, are highly productive, receive ample time to relax from work. You won't see many (if any) people in their 70s or even 80s greeting you as you enter a Wal-Mart subsidary.
America has a long way to go if it wants to catch up to the rest of the world and enter the 21st century in terms of providing a good place to live. I WILL say that if you actually make enough money to have even a modest sums of money to spend at your discretion (after paying bills and debts) life is definitely not horrible...but most Americans work like slaves because none of them will ever retire. The only way they have any hope of staying afloat is by working. How can that at all be considered an attribute of an "exceptional" country?
i agree with a lot of what you're saying. but on the other side, i think you give too much credit to other countries. sure they know about the US, but why is that?
the short answer is US has it's thumb in every pie around the world - so countries pay attention to us. and TV/movies. most are produced in the US. and that is how other countries know about our culture - not because they looked it up.
answer these simple questions without looking them up:
what kind of gov't does Madagascar have?
what are some of the main exports from Liberia?
what language do Filipinos speak?
what is a staple food serve in Greenland?
it's easy to point fingers and not look in the mirror. i agree the US has a certain arrogance and often is ignorant about other countries. just because people around the world know a lot about the US doesn't mean they aren't just as ignorant about other countries. be fair.
We still love you even if you attack us.
I'm not trying to insinuate that other countries aren't ignorant to what is going on around them. France is another very, VERY proud country. My point is that, Americans INCORRECTLY view the United States as the most exceptional nation ever. In fact, it's frowned upon not to agree with that assertion. A common response you receive when pointing out how not-that-awesome America actually is is "if you don't like it, leave!"
This goes beyond patriotism or nationalism. Fundamentally, Americans, in general, still think that the United States is the benchmark every country on Earth either does strive to be, or SHOULD strive to be. You rarely, if ever, hear an American say something to the effect of how much better another country may do something than we do. Saying something is tantamount to nationalistic heresy in our collective mind. Clearly, the U.S. is NOT the most exceptional nation on Earth. It was for a brief time, but not anymore. Americans don't like that, but that's too bad. It's just a fact. Most nations look towards America and examine how we do things so they can learn what NOT to do. Literally. American culture is everywhere, true, but that's because there is still a romanticized affinity for things like Coca-Cola and Levi's Jeans. For people in some lesser developed places, the opportunity to drink a cold bottle of Coke is a special treat and likely makes them feel a little more American while doing so. But like I said, it's a sense of romantic fantasy. There are worse places to live than the U.S., but there are DEFINITELY better places.
Nice name. We're taking God out of our country, that's the reason for our problems. Un-traveled bible thumpers and laughing europeons = the opinion of you alone. and since you discount the bible, you have no credibility.
"You rarely, if ever, hear an American say something to the effect of how much better another country may do something than we do"
if you just listen to the nutjob religious republicans in the country - very true. but there's the other half of the country. seems like republicans yell the loudest - maybe that's why it's their voices you're hearing.
but look at a movie like Sicko by Michael Moore. he shows us there are many other countries with better health care systems. a lot of people went to see that movie, knowing that premise beforehand. so please don't put me and my friends in with that lot. be fair.
God Bless You too...
Prayer changes things*
actions change things; prayer wastes valuable time.
Prayer changes god's plan. Please knock that praying stuff off.
Did prayer build the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower,or the new WTC? Nope. People do that. Did prayer launch men into space? Nope. People did that. Did prayer cure polio? Nope. And this process continues and is applied to everything known to man...which is more and more things every single day. If we all prayed we'd all be living in caves still.
A good rapport with EVERYONE means EVERYTHING!
Keep a good rapport with EVERYONE!
You keep a good rapport with me UK Dave!
lol and im guessing its by the grace of God that millions of people continue to starve and die defenselessly around the world...wake up! It's the 21st century, nothing happened in history because of Gods or God. It happened because of man. Man has made the world the way it is today, face the reality however dark it may seem.
hard for the children to put away their bed time fairy tales.
Hope to see you in Heaven Orlando!
Americans are exceptionally stupid.
Haaaaa have you read the comments from Americans on any newsboard including CNN? Trust me the ignorant racists cannot wait to go on display and show the world how dumb this once great country has become. Wait til a Zimmerman story comes out.
America is exceptional but then so are other countries. But is America the BEST country in the world? Unless you've been outside America's borders your answer is not a fact. It's simply an opinion.
even if you have been outside of America, your answer is an opinion.
america is a great country - but there are plenty of other great countries.
We're number 1! Just ignore our ranking in every objective indicator of social health! we're number 1!
LOL!! i was going to write that and your response was the first one on the page!
How about the fact that the Mormon theology believes that Missouri is the next "promised land". That eliminates France, Singappore, and even Wisconsin. Holy cow!! Buy up the land now because as more and more people believe that a sub filled with Jews landed in Central America, only to be greated by Jesus, then the Mormon folllowers will continue to grow.....and so will the property values in Missouri. Stake your claim!
as opposed to the other christians thinking some middle eastern desert is the promise land. the bible has talking snakes and donkeys (just like in Shrek!) a man lives in a giant fish for 3 days (just like in Pinocchio!) a guy walks on water. turns water into wine. comes back from the dead after 3 days (zombie!)
yeah, looks like all christians religions are equally ridiculous...
Leave the holy cows out of this! You're gonna get the atheist cows all riled up for nothing.
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.