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.
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America is pretty darn great but last time I looked, the Jews were God's chosen people, not the Americans.
i just checked - there's no such thing as god. so the jews are the chosen people of a made-up sky deity.
How can a country be exceptional or great with following exceptionally bad policies or practices:
1: Slavery – bringing people by force from another place and then selling and trading them like animals
2: Keep on treating many generations as second class or at worst treat them like non humans
3: Bad foreign policy based on ideology rather than reality resulting in the loss of hundreds and thousands of people
To date there has been NO COUNTRY or civilisation can claim to be great or exceptional as all of them faill in the ultimate test of humanity and compasion. Money, sciebtific acheivement education are all suberviant to humanity. That is the reason no
country has remained in power for more than three four hundred years, becuase they fall prey to greed and pompousness
and loose foresight.
1: Slavery – bringing people by force from another place and then selling and trading them like animals
2: Keep on treating many generations as second class or at worst treat them like non humans
1) We didn't make them slaves, they already were, by their own people. We just purchased them through trade, and relocated them to a better area.
2) If you are referring to blacks again, as in part one, then no, they are in fact not human. They cannot be any class, first, second, third, etc., because they are not citizens. To be a citizen, you must be human. Animals live a more peaceful, civil lifestyle than blacks do. They became 100% worthless to all of humanity once slavery ended.
Hello. Everyone is welcome to visit – thestarofkaduri.com
another commercial for your website? bad etiquette.
If there is a creator then she surely put these words into the minds of the founders of Amercia for this IS the Manifest Destiny: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. "
and then they wrote the separation of church and state.
It was exceptional. At least until the Liberals got into power and decided to tell the world how horrible America was and how it needed to resemble Europe.
liberals were on the side of freeing slaves - conservatives against it.
same with women voting, blacks voting, segregation, right for blacks + whites to marry, g.ay marriage and more.
yes, we must fight the tyranny of the liberals! lol.
Actually Bootyfunk, and brace yourself b/c this may come as a shock to you but Abraham Lincoln and his Republican party freed the slaves. Maybe you should go back and read your American history book, although with a name like Bootyfunk, I'm guessing you didn't read it the first time.
Kes, it's true that Abe was a a Republican, but Republicans were the liberals of that time. Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive...and a Republican. Republicans didn't become what we call "conservative" until 1932. Perhaps you should study what these people actually did. Abe violated the Const.ituion, something conservatives would accuse a liberal of doing.
Brace yourself, Kess, but there were repubs and dems in both the north and the south. Take your own advice and learn a little history.
It confirms once more that religions are the sources of all evils.
Religion is just a tool. Religion isn't evil in and of itself. It depends upon what you do with it as with any other tool. I could take a gun and kill everyone in your family or I could use that same gun to shoot someone a second before he pulls the trigger on the gun that would have killed you. Is the gun good or evil or is it me? I could take a hammer and use it to build a house or I could bash someone's head in with it. Is the hammer good or evil or is it me? I could adopt a religion and be inspired by it to feed the poor, house the homeless or comfort the sick or I could be inspired to strap on a bomb and blow up myself and anyone standing near me. Is the religion good or evil or is it me? Anyhow, what's so great about atheism? Where's all the atheist-run soup kitchens feeding the poor? Who's the atheist equivalent to Mother Teresa? Who ever says, "Now that I've shed that pesky belief in God, I think I'll stop beating and/or cheating on my wife. I'll stop drinking and driving, etc?" Religion is a tool whose job is to inspire. It can inspire you to do evil or good but in either case it's you not the religion!!!
The POTUS explains it well:
awesome. yep, he gives good, solid reasons for keeping this nation secular. doesn't go far enough in my opinion, but what can ya do?
My 8th grade teacher pointed out a word in the texts back in 1995... the word is " Manifest Destiny " His name is James Bartlett It was so important he told me if i seek out the truth you must start at the National Archives ! The truth is this White Europeans Founded " AMERICA " due to religious processcution In Middle Ages in Europe. Yes America is built on Slavery not just Black,Asian,Irish,German,Russian, Native American Inidans.... We " Americans " no matter what race color you are should be proud to live in a Free Country were we are able to belive what we want an have freedom to do as we choose ! GOD BLESS AMERICA..... The day our Freedom is threatned by any Enemy Foreign or Domestic we the people will rise up and do what it right to defend LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL !
And in other instances we can rely on god fearing presidents to trump up reasons to invade other countries and slaughter tens of thousands.
Persecution, not "processcution", whatever that may be.
I don't believe Mitt Romney and Barack Obama believe in American exceptionalism, I believe they want to be elected and will pander in any way neccesary.
I think Obama is proud to be an American and grateful for the opportunities this country has given him. Romney seems to be mostly proud of his wealth.
I thought that the concept of Manifest Destiny was about American Expansionism, now being expressed as exceptionalism. Manifest Destiny was the notion that America (the U.S.) had a mission, a moral or "divine" destiny to establish our "superior values" around the world. Some, like Barack Obama, believe this to be a noble mission to share our democratic values of equality and justice. Others, like George Bush, believe it to be a righteous mission to spread democracy and Christian values. Of course, most Americans believe our nation is exceptional in many ways but don't citizens of most nations feel that way about their countries? But that's quite different than the concept of "divine" intervention.
The only thing "exceptional" about the US is the amount of hubris required to believe that we are somehow better than every other country on earth. Although the idea is basically non-partisan, Republicans seem to be the ones who push this idea more so than anyone else. They're so thoroughly convinced of their own superiority that they totally reject any view or idea that opposes their own. The US could BECOME the greatest nation but first we must stop thinking that we've already achiveved that goal and seriously work toward it. In my view, the biggest hindrance to America becoming a greater nation is the idea of American exceptionalism!!!
Too bad the french were never concerned as much about their fellow man as the american people who were also willing to sacrafice to see it implemented
You might want to crack open a History book. The french were instrumental in the war of independence against the British. Without them America would not be what it is today. You are aware that the Statue of Liberty is french and that there is a matching one in France ... no you wouldn't know that would you. Dip Sh!t
Jeff is right, Stacy: You need a little history. Not only did the French stand by the US during the revolutionary war against Britain, they were the second country to depose their hereditary monarchy and form a nation of self-governance in 1792 (the USA was the first).
Sad to see the dim bulbs that ignore God, present all around them everyday. Some day their eyes will be opened and the light will truly be blinding.
Is America exceptional? Probably not, but there is nothing wrong with striving for improvement everyday. Were we exceptional? Probably, pehaps just timing, but more likely the quality and values of the citizenry mattered a lot. Many of those values are being eroded daily - just look at some of the responses here.
I am proud to have lived in a country that used to be better than it is today and I join many that are working to restore our virtues. Yes, I am proud to be American, even now.
If what you said was true then non-chrisitan countries should be in chaos. That is simply not the case and just illustrates your veiled belief that the chrisitan god blessed the U.S..
Actually, non-Christian nations very much are in chaos, watch the news. The Muslim countries in Africa, the Middle East, and SE Asia are hardly stable, and agnostic Communist nations like North Korea are doing great! It's no secret that when the Soviet Union fell, one of the first things the citizens of most of the Eastern Bloc counties and Stan's did was go back to religion en masse.
I take exception to your comment that the U.S. "... used to be better than it is today." I suppose your opinion about that depends on who you are. I'm a woman, so I believe that the U.S. today is a far better place than it was when women were considered to be little more than property, had no right to vote, were forced to remain in abusive marriages, were paid less than half what men were paid for the same work or couldn't get a loan for college. ......or if you were a person of color, you would surely believe things are better today than when you were a slave or free but paid so little you could not feed yourself or family. Was it better when people of color were beaten, hanged, or otherwise abused for little or no reason but looking at a white person? Was it better when there were separate water fountains and schools; or when a mother had to tell her child that they could not use a public bathroom because it was for whites only? THESE are the good ole days! There is far more justice, equality and liberty now for all, not just for white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males!
HM, it's weird you leave places like Sweden and Denmark, places that are doing very well and are highly non-religious, out of your rant. Then again, maybe it's not.
Yes, we're exceptional. Just like everybody else.
The only thing "exceptional" about the US is the amount of hubris required to believe that we are somehow better than every other country on earth. Although the idea is basically non-partisan, Republicans seem to the ones who push this idea more so than anyone else. They're so thoroughly convinced of their own superiority that they totally reject any view or idea that opposes their own. The US could BECOME the greatest nation but first we must stop thinking that we've already achiveved that goal and seriously work toward it. In my view, the biggest hindrance to America becoming a greater nation is the idea of American exceptionalism!!!
I have traveled extensively abroad, and looking back at our shores over the years from 43 different nations, you sense not from within yourself, but from what you hear from around you, that many see what we take for granted – America is an incredible land of freedom and opportunity, and the world looks to us for leadership. It’s not arrogance to think it –it’s a fact, and I see no need for us to apologize for it, for with all of our power, and our good ideas, and bad ones, we are also the most generous nation on Earth.
I believe in my heart that our current President does not believe this – he believes we should just be one among many in the world community, no better or worse than anyone else. We should shed our exceptionalism for mediocrity and become just one of the pack. In fact, as a president, Barack Obama has been a force for mediocrity. He has banked more on the hopeless interventions of government than on the exceptionalism of the people. His greatest weakness as a president is a limp confidence in his countrymen. He is afraid to ask difficult things of them.
Many here will likely not understand your comment, but I certainly do and I definitely agree. Well said.
oh bull. Obama just isn't arrogant. And he's hardly a bastion of mediocrity–that'd be the Republican party that has done everything they can to squash Obama's policies.
Thats the kind of thinking that leads us into wars... foolhardy for no less.
I find it hard to believe that someone who says he has travelled so much has such a narrow-minded ignorant back-wood jingoist nationalist outlook. I have found a great deal to be enjoyed and admired in other countries, regardless of whether it would work in America.
I guess I am just not a nationalist.
Yeah, well if you look at their individual writings, it was kind of like blogging for them and you have to take it with a grain of salt and a bit of liquor. (As you should also do, even if you are Christian, when reading those rants from the Apostle Paul who got carried away every time he was frightened by something.) But it is fortunate for us, if we just read and understand the stuff which matters, like the Declaration of Independence and the Const*itution, where separation of church and state was obviously included to say that we are founded on the principles of freedom, regardless of religion. If this sounds strange to you, then – well I guess you could take high school over again if you have not already completed it.
OK well this did not file under the person I replied to (quoting a letter from Adams to Jefferson) when I clicked the reply button.
The important thing is for us to benefit from the founding fathers having the foresight to put their individual beliefs aside
for the sake of freedom
they signed off
that should ultimately matter to us.
What did it not like that I just wrote that required so many lines to post? WordMess is what this program is.
Where would europe and the rest of the world be without american ideals of freedom from tyranny – drop it you posers!
..All which were borrowed from the great thinkers of the French Enightment
What a silly girl you are. America was a great idea but it does not work. America is on teh way out. Eurpe will live on forever.
Yes we are exceptional, because of what we value.
Ignore random Chinese comments to the contrary.
Everyone wants to bash in America and maybe we have entrusted the wrong people to run it. But this country has helped many countries and gives money all around the world. We may have lost our way but we gave great people here that are being taken advantage of. I don't see any other country stepping up to help us in our time if need. Europe would be speaking German right now if it was not for us so do not get all high and mighty. We need to get our country back from the elites that are ruining it , I still have faith in the people we just need to stop fighting among ourselves and realize we all want the same things.
lol you're uneducated lol
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.