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.
I love this nation, and it has treated my ancestors well, but in modern day, I plan to return my branch if the family to Europe, maybe my grandchildren or their grandchildren will come back, I am very patriotic, it's not a support my country issue, it's a preference, I feel like I belong in Europe, and I am a supporter and citizen of this great nation, but I am out of place.
I'm going to post a link I found interesting. Just watch it, and come to your own conclusions. Nothing more.
The treatment of free ideas, such as Assange's WikiLeaks, by our overzealous government has been exceptional.
I view "Wiki-leaks" as nothing more as an event that was bound to happen. With the Internet, and logical implantation of logistics...it was inevitable.
You think the U.S. is exceptionally hard on free thought compared to other nations? Really? I mean, if only a few countries were worse, that would logically exclude it...
Let's put it bluntly....the 2 party system needs to go. No CHANGE will ever take place otherwise.
The only thing exceptional about the current GOP is their ability to honor their party at the expense of their country. The Democrats are not guilt free in that either, but the GOP has lead the way and has mastered the art of one upmanship in their pledge to party over patriotism. They are polytheists who worship only power and money.
And thank the Lord for that...The Demotax think they are the modern day Robinhood. Steal from the Richness of our Country and make it a 3rd world Socialist Union.
I always had the opposite perception, with exclusively (a strong word) liberal individuals talking bad about the U.S. in international discussions. Not sure I've seen anything to support your assertion here. Hmmm...we seem to be exceptionally off topic at this point.
We used to be exceptional but lately we've become a nation of bickering children. Convinced that we're not only right about everything but that no one else's opinion matters!
Like I said...it's "Narcissism"
Yeah, that's what it looks like. We might be actively dropping the ball on this one. When rights do not automatically imply responsibilities in a nation's collective brain, it's kind of screwed long term.
We've always been that way. From the end of the revolutionary war until WWII we were very isolationist. So the idea that only our opinion matters comes from our isolationist roots, it's not something new.
Just waiting for our Liberal Hollywood Scientologists to give their 2cents worth....LOL
We would have been exceptional, if not for all these illegals
the genocide of the Native American Indians was exceptional
So is being 27th for health care system, and near last for child mortality.
It was NEVER "exceptional"...it was deliberate and intentional.
What is one to do, if their Grandparents moved here back in the 1950's? Should I feel this collective "White Guilt" baggage you all seem to be carrying around? Am I now responsible for slavery, genocide of Native American Indians, and all the other horse$#!+ this country has done in the past, simply by the color of my skin? I am Caucasian. Is that not direct racism in and of itself?
I guess I am guilty, simply by association. Yay America. Ranked 55% in literacy amongst all of the other countries of the world, and all is going according to plan.
For Republicans to use this word to suggest other parties aren't as patriotic as they are, or don't believe in America as much as they do, is just stupidity and arrogance. Who has the gall to call another American "un-American" just because they may disagree? Only children. Grow the ff up.
The term is appalling. It smacks of self-righteous bigotry, religious superiority. I don't see how, on its surface, it can be taken any other way. I've lived in many countries and find them ALL exceptional for different reasons as in wonderful, but that's about the only way I can understand that word.
I feel the same way about the term "smacks", with the exception of its use in reference to breakfast cereal. "Exceptional" is a term with several uses. You probably hear it used in reference to children as well. In neither situation does it imply bigotry or lack of respect for others. Humans are tribal creatures, and whether you call a spade a spade or not, positive feelings toward an ingroup are virtually universal. Nationalism is simply one way to do it. To consider your spouse exceptional does not require believing all other spouses are lousy.
Mike, if it's as you say, big harry deal. Why use it? It's preaching to the choir, the faithful telling each other how great they are. Stupid. The real problem is, conservatives DO use it to divide and put themselves above and separate from liberals, their own countrymen!! If you can't hear that, you're simply deaf.
You use the term because it has history with the concept, and just because something is doesn't mean something is perceived. It's different from telling everyone how great they are (and yes, false self-esteem is dangerous and ineffective), because it has implied responsibility, making it effective in a more "iron sharpens iron" vein. It's not like a parent telling a child they're special, it's like a parent telling a child they're capable of doing great things if they put their mind to it. Essentially, it's psychological empowerment, even if you believe nothing varies by country.
Where did conservatives come from in this discussion? I haven't seen the term "exceptional" used to refer to the GOP/Republican party/etc. at all. Politically speaking, it's used only in reference to the U.S. as a whole, by both sides (as far as I can find). And please refrain from using "deaf" in the pejorative.
The U.S. has been reduced to the political elitists...the generation of narcissism. The decline started with the Kennedy's, and has been progressing downward ever since. The IDEA of an America, free of turmoil is over. We can't even take care of our own anymore. We spend all of our time worrying about issues outside of what is the TRUE reality of the situation. "It is finished!!!" -Jesus Christ.
The world has, not the USA. The USA is hated by most, and this is the last thing the rest of the world wants to see.
Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Christ "And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise (Americas); yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands." – 1 Nephi 2:20
... said Joseph Smith as he looked down at a rock in the bottom of his hat! Come on!
You either believe in the power of God or you don't. Prophets are never popular. They are never well received in their own country. America is no different. America is a land of promise and I believe God will redeem his people in this land.
A half nut job cult that promotes incest, polygamy, and the belief of a miracle golden tablet or book for it's basis of existence. Jesus Christ himself is freaked out just thinking about that one.
Lies, mistruths, popular culture, bigotry, intolerance, ignorance
The historical FACTS speak for themselves.
When Joseph Smith's "scribe", Oliver Cowdery, asked to look into the hat and saw no "revelations", this is what Joe told Oliver that "God" "said" from deep in the hat:
1 Behold, I say unto you, my son, that because you did not translate according to that which you desired of me, and did commence again to write for my servant, Joseph Smith, Jun., even so I would that ye should continue until you have finished this record, which I have entrusted unto him.
2 And then, behold, other records have I, that I will give unto you power that you may assist to translate.
3 Be patient, my son, for it is wisdom in me, and it is not expedient that you should translate at this present time.
4 Behold, the work which you are called to do is to write for my servant Joseph.
5 And, behold, it is because that you did not continue as you commenced, when you began to translate, that I have taken away this privilege from you.
6 Do not murmur, my son, for it is wisdom in me that I have dealt with you after this manner.
7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must cask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
10 Now, if you had known this you could have translated; nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now.
11 Behold, it was expedient when you commenced; but you afeared, and the time is past, and it is not expedient now;
12 For, do you not behold that I have given unto my servant Joseph sufficient strength, whereby it is made up? And neither of you have I condemned.
13 Do this thing which I have commanded you, and you shall prosper. Be faithful, and yield to no temptation.
14 Stand fast in the work wherewith I have called you, and a hair of your head shall not be lost, and you shall be lifted up at the last day. Amen."
If you don't think that this is a giant blob of bull pucky, you don't know what is...
If Joseph Smith was a prophet, then so is my cat, Ferris.
Reads like astrologer bullsh!i, perhaps assisted by the devil alcohol.
Yeah.... plus a vivid imagination and lots of Christian tent revival shows under his belt too.
Quite well actually thanks
I've come back to this several times today and it seems your always on. I do hope you haven't been stuck here all day. Wll, I only came to give it a last look before I hit the hay. Night realist, night all.
Modern Day America- SUCKS– It is now called SCAMerica. From the Government – to every AWFUL, FRAUD FILLED BUSINESS- to the CORRUPT FEDERAL RESERVE – to the SCAM BASED IRS– to the most corrupt, socialist President in history- ObaMORON– SCAMerica is not the place to be. In fact, it's one of the WORST! BTW: Wake UP... GOD IS THE BIGGEST SCAM OF HUMANITY! Quit writing about 'religion'.. It causes most of the world's problems– except for SCAMerica where the biggest problem is GREED!
You know what "American Exceptionalism" is" It's just another way for the politicians to distract you with complete and utter nonsense so that you don't ask about things like policy. If you are screeching about the president's faith, then you are too distracted to ask the kinds of real questions that voters should be asking, like "what exactly are you going to do economically if you get elected?"
All they have to do is throw out some hot-button issue, and off people go, all enraged and radicalized, but it does not matter in teh least as to what is important in this country. Flag-burning used to be one of these deceptions, various religious non-issues are now.
Your own side is exploiting you. They are getting you all worked up so that you vote and send money, but they are not committing at all to the things that really need to be done.
Of course the other side's candidates are sleazeball dumbshits. Now catch a clue are recognize that your side's candidates are too. And you are their pawn.
You see, it is your own side exploiting you the worst, telling you lies and manipulating you. The other side can't do that anywhere near as well.
It is exceptionally stupid. That's about it.
American exceptionslism is a byproduct of our political, social, and legal structure. No other country on the planet has the same infrastructure of freedom, rights, and human decency. Bigotry still exists today, but compared to all other countries we have progressed far beyond the others. Progress is key to exceptionslism.
JC, you're an idiot, you have less freedom and rights than many nations, especially Canada, Australia, New Zeland, and most of Western Europe. As for human decency – that is the thing you are lacking the most – you are warmongers, racists, and good for nothing bigots. I came here from Europe years ago and look forward to returning to a more enlightened civilization ... soon.
Fcelt, i agree, if i had the money to do it i would leave America and never look back
Europe? Europe has less freedom than the U.S. and Europeans are less decent individuals. Have fun going back.
JC calls it right. The respondents should exercise their free will to leave and be thankful that they have that privilege – hundreds of millions around the world do not. I've been to the countries named – every one of them, as pleasant as they are, has their full share of bigotry, police state mentality, and over-regulation.
JC, you are right on..these guys who talk of going back...we deport illegals..why cant we send these poor smucks back to the Jungles they came from...
If America elects a diaper wearing cult member in November, the answer is no. If we elect a Mormon, Jesus Christ will reach down and wipe us off the face of the earth. Romney is the false prophet we've been warned against.
^ Another reason why America is not exceptional.
United States Ranks:
21st in Happiness
26th in Conditions for Mothers
17th in Democracy
3rd in Carbon Footprint
85th in boys going to grade school
72nd in girls going to grade school
14th in College Graduation Rates
2nd in out of pocket health expenses
54th in expenditures on education
19th in Freedom from Corruption
3rd in waste per person
21st in Happiness
64th in Human Security
1st in Incarceration Rates
3rd in Innovation
49th in Life Expectancy
15th in Literacy
6th in Major assaults(crime)
35th in Math
17th in Medical Graduates
1st in Military Spending
61st in Monetary Freedom
31st in Nocturnal Safety for Women
28th in Olympic Gold medals (summer)
3rd in Patents
17th In Physicians per capita
23rd in Science
12th in "thriving" population
3rd in Poverty
1st in Prosecutions
18th in Reading
8th in Researchers
23rd in Long Term employment
15th in Nobel Laureates Per Capita
#1 Most hated country
Study Predicts 42% of americans will be Obese by 2030 (at 32 now)
$16 trillion in debt
Sure doesn't seem that America is exceptional at all..... and I'm American.
Name another country that has been so free in admitting citizens of other nations (many with criminal backgrounds) and making such an impact on world events. Granted that the USA is not as exceptional as in the days when we saved the world from the fascists and invented nearly everything invented, but no other nation has done more to bring freedom to people.
"#1 Most hated country." Boom! We're exceptional as hell. =P In all seriousness, this sort of misses the point. I mean, statistics don't really answer the question here.
Depressing stats, Josh, but not surprising. This is the sort of thing that happens when the people of nation start believing their own hype. Sadly, too many Americans are more interested in their own wants than in the needs of the country.
The United States can no longer afford to keep up with Amerixa, tu burro.
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.