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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. ShawnDH

    Ever notice how the people who indulge the most in goofy "rah-rah, we're the best" nonsense are really among the worst, least informed and most embarrassing Americans?

    What kind of person walks around and says, "I'm the greatest person in the world?"

    July 2, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • rdeleys

      The kind who secretly harbors doubts.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Ricardo Montelban

      They are the people who like their ideas to be very easy on the mind. They also like NASCAR.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      That's probably 50% of American right there.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • niknak

      They seem to be the same ones who spout their religious moral values yet know very liittle about the bible or the religion they belong to.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • ME II

      Not sure about "I'm the best...", but it's not unreasonable to take pride in one's country, is it?

      July 2, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  2. Ticktockman0

    Exceptionalism is just another word for hubris.

    July 2, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Ricardo Montelban

      "American Exceptionalism" is a political concept. It is a conceept politicians drag out when they don't have any real ideas and policies to present, and they need a phoy issue to get people riled up, but that they don't have to do anything about if elected . . . because it is just smoke and mirrors.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  3. Mark

    AE is bunk. The high water mark was Apollo 11. Ever since, we've been on a gentle, but increasing spiral downwards.

    Our kids are stupid. It has nothing to do with the educational system, and everything to do with getting what you pay for. You want less taxes? You get a lesser education for your kids.

    Our infrastructure is crumbling, and for the same reason. We have bridges collapsing and highways requiring tolls because people are averse to paying taxes.

    July 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • niknak

      The people that spout this bull, like Palin and the others at Fix News have zero idea what exceptionalism even means.
      Most on that channel barely made it thru high school and have never been exceptional at anything they ever did.
      Americans in general are the same as anyone in any country. We have our elites in the various fields, just like every other country has. We got really lucky with being the ones who colonized this country (at the expense of the Indians) and got even luckier that the British did not understand the riches that were here and abandoned it.
      Don't think for a second we actually defeated the British army. We defeated a small detachement of about 3000 soldiers. Had the British really wanted this land they would have sent a proper army/navy over and destroyed us. They didn't because the French came in on our side and the Brits did not think it was worth getting into a fight with a country that had the power to fight them back on their shores, just to have some colony that was producing nothing more valuable then beaver belts and molasas.
      But the average American has come to believe this crap and we live off our laurels. Now all we want is to have our TV sitcoms, our SUVs, our guns and our ignorance.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • rdeleys

      I agree 100%.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      I think you mean around 300,000, if you count sailors too. That was a big part of the American Revolutionary War. There were over 50,000 british ground troops plus many others (including loyalists, indians and Germany).

      July 2, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • niknak

      Ball juggler,
      The revolutionary forces only had 2 clear victories over the Britts, Saratoga and Tycondoroga. The Britts only had about 3000 troops in those two minor battles. They lost, and it was pivotal as it gave the French the idea that we could stand on our own so they decided to recognize us as a legit country.
      There were about 10,000 British soldiers on North American soil, but most of those were not involved directly with fighting.
      Here is a link to what they had here and at what cost.
      http://www.shmoop.com/american-revolution/statistics.html

      July 2, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @M. Strappe,

      If you are going to count the Royal Navy, then you need to count the French Navy too. By 1780, the war of independence was a global conflict and essentially a continuation of the Seven Years War (aka the French and Indian War that was an equally global conflict and more curiously, was started by Geo. Washington). In addition to the 13 colonies, the war of independence was fought in Canada, the Caribbean and India.

      Geo. Washington won only two strategically significant battles (both sieges): Boston and Yorktown. The victory at Yorktown was mostly due to French sailors under Admiral compte de Grasse with the assistance of French soldiers under Marshal Compte de Rochambeau and Continental troops.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      What are you talking about? Britain had over 20,000 casualties in the American Revolutionary War yet you said they only had around 3,000 troops involved? At the battle of Yorkown alone there were 8,000 British that surrendered.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      Yes, I would count the French navy that was designated to battle against the Royal Navy in America.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @M. Strappe,

      I think Nik nak is saying that there were 3,000 in each battle the Continentals won, such as Saratoga; which is of course wrong.

      At Saratoga, Burgoyne started off with about 7,200 facing around 9,000 rebels / patriots / whatever.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Le Compte de Grasse had 37 ships in his fleet; 28 ships of the line, 7 frigates and 2 cutters when he sailed from Haiti.
      Le Compte de Barras had 8 ships of the line, 4 frigates, and 18 transports carrying French armaments and siege equipment for Yorktown. He sailed from Newport by a circuitous route to avoid the Royal Navy.

      De Grasse met the slow to respond, Admiral Graves (19 ships of the line) off the capes with 24 of his ships of the line. The battle was tactically inconclusive but it left de Grasse with the strategic victory of holding the Chesapeake. Removing the Royal Navy's ability to evacuate Cornwallis was the single biggest reason for the Yorktown victory.

      Given that each ship of the line had a complement of hundreds of men a large number of sailors were directly involved.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  4. solex

    I am astonished at how many people don't know the difference between Strength and Might.

    Being great is not about telling the rest of the world to do it our way or we will invade you.

    Being great is about setting an example. That you are willing to work with and not dictate to other nations that have thousands of years of history behind them.

    And for the flag wavers out there – wouldn't your efforts to make our country greater revolve around investing in our country rather than assigning blame to others?

    July 2, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  5. jigs

    For everyone that does not agree the US is the greatest country in the world, what is stopping you from leaving?

    July 2, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Adam

      American Exceptionalism is a dogma, like any other.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Adam

      (that was not meant to be a reply. my mistake)

      July 2, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Tim

      Because I can believe that the US is not the greatest country in the world and remain living here. What kind of a statement are you making here? Is this a "America, love it or leave it" kind of remark? If so, this is not just your America.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • solex

      What is your definition of "Greatest"?

      That we can militarily defeat anyone?
      That we produce more goods?
      That we have people that wave flags and thump bibles?

      "Greatness" is a word that means different things to different people.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • MRS

      They know they have no argument. They are hypocrites whose role in life is to tear down not to build up. They have hearts of stone and have no compassion for their fellow man.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • jigs

      In response to Tim: Yes that is exactly what I am saying. Why stay somewhere when you don't have to or want to? What is stopping you from going to another country which you believe to be the greatest?

      July 2, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Devon

      Dear MRS:

      Why do you hate your fellow Americans?

      July 2, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • ShawnDH

      Please elaborate on what specifically makes the US better than every other country on Earth.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • jigs

      In response to Solex: My definition of greatness would be exactly what the US is known for. We are a very diverse country comprising of numerous cultures. You do not have to be afraid of how you dress or what religion you worship. You have opportunities to do whatever type of work you'd like to do, all based on how hard you're willing to work. You have the freedoms to say what you think without being afraid for your life. You are not constantly in fear of another country or militant group invading your country and severely altering your standard of living. I can go on and on but I don't think it would change your views. We will just agree to disagree friend.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Ricardo Montelban

      This whole discussion is a red herring, a phony controversy that has no impact on the reality of politics, designed to get you angry and voting and sending money, but it's not an issue the politicians actually have to do anything about.

      The basis of it is an ugly little concept called "nationalism", source of many a war and oppressive regime. It is the approach of the paranoid and small-minded.

      Don't get sucked into thinkng in nationalist terms.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • zdeaconblue

      jigs – wrote "For everyone that does not agree the US is the greatest country in the world, what is stopping you from leaving?"

      The same thing that kept me from divorcing my wife when I realized Cindy Crawford was hotter, or when we had an argument.

      No country is perfect America is the best at some things not others, anyone who can support the idea that Amreica does everything better than any other country has given up rational thought. These are the same people who claim, "not my child, my little angel never does anything wrong." Blind faith without rational thought and analysis is moral and intellectual suicide.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • rdeleys

      Because I have as much right to live here as you do. Besides, an agent of change is far more effective when working within the system.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • niknak

      Funny how anytime someone points out that we may be behind other nations in some key areas, the first thing the flag wavers do is say "love it or leave it!"
      Don't you have anything more original then that?
      The article spells out where we are falling behind, and does so with facts to prove it.
      Instead of just posting that drivel about leaving, why not post some kind of suggestion as to how we can make this country better?
      I will start with one, lets all start talking to each other with respect and find common ground so we can move foreward and make this nation number 1 instead of just going into our little camps and fighting with each other.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • rdeleys

      @ jigs - If you think everyone has equal opportunity in this country, you haven't looked around. Equal opportunity is nice to talk about when waving your flag on the Fourth of July, but it's demonstrably false.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  6. ShawnDH

    It's pretty telling that the more liberal and secular places in the USA are the exceptional places...whether it's the SF Bay Area for technology, or New England for higher education or NYC for arts and culture and finance...and the more religious places that obsess about American Exceptionalism are basically backwater third world countries that offer nothing.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • MRS

      That's just your opinion. There are no facts to validate such a rash statement.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Devon

      Why do all the people who indulge in childish, empty, rah-rah, we're #1 nonsense HATE America when we have a president they don't like?

      July 2, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • integrity101

      Shawndh – You need to travel around the U.S. a little more. Have you been to San Francisco lately. I grew up in the Bay Area and there is nothing exceptional about it besides being broke and beautiful. All of those Exceptional Tech companies are moving to Texas because California is a lousy place to do business. The North East is not far behind. Get back with me in a few years and tell me how wonderful all those areas are.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • niknak

      Sure there are MRS (degree).
      What has come out of Mississippi recently? Or Arkansas? Or any other of the red states?
      Pretty much nothing. The gifted kids from those places leave as fast as they can and move to SF, Chicago, NY etc.
      State politicians in those states wave their flags and pin a cheap ferros metal made in China american flag pin on their lapel and spout about exceptionalism all the while their states fall further and further behind.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • mk045

      Harsh. But except for college sports, you're essentially right...

      July 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  7. MRS

    Go back and review that past 250 years of world history and our nation's role in it and then report back. America is not perfect and never has been. But when the world needed a compassionate, sacrificial and helping leader guess who showed up time and again. This country has done more to advance the human condition than any nation in history. America is, without a doubt the most exceptional nation that man has ever known.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @MRS,

      yes, the United States has had a great impact on the last century.

      The United States would not exist but for the British. Arguably the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Great Britain had a far greater (and perhaps more positive) impact on the world. A large number of the world's democracies were former British colonies – the US is one.

      How far back do you want to go?
      – The Italian city states of the renaissance?
      – The Caliphates of the 7th century who brought us algebra, without which physics as we know it would be impossible?

      Your whole premise is the result of myopic American exceptionalism. Permit yourself to see beyond this mindset and you will see it for the narcissism that it is.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Devon

      You souund brainwashed.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  8. Jeff

    American Exceptionalism and Barack Obama are absolute polar opposites. Barack Obama undermines America, his wife is on record of "not being proud of America."

    July 2, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      What? Where are you getting this from, please provide evidence.

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

      Good God. Give it a rest WACKO.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Devon

      Barack Obama is the best president of our lifetimes, and to suggest that he and the First Lady are anti-American is truly moronic. Grow up.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Michael, Chapel Hill.

      Barak Obama is a Connunist in Democrats outfit. Hi dad and mother were communists. American exceptionalism have given him an opportunity and he has squandered it. Obama never could come out of Communist ideology and "exploited," mentality and its revenge. He is also a RACIST by all standards. His comments and actions reflet it. He forgot that he is a president of all colors, races and ideologies.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Dennis

      In the 2008 presidential campagn, Michelle Obama said something like "for the first time in my life time, I am proud of America." I believe she said this for her husband's nomination to be the Democratic candidate. It could have been a poor choice of words or it could be she beloved those words. If you are a mind reader, you can get the real answer from Michelle. Based on things I have read, I tend to belive she meant those words as they sounded but I cannot prove that.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Dennis

      In the 2008 presidential campaign, Michelle Obama said something like "for the first time in my life time, I am proud of America." I believe she said this for her husband's nomination to be the Democratic candidate. It could have been a poor choice of words or it could be she beloved those words. If you are a mind reader, you can get the real answer from Michelle. Based on things I have read, I tend to believe she meant those words as they sounded but I cannot prove that.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Devon

      To Michael, Chapel Hill:

      HAHAHAHAHA! Obama is a Communist? Nobody is interested in your anachronistic 1950s hysteria. How OLD are you? I'm embarrassed for you. And isn't it amazing that the stock market has doubled in value under "Communist" Barack Obama?

      July 2, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • MRS

      Mr. Obama has done nothing to enhance the standing of America in the world. But he has done much to belittle America in the eyes of the world. He has made very clear in several speeches as a state and U.S. senator that he has little tolerance for what America stands for.

      Whoever said Mr. Obama has been the best president in their lifetime is very young indeed.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Automatic translation for MRS

      "What I really mean is, one day soon another old white guy will be in office, just like I'm used to."

      July 2, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Devon

      Dear MRS:

      Get a passport, Freedom Fry. Obama has done tremendous things for the image of America worldwide.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      MRS, who do you was a better President?

      July 2, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • niknak

      It is soo funny just how wrong you are Jeff.
      Obama is actually the very embodiement of exceptionalism.
      He grew up poor with a single mother. He is half black, when being any black was a huge dissadvantage.
      But thru his hard work and dedication he put himself thru college, grad school and then went onto to become president.
      Unlike your heros on the right, like Bush and now Rmoney, who were born into the wealthiest families in the country and have had every advantage known to man.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Jerome Horowitz

      Obama is the illegitimate son of Eleanor Roosevelt and Thurgood Marshall. I know it's true because I read it on the Internets!

      July 2, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • Curly. Not Curly Joe, and DEFINITELY not Shemp!!!!

      Horwitz!!!! It's spelled Horwitz!!! How dare you besmi . . . beschr . . . muddy the name of the Great God Of Comedy!

      July 2, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  9. Myto Senseworth

    We must be Exceptional at something. There are a lot of people that want to move to the USA.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Myto Senseworth

      Exceptional at giving things to illegal alians at tax payer's expense.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  10. duce

    Which are both monumental mistakes...

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

    Forgot to bring my troll-ing motor....darn!

    July 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  12. AdamtheDude

    Currently, the U.S. ranks something like 26th on the International Standard of Living Index. These ratings are based upon things like education, quality of health care (and those who are lucky enough to have it), basic intrastructure (roads, highways, etc), environmental quality and concern...the list goes on and on. Somewhere in there is undoubtedly level of overall happiness or "contentment" on the part of the population. It is amazing how many countries outshine the U.S. on this list in almost every category. So...no, America is NOT exceptional. Quite the contrary.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • MRS

      Wonder if you would prefer to live in one of those exceptional countries? Yeah, I didn't think so.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Myto Senseworth

      @ MRS.... Have you been to other countries? I have. Thinking of spending my retirement in one of them...

      July 2, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      If I had the means to move, I would move to Stockholm.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Johnny Blammo

      I've actually thought about living in a series of places in the world when I retire – Berlin for a while, Copenhagen or Stockholm are fabulous in the warm months, maybe a stint in New Zealand, Kyoto or Tokyo for a winter and spring (summer is way too hot there), maybe Vancouver for a while, Buenos Aires would be interesting . . . just slowly ex pat my way around the world, taking in some of the other cool cultures slowly.

      It's very provincial and narrow to think of any one place as the greatest, and any one people as superior.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Jerome Horowitz

      J Blammo – where do you get off making a sensible comment in this forum?

      July 2, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  13. Anomic Office Drone

    To embrace American exceptionalism is to deny reality and embrace nationalism.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • duce

      Which are both monumental mistakes.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  14. John McAndrew

    Yes. And no. http://uncommontary.com/2012/07/02/american-exceptionalism/

    July 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  15. JohnK

    The most exceptional characteristic about many Americans today is their capacity for self-delusion.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Tim

      John: All these comments on this thread and yours summed-up in one sentence what so many others have tried in vain to say. Thanks.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  16. Will Completeit

    "Fleeing what they saw as the earthly and corrupt Church of England ..."
    And so America separated Politics from Religion – Religion remain corrupt as it was and Politician start taking millions in campaign contribution in return for billions and trillions to corrupt banks and mega corporation.
    Read, "In your face IRS: zero taxes" ISBN 978-1477640456, stop paying taxes to corrupt government, there is no new world to flee anymore.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • MRS

      Actually they separated religion from politics. The Church of England was a highly political body. That was the reason for the idea of separation of church and state. Not to exclude religion from the national conscious but to exclude it from political power.

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

      Who are the 'they' and 'America' of which you speak?

      Many of the colonies were essentially theocracies. You could not own property or vote in the Massachusetts Bay colony without being a member of the Congregationalist church. There was NO separation of church and state in the colonial period for these colonies. Please also remember that the head of state (the King) was the head of the Church of England.

      Revolution broke the colonies free of the King. Since there were so many different sects in different colonies, it was clear that no consensus could be reached on a 'common' church. With a stroke of brilliance, they extended the notion of religious tolerance that had existed in colonies like Rhode Island and Pennsylvania into a secular state that was not based on religion and the divine right of kings, but the rule of law.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 2, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • duce

      Dude, you're on here spewing psycho dribble WAY too much. Ask the voice in your head what you can do to make something of yourself.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Prayer changes things

      Becoming one with God allows a person to become the person God always intended them to be. Thanks for the advice.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Becoming one with Dog is illegal in most States.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Prayer changes things

      Another example of why atheism is unhealthy for children and other living things. Atheists have no problem lying , stealing or murdering, we can now add molestation of animals to things atheists endorse.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Wrenn_NYC

      Looks like you have no problem lying and spamming day in and day out.

      Must be nice to not have a job. Standard of living must suck, though.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Tim

      Well, in reality, you don't see a lot of atheists blowing places up or flying planes into buildings these days, do you? Gee, I wonder what groups these types of people affiliate themselves with?

      July 2, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!!..

      July 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • just sayin

      Where you see atheists in charge you will see murders of millions of innocent peoples. 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 4:06 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "by atheists in the last 100 years than were killed in all previous centuries"

      Religion has killed 480 million people in human history so you're lying.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • just sayin

      The total killed by atheists is well over a billion, and as we look closely at those "religious" stats we find that a great deal of the killing was done by atheists and also there are recorded numbers that are more than the entire populations of the area they supposedly took place in. History proves that atheism has tortured and killed more human beings in the last 100 years than were killed in all the previous centuries. These are not including war casualties but peoples simply murdered by atheists. God bless

      July 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • Johnny Blammo

      prayer troll includes every death in WWII in his total, as well as famines, natural disasters, and other totally-the-fault-of-atheists- things like that. Don't mention that only a tiny number of the deaths had anything to do with religion at all, or the troll will serve you up another helping of stupid.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • Johnny Blammo

      Oh dear, now were are over a billion! We sure went from millions to "well over a billion" in ten short minutes! Boy we atheists are efficient!

      It will be 20 trillion in just a short while, so stay tuned!!

      July 2, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  18. StuartBruce

    Africa for the Africans,Asia for the Asians,white countries for EVERYBODY!

    Massive immigration and "assimilation" imposed on ALL white countries and ONLY on white countries.

    It`s a big crime.

    July 2, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Huebert

      Do you think before you post?

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

      Off the rocker I see.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • iheartyou

      +100, Huebert.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Michael, Chapel Hill.

      Aslo Muslims were and are the originators of slave trade. Even today, slavery is a reality in Africa. However, blame is on the Whites.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Mike Buck

      Muslims were the originators of the slave trade? Slavery was practiced everywhere in ancient times. For example the majority of the ancient Roman population was made up of slaves. Fill out your ID TEN T Card because you are an IDIOT!

      July 2, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • sam stone

      Feeling a bit put upon, Stuart?

      July 3, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  19. John F.

    What was Pres. Obama's banal quote doing alongside the words of those who had mastered speechmaking?

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

      John F, I don't give a rat's cr@p about your banal post.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • ShawnDH

      By the way, constantly and obsessively hating our president isn't very patriotic.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  20. 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 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 |
    • Prayer changes things

      Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things. Need proof. See copy / paste above

      July 2, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Prayer etc,

      you are free to say anything you like, but this cut and paste nonsense is a waste of bits. You're not helping.

      The topic is American exceptionalism. Do you have anything on topic to say?

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

      Prayer is useless.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:08 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.