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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.

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.

My Faith: Why I don’t sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’

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. yea right

    Everyone thinks his or her nation is awesome for the most part...its part of the programming from the government. So no surprise when citizens on the U.S. are in denial that we are average to bad at most things.

    July 2, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • rla

      We were brought to this state by our so called leaders and the future is not certain for this country. We have had two fools in a row as leaders and it's time to move on!!!! Kick the bums out!

      July 2, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      So your own representatives in Congress, ria, are you going to vote for the 'other guy'?

      July 2, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  2. Lila

    Between this and the other top story, Happy 4th of July CNN! Never celebrate our country or our perseverance to fight back during tough economic times. Just spread hate and try to make people feel down about their country. What really makes Americans exceptional? The fact we stay optimistic and believe everything will work its way out.

    July 2, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      why are people so afraid of looking at ourselves in a critical way? Yes we have done great things, but such arrogance will only hasten our fall.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • yea right

      everything will work its way out if we stay optimistic...the debt fairy will come deliver 16 trillion dollars, but only if we nominate Romney.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • AndriconBoy

      @ midwstrngrl

      It's a combination of blind ignorance, mindless patriotism, poor educational standards, and small-mindedness, and all the other things that make Right-wing nuts scream "'Muricah!!"

      If people only understood how much the founding fathers embraced skeptical scrutiny, critical thinking, and a philosophical mind who was brave enough to express an unpopular opinion and question the answers.
      For every person who insults rational, logical criticism of America, the spirit of the country dies a little bit more.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Lila

      What are you talking about? Americans are always looking at themselves in a critical way. They are also optimistic, thankfully. A site harping on and on about the negative before the 4th makes them look like a bunch of jerks.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      Exactly Andricon. Critical thinking demands a separation from rigid ideological thinking. whether religious or political.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Lila

      I'm educated, on the Left and lived/traveled all over the world. Unfortunately many of the "hate America at all costs" are ignorant Lefties. Try traveling more, America won't look that bad.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Lila,

      what better day than the national holiday to contemplate the national pysche?

      The governmental process has devovled into embittered partisan warfare between elected officials and those who want to be elected, using the people as hostages. It is no longer about governing, but getting elected and being "in power" whatever that means.

      Hopefully government of the people, by the people, for the people hasn't perished, but today it certainly could be confused with 'power over the people by partisans for the special interests.'

      American exceptionalism is used to score points with xenoph-bes. The isolationist Munroe Doctrine is two centuries out of date. Americans need to realize that there are people with good ideas and good ideals all over the world.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      I have and I agree. The U.S. has set some wonderful standards for the rest of the world, but we are now carrying that torch a little lower. We have come to where we are through a series of imperfect steps. We slowly corrected ourselves as we try to move closer to our ideals. Hopefully we can continue to do the same.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      Some Americans look at themselves in a critical way. Many do not. Or they are told not to.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Lila

      The thing is most people in the world believe their country, group and religion are exceptional and that God stands with them. You will not find anyone who believes their country is less than another, they will happily brag about their history. Go to any museum or church anywhere in the world and will will see that. I don't agree with everything our country has done, but it's not normal to only see negative.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Lila,

      to recognize a negative, doesn't mean that you see nothing but negatives.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Lila

      That doesn't make sense. Both articles are filled with negatives. The last four years since the financial collapse Americans have struggled, there could have been much more positive stories about Americans. I'm not a religious person, politically I'm on the Left, I don't understand why others on the Left have so much difficulty saying nice things about the US. We do some things right, some things wrong like very other country. I don't like the way the Right frames America being exceptional and how great America is, but I don't like the way the Left responds by bashing the US.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  3. daveinla

    America is the greatest nation on earth with a long and proud history despite what revisionist historians like Howard Zinn and liberal college professors try to teach. Every male in the country who is able bodied should wear the uniform at some point in their life and defend her. I have been shocked the last couple of days at the number of people who live here but don't appreciate her. If you don't like it here, go to North Korea, they hate America too.

    July 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      understanding your history, your accomplishments and your failures is ALWAYS a good thing. ALWAYS. To deny puts you in a mindset that will allow any travesty or path.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • daveinla

      Oh I understand history. I teach it. Yes, America's failures. The 1960's stands out. America lost a war it could have won and allowed LBJ to create generational welfare that has did more harm than good to the urban black community and the Appalachian white community. In the 1980'and 90's we began to send our jobs to China. Another huge historical failure. We have lost our industrial base.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • yea right

      long history? 200+ years is kind of short for a nation when compared to other countries. Sure, we may have been great for a short time, but so was Greece and the Roman Empire. I'm sure we will make it to 300 years, but I think we will be more like what Great Britian is today versus what Great Britian was when our country was founded.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Johnny

      Hey idiot, Howard Zinn knows more about this country and war then you'll ever dream of. He told facts. Come out of your conservatard bubble sometime and pay more attention to his works. Who knows? Your one brain cell might gain some insight.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      you have valid points, but so do other perspectives. I do think welfare in the way it was handled was a mistake, but I dont equate that to I wont help anyone either. I believe in a balance between the individual and society as a group. Capitalism and Communism are based on both extremes or individualism or the group. They are both ideals that can never last in their pure form for long. They require the system and people within it to function exactly for them to work. That is why we see so many different forms and levels of socialism in the world. We have had elements of it in our society (U.S.) for hundreds of years now. We have chosen to tip our scales towards the individual.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  4. AS LOVE BLOSSOMS ...

    We listen to nothing else! :)
    WE LISTEN TO NOTHING ELSE! :)

    July 2, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Mafia Don

      You're such a cutie pie!
      Do I have to wait for Valentine's Day?

      July 2, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 2, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      no it doesn't because you say that every time. not working very well?

      July 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Religion is the #1 problem in this world by far

      Prayer only changes things in your head.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • just sayin

      Yes it do. 7 billion people need to be reminded of two wonderful Truths, first that atheism is totally useless and second that God is available to them. God bless. Third Truth added, no extra charge.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • just sayin

      Reply intended for midwstrngrl. God bless

      July 2, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
      Prayer has been shown to have no discernible effect towards what was prayed for.
      Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just go to http://santorum.com to find out more.
      Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
      Prayer makes you fat, pale, weak, and sedentary.
      Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
      Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
      Prayer fucks up your knees and your neck and your back.
      Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
      Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
      Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
      Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
      Prayer makes you secretively flatulent and embarrassed about it.
      Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
      Prayer gives you knobbly knees.
      Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out.
      Prayer dulls your senses.
      Prayer makes you post really stupid shit.
      Prayer makes you hoard cats.
      Prayer makes you smell like shitty kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
      Prayer wastes time.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • just sayin

      Didn't expect as much stupid to reply in that short a time span. More people have been murdered by atheists in the last 100 years than were killed in all previous centuries. God bless

      July 2, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
      Atheism does not demand killing. Christianity does.
      Prayer has been shown to have no discernible effect towards what was prayed for.
      Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just go to http://santorum.com to find out more.
      Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
      Prayer makes you fat, pale, weak, and sedentary.
      Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
      Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
      Prayer fucks up your knees and your neck and your back.
      Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
      Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
      Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
      Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
      Prayer makes you secretively flatulent and embarrassed about it.
      Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
      Prayer gives you knobbly knees.
      Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out.
      Prayer dulls your senses.
      Prayer makes you post really stupid shit.
      Prayer makes you hoard cats.
      Prayer makes you smell like shitty kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
      Prayer wastes time.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      I see plenty of wonderful truths. Feel plenty of optimism – just not from your narrow spectrum. Sorry Debbie Downer you cant down me.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • stupid followed to its logical conclusion

      ends in atheism, need proof, look at the moron with the copy/ paste.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Ted

      Look at the moron Christian who keeps posting nasty things about others. Typical Christian loser.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Christianity

      Do you have to be Christian to recognize that atheism is moronic?

      July 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @stupid followed...

      Yes, the nauseatingly repet.itive 'prayer etc' post is moronic.

      But no less so than the passive agressive, tiresome troll who started this particular thread.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  6. Myto Senseworth

    Exceptional at tearing down what the founders built.
    Exceptional at using freedom of speach.
    Exceptional at wasting energy.
    Exceptional at voting in stupid, out of touch politicians.
    Exceptional at gaining weight.
    Exceptional at watching sports instead of actually doing something.
    Exceptional at telling people to pray instead of working out their problems.
    Exceptional at getting an education without actually learning anything.
    Exceptional at making laws that are never inforced.
    Exceptional at spending money without having it.
    Exceptional at buying houses they can't pay for.
    Exceptional at ......and so on....

    July 2, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      enforced :)

      July 2, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • rla

      That's the result of liberal policies and lawyers not the way it was!

      July 2, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Obesity is the result of liberals and lawyers? Do tell. Last I checked, states with the highest rates of obesity were red ones.

      Facts aren't your strong suit, are they?

      July 2, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      ria go yap your nonsense somewhere else. All I hear is a well trained mutt yapping endlessly

      July 2, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Second that. ria is about 3 sandwiches shy of a picnic.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  7. AmesIA

    One thing some need to remember is we are exceptional for what we DO – not what we say. Our great nation has done great things.

    When our leaders make issues of flag pins while acting against the principles of freedom, when they profess we have the best medical care system in the world contrary to abundant evidence that we pay too much for mediocre results, when we support dictators and despots because it is financial expedient for vested oil and business interests we are less than exceptional. Sometimes being exceptional requires courage and sacrifice – two selfless acts our country no longer seems willing to do as a nation because fear, anger and division are the tools of our leaders. The common good may be dead.

    July 2, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • rjp34652

      The 'common good' as you put it has been outsourced to Asian markets.

      but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      July 2, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • rla

      You forgot vested parties and pols whom we as citizens have left in office way too long..... As Roberts opined- We can't be savd by others for our political choices and their ramifications..... NO MORE COMMUNITY ORGANIZERS

      July 2, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  8. rla

    What we can learn is to not elect community organizers, believe democrats or accept mediracracy from congress

    July 2, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You'd hate Obama if he could walk on water and cure cancer.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • AmesIA

      You use "community organizer" like a dirty word. If your financial system needs a weak and voiceless workforce to exploit it is hardly exceptional. There was a time when the message to the hard working poor was – get an education, work hard and your family will do better then your fathers. Now the message for the hard working poor it – work even harder or we'll replace you with someone even more pathetic. Exceptional indeed.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • 8 hours a day

      President Obama is the equal of any President who ever occupied the White House. They all slept.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • daveinla

      Obama is a Marxist. So was his nit-wit mom and the African Marxist she married and bred with. This is the truth. Do a little research from non-political sites and you will see his early influences. Very leftist indeed.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • rla

      No tom tom- I hate policies that are making life harder for Americans, willl tax my children out of existance and the lies told by this administration-NOTe Obamacare that no one read and understaood, taxes put off until after the election, tax ing for 4 years with no benifits and 16trillion in debt with a budget that guarantees bankruptacy by 2020=== look it iup!

      July 2, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You're the one who needs to "look it up", doll. You are nearly illiterate.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  9. t.sarcastic

    If we're so damn smart why don't we have a better healthcare system? Why don't we have a better transportation system? Why don't we have a better education system? Why don't we have a whole lot of things that many of those inferior countries have had for years and years?

    July 2, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • rla

      we di right up until Obama care and the democrat controlled congress.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Because many of us think taxes are evil and that no one should have to pay them for things that benefit society.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • rla

      to TOM TOM-- If your statement is true please show the results of the billions we have spent for the "Benifit of Society" have helped as we see more poor, great society cities in social/physical ruin.... Reality is not one of your strong points is it?

      July 2, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It certainly isn't one of yours. Our taxes don't even come close to what citizens pay in many other developed countries. Every time any tax increase is proposed, our citizens scream bloody murder. They're doing it right now about the health care bill.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • midwstrngrl

      ria: suffer brain damage? read a little. your insights come from a mind caught in a rigid ideology. Such a mindset leaves you unable to reason, comprehend and renders you inflexible. Let your mind out of its little box.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Steve O

      We were doing fine up until the Affordable Health Care Act?
      34th in infant mortality. 38th in life expectancy.
      You're the reason we are mediocre. You're satisfied with being C-, as long as the laws that got us there fit within your ideology.
      If the results of your ideology are crap, then your ideology itself is crap.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  10. cal usa

    Yet another example of the poor journalism that helps those who want to manipulate the voters. During the State of the Union speech, the President made an eloquent comment about American exceptionalism, offering both himself and Speaker Boehner as examples. "In no other country is my story even possible". Less than 24 hours afterwards, Boehner said on TV, " I wish he would acknowledge American exeptionalism just once". Was he asleep sitting behind the President, or was he just lying?

    July 2, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • rjp34652

      Both. He was lying asleep. ;)

      July 2, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • AmesIA

      GOP playbook page one – don't let facts get in the way of your narrative.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • johndanger

      Thankyou, Cal. Well said.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  11. Journeyman

    God Bless Abraham Lincoln...picture #5.

    July 2, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  12. rjp34652

    I DETECT a considerable lack of humility on the part of replies to Mr. Gilgoff's article. If there's one thing America has never been accused of its too much modesty. Pride always preceeds the downfall of empires. As America teeters on the edge of disaster, it continues to flirt with its own reflection. Arrogance, not foreign terrorists, is our worst enemy.

    If we do not turn from our foolish ways we could be in for a disasterous clock cleaning.

    but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

    July 2, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @rjp

      A lack of humility or modesty is entirely consistent with the hubris and narcissism of the whole concept of divinely inspired American exceptionalism.

      The Pax Britainnia ended with WW2 when the Pax Americana began. All empires end and their decline is usually only recognized by history – not contemporaneously.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • rla

      History I believe describe nations leaving their traditional value for welfare, false Gods and dependence!

      July 2, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Then ria, please cite one of those 'history' books to support your 'belief'.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • rjp34652

      Try Rome. In the modern era try 1930's Germany, Italy and Communist Russia. In the Bible, try Israel. Want more, there's lots.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I see you have no citations to show that welfare, dependence, and false gods were the causes of the decline of any of the regimes or empires you listed. Your opinion /= fact.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  13. iceload9

    Not sure we can be exceptional when the minority senate leader Mitch McConnell flatly states his one goal for the Unites States is to see the sitting president defeated. And the other republicans claim allegiance to Norquest instead of the flag.

    July 2, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Brian in DC

      Yeah, because it has nothing to do with Obama's horrible policies or lack of leadership.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • ProudTexan

      To Brian in DC: The GOP objective of getting Obama out of office came on day one, before Obama ever implemented policies or became a leader. The GOP puts their party BEFORE any intention of helping America.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  14. Reality

    Only for new members of this blog:

    The Freedom of Speech adds greatly to the USA's exceptional character:

    The Apostles' Creed 2012: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (references used are available upon request

    July 2, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Reality,

      really? Can you at least try to stay on topic?

      July 2, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Reality

      The Freedom of Speech adds greatly to the USA's exceptional character: etc. etc.

      July 2, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  15. dmidify

    Such a nice article to write about your country right before Independence Day. Is it me, or did this guy just belittle the entire history of this country's expansion as a nation? The last I checked, through-out the entirety of human history all nations expanded, why would this change because we live in the 21st century? If you are ashamed of this country's history, a country only birthed in the last 300 years. Then get out. Otherwise, be proud to be American, because even still, this country is STILL #1 Economically, Medicinally and Technologically, because of our ability to freely think outside the bounds of millenia of culture and history. We are still discovering ourselves and we have yet to see the climax of what this country, founded on new ideas and new principles is capable of. News flash, we are the ONLY nation that is truly free from a history of monarchical systems and culture.

    July 2, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @dmidify,

      you say: "we are the ONLY nation that is truly free from a history of monarchical systems and culture."

      What patent nonsense. This country was founded by monarchical systems including Great Britain, Spain, France, and Sweden. (Arguably New Amsterdam was founded by the Dutch Republic, but it is the exception.) The laws of the 13 Colonies and ultimately the Const.tution were based on English Common Law – a monarchical system.

      The revolution against the British was funded and militarily won by Burbon France – a monarchy.

      No monarchical influence – your premise is laughable. Please read some history.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • rjp34652

      There is no freedom to think outside the bounds in America...only freedom to think inside the bounds.

      A few boundaries to consider WHICH ARE FORBIDDEN to cross; intelligent design, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a woman as president, abortion is wrong, morality as an absolute, do not make war, money is the answer to everything, POTUS is a liar and a crook, my country right or wrong, atheism is right, American military power is unbeatable and the United States is too big to fail.

      but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      July 2, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What are you talking about? We're free to discuss and think anything we wish about all of the topics you mentioned.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • rjp34652

      Dear Tom:

      As someone once said, 'talk is cheap'. If that is so, then so is internet chat. Talking is one thing. Accomplishing the crossing of one such boundary as i mentioned is quite another.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Let me know when you actually have a point.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  16. Leroy

    The Puritans did an exceptional job at pushing the Native Indians off of their land. Instead of sharing, they took everything they could for themselves.

    July 2, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Myto Senseworth

      ...including their women.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  17. CNN Sucks

    Exceptional is relative. Of course people who have never lived outside the US box are gonna say it's exceptional. And don't we think it's time America started to overcome its grandiosity problem? The world is changing, what made us exceptional before is becoming commonplace in many countries. We're fat, lazy, and too fundamentally religious.

    July 2, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Steve

      "too fundamentally religious" – now that was funny !

      So... if things go according to your desires, we will become less and less fundamentally religious, and consequently, less and less exceptional. Sounds like a plan. I guess ?:/

      July 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • randy726

      Not sure if you've noticed but when we were more religous we actual won wars instead of getting our butts kicked. Countries that are more religous than us are now doing better than we are. God is alive and well and taking notes.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  18. Peikovianyi

    CNN's "Do you still beat your wife?" kind of Q&A is by now obvious. A discussion about American Exceptionalism is merely an invitation to Anarchists/Socialists to flood the message board with hatred for America.

    July 2, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Peikovianyi,

      and where else is this voice allowed to be heard?

      Does such free speech offend you?

      July 2, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Socrates

      America is not a country it is a CONTINENT. Your country name is United States and there are more than 20 AMERICAN countries in that continent and its people are called Americans exactly like you . So, I will suggest you to grab a geography book and open it, you will be amaze with all the beautiful things you will discover. It will help you to hide your ignorance. I hope some day you will have medicare for all your citizens. I imagine you belong to the 1% of "Americans" who enjoy a good life if you are not you are definitely in trouble.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      @Socrates – well that logic is weak. Canadians, Mexicans ... well how about all of Central/South American countries – they do NOT call themselves Americans. Pretty much everyone on this planet knows who and what "Americans" are you dumb_ass.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Peikovianyi

      You prove my point.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • johndanger

      @Socrates. Thanks so much for your glib, sarcastic, condesending geography lesson. We've heard it all before. And, by the way, next time you look at a map of the western hemisphere, please note that there in more than one american continent. Socrates was a pretty smart guy. You, not so much.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  19. wizzzard in the sky

    Children..... Be nice or I will send another plague. I think it should be called socialism.

    July 2, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Thomas Tankengine

      So God creates evil, does he?

      I really cannot tell the difference between God and Satan. They act about the same.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Myto Senseworth

      ....don't you mean destruction by democrats?

      July 2, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Jose

      Another plague! Oh no! A Republican president!!! No!!!!!!!!!!!!

      July 2, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      There is a difference. god does all of the evil and satan takes all of the blame... can you say convenient scapegoat?

      July 2, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  20. bill

    America is exceptional, but the GOP/Tea Party is absolutely ruining this country with the recession from their trickle down econmic plan, secessionist agenda, radical islamist conservative "religious" values, filibusters and neo-right wing anti-American views. The taliban is succeeding in developing these GOP anchor babies in an effort to destroy America.

    July 2, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • M.F. Luder

      The last time "tric_kle-down economics" was inst_ituted, it resulted in increased deficits and Ja_pan's "Lost Decade", as they serviced America's debt. The Chinese won't be so willing as to destroy their own economy to support America's.

      July 2, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • randy726

      So real American views are welfare for everyone so people like you can sit on their butts and and take a weiner from their boyfriend while the right wing actual get out and work and produce offspring.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • randy726

      Party at Bill's house if you're a gay, atheist on welfare or democrat in other words.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:41 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.