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Exceptionalism through time
June 30th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

Despite fights about its merits, idea of American exceptionalism a powerful force through history

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.

Manifest destiny

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.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: 2012 Election • Barack Obama • Catholic Church • Christianity • Europe • Mitt Romney • Politics • Protestant • Religious liberty • United Kingdom • United States

soundoff (3,068 Responses)
  1. Macmb

    I read the diaries of spanish conquistadores that said they felt as if angels from heaven were helping them defeat the american natives. Some few dozens of conquistadores were able to deafeat thousands of Native americans with the help of God. Those natives had turned into really bad people that were anti god and worshipping false gods and doing really bad thigs like sacrificing innocent people in the name of false gods.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Bishop Hairy Palms

      Christianity sacrificed Jesus. Perhaps you've heard of him? How ridiculous and backward is that?

      July 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Steve

      I'd wager being the only human beings on the continent with guns didn't hurt either.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  2. tim

    And this is the front page CNN news story?

    July 1, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Alfredo

      I was wondering the same thing.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • bob witt

      Front page news. No.
      But something all Americans should understand which side of the fence they stand.

      When comparing the USA to the rest of the world we have done much more good than bad. We have helped mankind further the globes march toward freedom
      When comparing the the USA to ourselves ,like looking in the mirror we have failed. With all the natural gifts and unique perspectives we could and should have done more.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  3. David

    Excellent comments from several people concerning this dubious article. Thank goodness there are still people in this country with critical thinking skills. Now get out the vote.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  4. Mark

    "American Exceptionalism" is nothing but racist nationalistic propoganda eerilly reminiscent of nazi Germany.
    The American propoganda machine hase been feeding the peasant folk this balony for years while the average American let him/herself get fat, lazy and dumb thinking that some magical force from god would provide power to rise above the rest of the world when needed.
    The whole thing is and has always been a farce. America started off as a playground for the wealthy of the world. They quickly adopted the country as their new home base and much of America's history reflects the greed one might expect from a country run by the wealthy elite ( Slavery, meddling in the 3rd world etc).
    The average American sheep would be quick to defend America's wealthy as though these people in any way care about or favour them. They don't. They've used you and brainwashed you to be consumers, paying ridiculous rates for things and feeding a debt driven economy that is about to implode. WHen the smoke clears you will find they've all left you to rot and have moved somewhere a little more totalitarian where the government has enough control to protect them from the people. (Dubai for instance).
    If you look back at all of America's achievements (the ones politicians and history books brag about) you will find that more often then not the only thing America has to be proud of is the ability to pay foreign scientists and workers to get it done. Grab your wallet and pull out a dollar bill. What you are holding in your hand IS "American exceptionalism". Take a good look too because the USD's days are numbered.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Macmb

      Youre probably jus gay and against anything that is religious.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Mark

      Actually I'm not gay and I am religious. If you actually read the bible you'll see that nationalism and politics are completely shunned by Jesus and early christians. If you're a christian and you buy in to all this patriotism garbage then you've got a problem because you can't do both! (at least not successfully)

      July 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  5. Nick

    May Jehovah bless the United States of America for the building up of the organic body of Christ. Strengthen our country for your move oh God!

    July 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  6. Newyorker

    Braise Jebus, grill Mobes, and roast Mohabbad.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  7. solowd

    Exceptionalism is a myth for idiots and Christians.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • SoundFuture

      edit – "idiots and the religious"

      There are plenty of Christians who do not believe this sort of thing, though they are certainly the minority in their faith.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  8. Charley Liberal Dog

    Baloney. Exceptionalism is a synonym for arrogance and nationalistic hubris. Obama didn't change his view. "Indispensible" in his context is not the same as "exceptionalism" which he put into proper context in 2009.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  9. Realdirect

    America exceptional!!!! The klan, racisim. You can read racist comment on this site morning, noon, & night. If there were no whites it would be no racisim.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • FactsAreGood

      I-R-O-N-Y!

      July 1, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  10. harrisonhits2

    America is on its last legs as the corrupt and treasonous congress and corporations strip the country of its remaining wealth. The only future we have to look forward is a bleak one unless the GOP and Democrats are thrown out wholesale. Neither is the answer for this country's future, only an ever increasing cycle of corruption and theft.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  11. Doug

    The idea of American exceptionalism is half the reason you were attacked on 9/11.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • FactsAreGood

      The civilized world was attacked on 9/11 by intolerant religious fundamentalists.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Doug

      The United States is not equivalent to "the civilized world". The vast majority of the civilized world watched 9/11 from afar and said "I told you so".

      July 1, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  12. America is Not Number One

    Bill Maher on topic:
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8UqdPKbpWM&w=640&h=390]

    July 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Bishop Hairy Palms

      This is hilarious!

      July 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  13. Jack Straw

    "We" tortured and killed almost all the native people. We stole people from Africa and made them our slaves. We now fight un-needed wars based on lies and personal vendettas of our leaders. If we are exceptional it is not because god made us special....it is because America was the last (mostly) untouched continent settled by a spirited people and amazing foundering faters.....and that got to do what almost no other country has had the opportunity to do....start over. Tell me we are exceptional 250 or 500 years from now..... Look around... Open your eyes people!

    July 1, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Jack Straw

      Ha! Make that founding "FATHERS".... :)

      July 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • FactsAreGood

      We also brought medicine and technology. Who sold people in Africa to slave traders? Black tribal members who stole their "own people" from their homes in order to sell them. No side of the slave trade was right to do this to human beings – white and black. And human slavery is still in practice today, especially in Asia. No race or sect is immune.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • bob witt

      bob witt
      Front page news. No.
      But something all Americans should understand which side of the fence they stand.

      When comparing the USA to the rest of the world we have done much more good than bad. We have helped mankind further the globes march toward freedom
      When comparing the the USA to ourselves ,like looking in the mirror we have failed. With all the natural gifts and unique perspectives we could and should have done more.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  14. aN

    You people seem pretty upset about the state of things. Last I checked, however, our officials didn't elect themselves! point the finger all you want, but 3 will be pointing right back at YOU

    July 1, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • HumanistJohn

      Not if I point with all 4 fingers or even 5! You know like the emperor in star wars.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  15. Dave Danton

    Since when does "American exceptionalism" equate to religion? This is simply not the case, and this entire article is a farce.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  16. Afell

    The greatest gift our founding fathers gave to us was a working democratic ideal in which civil rule of this country was given to the people. This required that each and every one of our founding fathers had to subvert their instinctive desire to conglomerate all the power under their rule, but instead to dilute a majority of that power into the individual citizens.

    Those first years of a democracy's birth are the most fragile, when ambitious men can step in and consolidate the nation under their will-to-power. That we had a man who would gracefully turn down that power when his term was due, and that man commanded enough respect among his peers that they, each in turn, would follow suit, shows the kind of men it takes to birth a great democracy.

    Every nation has had to struggle with the ambitions of the few enslaving the power of the many. We have seen record examples of when the many have finally had enough and decide to throw off their shackles. But in this same breath, let us remind all those new, burgeoning democracies to take heed of the examples set down by the nations that came before them. The military should always serve the civil government, and most importantly, not be used as a tool to force civil order. When the people speak, the government should listen, as a government does not last long when the people go unheard.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  17. texasisit

    It is JOHN L. O'SULLIVAN, not John S. O'Sullivan. Who wrote this crap?

    July 1, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  18. riamb60

    The US is against people who are critical thinkers, they don't want people to be too educated.
    There is a reason why this nation is falling behind educational wise____you will find the US way down on the list.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Christ is King

      The problem is that when people become too educated they lose their faith. In order to continue our destined holy path we must be ignorant. The devil loves an educated public.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Tony

      excellent point – powers are already at work devolving our education level so do we deserve to think of ourselves as being "exceptional" now. Left to Obama we'll become another failed EU style federation fast becoming an Orwellian oligarchy

      July 1, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • riamb60

      GOOGLE ; HOW IGNORANT ARE AMERICANS.

      Shocking to say the least, and most people don't even know it. THAT IS IGNORANCE ON TOP OF IGNORANCE--SAD.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  19. kosh

    America was exceptional at one time and could be again. However, the American citizen is to busy greedily consuming what they think they need, and not realizing they are getting only swhat the government wants them to have, to try and make this country exceptional again.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  20. jet0001

    Hate to bring it up, cause it's a way to bottom out a discussion, but wasn't the fascist Nazi government founded on the principle of Germans being exceptional.

    July 1, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • kosh

      Exceedingly true, but the average German citizen was simply trying to make it, rather like the average American is now. The German leadership bought into their own propaganda and caused their downfall. Let's hope our government doesn't buy into our propaganda and stays with reality.

      July 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Tony

      mute – a coin has two sides so does exceptionalism for good or evil – we choose the former – Hitler chose the latter

      July 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • kosh

      Tony, you hope we choose the former.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
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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.