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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.

Photos: Faces of citizenship

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. Rachel

    Of course America is exceptional. Whenever another country is in trouble who do they call first? Canada? England? Nope. It's always America. I'm tired of the liberal loons like Bill Maher who always want to discredit this country or like Obama, want to apologize for it.

    July 2, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Margaret

      I'm tired of you, Rachel.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  2. eroteme

    Is America exceptional? In a positive way, there are many of us who believe so. But sadly, there are also many who believe the rest of the world is inferior to us, who believe God has chosen he USA to be the commander of the world.

    July 2, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  3. Derek in Seattle

    This article is a erfect example of why CNN sucks.

    July 2, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  4. Locker

    America is exceptional at hiding it's national head in the sand all in the name of appeasing wing nut flag wrappers.

    July 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  5. Cindy

    The word "American Exceptionalism" is a propaganda word coined by the Republican party about 30 years ago to say we are better than anybody else. Our founding fathers and especially those that fought WWII were a very "humble" people and would not say that. That is why the WWII vets never talked about the war. Just hearing the word makes we think of a very belligerent people.

    July 2, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Rosetta Stone

      We weren't that humble, Cindy. So if you're ashamed of your country I suggest moving to Mexico. No that the PRI is back in power the drug cartels will be looking for fresh chicas.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Cindy

      Rosetta Stone – Yes they were a people who knew humility. That was before your family came here. What have you ever done for your country except foam from the mouth?

      July 2, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Rosetta Stone

      @ Cindy

      4 yrs. Combat Field Aidman.

      How 'bout you? Or are you just another assumptive little liberal mouth blowing in the wind? One day reality (not the goofus posting in here) will hit you like a hurricane.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  6. ragefilledrant

    Uhm, let's see... In education: 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading against 33 other countries, failing in the world marketplace, deeply in debt, the national average IQ is the lowest of all developed countries, 1 in 5 Americans thinks the sun revolves around the earth, top 10 in the entire world in obesity, shall I go on? I think by asking such a stupid question, you've already answered it.

    July 2, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Rosetta Stoned

      How nice. You can type your blathering rant. Now provide your sources.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "God bless America,
      Land that I love,
      Stand beside me and guide me,

      c'mon you know the words. The Rominee will lead the singing.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • America the Diabetic...

      Give us enough rope licorice and we'll hang ourselves... if we could get it around all the extra chins...

      On that note, Asinas have overtaken hispanics in numbers of immigrants coming to the US...

      July 2, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Rosetta,

      The Exxon-Mobil ads during all the golf tournaments indicate we're 17th in science and 25th in math.

      Exxon-Mobil needs engineers. This is 'free market' capitalism realizing that we are behind world leaders. Look at their ads at:

      http://www.exxonmobil.com/Corporate/news_ad_us12_letssolvethis.aspx

      July 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Rosetta Stone

      Well, if Exxon-Mobile says it's so, then it must be true. Never mind how they've frozen the wages of American workers for the last two years or requested hundreds of H1B visas for foreign workers who've worked at diminished wage scales.

      Consider the source. Always. Consider the source.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Or you can look at the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) data:
      It skews similarly:

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/dec/07/world-education-rankings-maths-science-reading#data

      July 2, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Rosetta Stoned (again!)

      Dinnertime. I'll get back to you later. You can think you've won in the meantime. Enjoy the feeling.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  7. James

    We were exceptional when we fought against Nazi Germany and Imperial Ja.pan, but we stopped being exceptional with Vietnam. It's been down hill ever since, right alongside the rise of evangelical Christianity.

    July 2, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Rosetta Stoned

      God Bless you. Here, drink this holy water. It's a little warm and salty, but I promise that there's no aftertaste.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  8. awinchester

    Americam Exceptionalism is alive and well and I'll prove it. My family wouldn't exist except for American Exceptionalism. Adolf Hitler killed 6 million of my people in WW 2, if America didn't have open immigration until 1924 my parents probably died in the death camps my Great Grand parents on all sides of my family came here and lived I'd call that Exceptional. My own family produced the person my great uncle invented the touchless car wash and then sold it and retired with his great profits what other country allows an immigrant such wealth again Exceptional. My grandfather came here with his parents very little died with 3 houses, land and over 100,000 in the bank never finished high school again exceptional. How about poor people creating wealth from nothing exceptional. We conservatives understand the exceptional nature of the American Nation and people the Left deny it.

    July 2, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • foreigner

      all the money you mention,has been stolen around the world.nukes,napalm,orange,phosphorus,drones,...have been used to bring here golden reserves,silver,copper,lithium,oil,machines,scientists and anything else,in order to enrich american population.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Rosetta Stoned

      Such rational eloquence bears repeating....

      "all the money you mention,has been stolen around the world.nukes,napalm,orange,phosphorus,drones,...have been used to bring here golden reserves,silver,copper,lithium,oil,machines,scientists and anything else,in order to enrich american population."

      Please stay tuned to this blog. When we figure out w t f he's trying to say we'll let you know. I'm sure his schedule at the U.N. keeps him preoccupied.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @awinchester,

      your immigrant relatives came to this country and worked hard. That's great for them, and ultimately for you. It sounds like the usual immigrant story and is more about the behavior of immigrants than it is about American exceptionalism.

      Sure, the United States is a great country, as are many others. Immigrants making a life for themselves does not prove 'divinely inspired American exceptionalism'.

      What are your thoughts on today's immigrants?

      July 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Rosetta Stone

      I'll take a crack at it since Winchester hasn't answered yet. Ok? Ready? Here we go.

      "What I Think of Immigrants Today"

      1. There's too many.

      2. There's going to be a lot more.

      3. The Democratic Party doesn't care because they think they'll vote for them.

      4. The Republican Party doesn't care because they'll work for cheap.

      5. They depress middle-American incomes, and devalue their investment in professional education.

      6. The colleges and universities don't care because they can still matriculate foreign students with money under the American visa laws, and then the same students can work in America under H1B visas at reduced wages... and they're happy, because they aren't any jobs in their home countries, and if there were, they'd be working for peanuts. (Whew.)

      7. The banks don't give a fat crap for a bunch of reasons, mostly because they've become state-sponsored through the TARP program, so.. "why worry?"

      8. Muslims are attempting to establish their own special laws in American courts, expressly in catchment areas where Muslims are the predominate population. (Can you say no-go zones in France and England? Sure you can.) The American cities don't care because their tax bases were on their ass es, and the influx of foreign (mostly Saudi) money is welcome. Hey, it all spends the same way, right? Don't you like the new Muslim-only foot-baths in our airport? Or that new mosque in what was once a nice quiet neighborhood? Shlt, they're all parked on my lawn again !! And that blaring call to prayer crap !!

      Want more? Or, let's face it, you really don't want to be bothered with it because it's all racist crap, right?

      July 2, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Rosetta,

      yes it really is too bad that corporate America has to hire well-educated people on H1-B visas because Americans don't want to take the hard subjects in school.

      Doubtless there are counterexamples but in general I do not believe that H1-B doc-mented workers are working on reduced wages.

      And yes, you did answer your own question – what you wrote is 'racist crap', your words, not mine.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Rosetta Stoned (again!)

      Well, it really wasn't a 'question,' now, was it?

      It was only 'your answer.'

      July 2, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  9. Reality

    35th in life expectancy, yes but let us look a the bigger picture:

    Life expectancy at birth (years)[4]

    Rank Country (State/territory)
    Overall Male Female
    1 Ja-pan
    82.6 79.0 86.1
    2 Hong Kong ( China)
    82.2 79.4 85.1
    3 Switzerland
    82.1 80.0 84.2
    4 Israel
    82.0 80.0 84.0
    5 Iceland
    81.8 80.2 83.3
    6 Australia
    81.2 78.9 83.6
    7 Singapore
    81.0 79.0 83.0
    8 Spain
    80.9 77.7 84.2
    8 Sweden
    80.9 78.7 83.0
    10 Macau ( China)
    80.7 78.5 82.8
    10 France (metropolitan)
    80.7 77.1 84.1
    10 Canada
    80.7 78.3 82.9
    13 Italy
    80.5 77.5 83.5
    13 United Kingdom
    80.5 78.1 82.1
    15 New Zealand
    80.2 78.2 82.2
    15 Norway
    80.2 77.8 82.5
    17 Austria
    79.8 76.9 82.6
    17 Netherlands
    79.8 77.5 81.9
    19 Martinique ( France)
    79.5 76.5 82.3
    19 Greece
    79.5 77.1 81.9
    21 Belgium
    79.4 76.5 82.3
    21 Malta
    79.4 77.3 81.3
    21 Germany
    79.4 76.5 82.1
    21 U.S. Virgin Islands ( US)
    79.4 75.5 83.3
    25 Finland
    79.3 76.1 82.4
    26 Guadeloupe ( France)
    79.2 76.0 82.2
    27 Channel Islands ( Jersey and Guernsey) ( UK)
    79.0 76.6 81.5
    27 Cyprus
    79.0 76.5 81.6
    29 Ireland
    78.9 76.5 81.3
    30 Costa Rica
    78.8 76.5 81.2
    31 Puerto Rico ( US)
    78.7 74.7 82.7
    31 Luxembourg
    78.7 75.7 81.6
    31 United Arab Emirates
    78.7 77.2 81.5
    34 South Korea
    78.6 75.0 82.2
    34 Chile
    78.6 75.5 81.5
    36 Denmark
    78.3 76.0 80.6
    36 Cuba
    78.3 76.2 80.4
    38 United States
    78.2 75.6 80.8

    153 Iraq
    59.5 57.8 61.5
    154 Gambia
    59.4 58.6 60.3
    154 Madagascar
    59.4 57.7 61.3
    156 Sudan
    58.6 57.1 60.1
    157 Togo
    58.4 56.7 60.1
    158 Eritrea
    58.0 55.6 60.3
    159 Papua New Guinea
    57.2 54.6 60.4
    160 Niger
    56.9 57.8 56.0
    161 Gabon
    56.7 56.4 57.1
    161 Benin
    56.7 55.6 57.8
    163 Guinea
    56.0 54.4 57.6
    164 Republic of the Congo
    55.3 54.0 56.6
    165 Djibouti
    54.8 53.6 56.0
    166 Mali
    54.5 52.1 56.6
    167 Kenya (20% below world average)
    54.1 53.0 55.2
    168 Ethiopia
    52.9 51.7 54.3
    168 Namibia
    52.9 52.5 53.1
    170 Tanzania
    52.5 51.4 53.6
    171 Burkina Faso
    52.3 50.7 53.8
    172 Equatorial Guinea
    51.6 50.4 52.8
    173 Uganda
    51.5 50.8 52.2
    174 Botswana
    50.7 50.5 50.7
    175 Chad
    50.6 49.3 52.0
    176 Cameroon
    50.4 50.0 50.8
    177 Burundi
    49.6 48.1 51.0
    178 South Africa
    49.3 48.8 49.7
    179 Côte d'Ivoire
    48.3 47.5 49.3
    179 Malawi
    48.3 48.1 48.4
    181 Somalia
    48.2 46.9 49.4
    182 Nigeria (30% below world average)
    46.9 46.4 47.3
    183 Democratic Republic of the Congo
    46.5 45.2 47.7
    184 Guinea-Bissau
    46.4 44.9 47.9
    185 Rwanda
    46.2 44.6 47.8
    186 Liberia
    45.7 44.8 46.6
    187 Central African Republic
    44.7 43.3 46.1
    188 Afghanistan
    43.8 43.9 43.8
    189 Zimbabwe
    43.5 44.1 42.6
    190 Lesotho
    42.6 42.9 42.3
    190 Sierra Leone
    42.6 41.0 44.1
    192 Zambia
    42.4 42.1 42.5
    193 Swaziland (40% below world average)
    39.6 39.8 39.4
    194 Mozambique
    39.2 38.3 39

    And let us not forget that the statistics include the USA's War on Terror:

    July 2, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Lila

      I think the US could do much better, keep in mind we are the third most populated country in the world. You should be comparing us to Indonesia and Brazil, our population is much closer. China and India are too big to compare to us also.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Ham Salad on Rye, Hold My Pickle

      Oh, I see. It's from wiki... again. Bite my ass, Reality.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @reality,

      I appreciate the effort to be on topic, but couldn't you just have directed us to wikipedia for the data?

      July 2, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Cq

      Ham Salad on Rye, Hold My Pickle
      Feel free to double check the sources and tell us if they're inaccurate.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Ham Salad on Rye, Hold My Pickle

      Reality presented it, sans sources. It's up to him to justify it, complete with sample sizes, margins of error, statistical methods, validation, blah, blah, in your face, blah blah blah.

      After all, it's only valid if it supports your agenda, right? Lies, damned lies and statistics. Unless of course you want to bypass the inconvenience of statistics and move directly to bullshlt, er, I mean, outcomes.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Cq

      Ham Salad on Rye, Hold My Pickle
      Hey, you're the one who said it was from wiki. If it is, then the sources are listed for all to see, and if it isn't then why did you say that it was?

      July 2, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Ham Salad on Rye, Hold My Pickle

      Oh, ok. I see. He included 'answers.yahoo.com' too. What else, ask.com? It's just a bunch of disjointed url's, referenced under wiki, so you and Reality can both go f'k yourselves.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • cobra129

      Really, more usless data from the UN's propaganda agency the WHO.........rotflmao....And you spent all that time cutting and pasting this propaganda........hey nvmbnuts, ya got to compare apples to apples, so to speak.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  10. foreigner

    ha,ha,ha,41 pages of comments.american favourite topic-being exeptional.there is something horribly wrong in your upbringing.your parents do lousy job.

    July 2, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Rosetta Stoned

      There's a special on English this month!! Discount for stupid foreigners who speak like Yoda.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • foreigner

      typical for american idiots.this is how you deflect criticism.miserrably predictible.your mama had better spent less time with a plumber and more explaining you how to treat people.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Rosetta Stoned

      Yo' Mama jokes? Really?? You really want to go there? You do know that the U.S. created the genre, right? I mean, it wouldn't seem fair for my mama to "had better spent less time with a plumber" without Yo' Mama treating me to her big (pick one) "curry/hummus/curd/fish/" (pick one) "burrito/pita"

      Don't. Please. For your own sanity and the reputation of your nationality. Don't.do.it. You'll just pi ss yourself off.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • foreigner

      my mama slept bonly with my father,your mama can't even remember all 175 names.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • foreigner

      *only

      July 2, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • foreigner

      as smart as you are,you think all foreigners are hispanics.i am european and respect hispanics much more than white americans.to end this conversation-you are garbage,whichever way you try to wrap it,it still is garbage in the very core.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Rosetta Stone

      No, there were some options in there other than hispanic. You're just too stupid and blinded by your hate to have seen them. Let me guess... you say you're "european" [sic] but I'm guessing you're not of European heritage. If you were, you'd have realized that America saved your ass from becoming a totalitarian socialist governm.... oh, wait a second.

      You are.

      Too bad for you.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  11. CNN SUCKS

    this article was a waste of a read... regardless of the turmoil that faces us we continue to be and will likely be well into the future the country that people aspire to live in. Again CNN sucks; its only value is in trying to understand what the left wing dope smokers are thinking about.

    July 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  12. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 2, 2012 at 4:21 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 4:22 pm |
    • Please Don't Feed The Trolls

      .

      July 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • word on the street is

      its the same troll

      July 2, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  13. trex

    ...AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM..............is in WAR MAKING alone.............We trail many countries in, Education, Health Care, Baby mortality, ................THE LIST IS END LESS..........................What we NEED to do is STOP THE WAR MACHINE, CUT OFF THE WAR MACHINE'S MONEY BY GREATLY LOWERING THE PENTGON'S BUDGET..........................and start DOING GOOD for the American people for a change.............................

    July 2, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • phearis

      But that would cut into the money pockets of Evil Dishonest Warmonging Republicans .... and we can't have that.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • ME II

      I believe the US is still the largest economy in the world.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      phearis

      The Democrats have had their fair share of bloodshed.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  14. ME II

    @Dan Gligoff,
    "Some historians say it’s unclear who coined the phrase, while others credit Joseph Stalin ..."

    What, no mention of Alexis de Tocqueville? I thought he came up with the concept of America as an exception.

    July 2, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • ME II

      Apologies...
      Dan Gilgoff.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Dan Gilgoff

      Like I give a damn. I'm going out with Anderson for drinks tonight!

      July 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @ME II,

      Umm... quote and reference please.

      The point of the Stalin quote in the article was the origin of the phrase "American exceptionalism" not the idea, and Stalin is calling it 'heresy' so the idea clearly pre-exists. In "Democracy in America" de Tocqueville does write things like:

      "There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans... Each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.

      You can construe these to mean divinely inspired American exceptionalism, but I don't believe he uses those words. He also talks a lot about slavery.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  15. Rational Libertarian

    America drinks and goes home.

    July 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  16. FedUpToHere

    America ceased being exceptional:
    When it became intent on putting the needs of the "globe" above the needs of American People.
    When American business became more interested in (GREED) Outsourcing jobs rather than providing decent jobs to educated American workers.
    When the political system became more interested in giving handouts and supporting its next voting populace (mexicans, latins, ILLEGALS, etc.) and quit enforcing border laws – thus overburdening and breaking down the educational systems, social services, and health care services.
    When it became more important to build new infrastructures in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq (where they would just as soon kill you as look at you – oh yeah – thank you very much for the new schools....) than it is to rebuild bridges, roads, buildings, and dams in American.
    When our educational system went down the tubes BECAUSE the really good jobs are being sent overseas.

    NO – America is no longer "exceptional". This country is going slowly down the sh**hole – and the rest of the globe is watching and laughing.
    And YES – it IS sad.

    July 2, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      Most of the world is going down that path. You think America holds the copyright on circling the drain?

      July 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • FedUpToHere

      no – but we are likely leading the way.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • huh

      Thank you for your insight, Mr. John Birch.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • FEDupInHere

      Ve are vatching you....

      July 2, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Anderson Cooper

      It doesn't matter, because I'm finally out! I'm free!! So, Amerika can do the tube-shot it's destined to, and so can I !!!

      Weeeeeee !!!! Socialism is so much more fun !!

      July 2, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • James

      America has been on the decline ever since evangelical churches replaced mainstream protestant and catholic churches as the majority. Fact!

      July 2, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @James,

      when do you think the move to evangelical churches started? I'd suggest 1630.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Mass Debater

      America ceased being exceptional:
      When it became intent on thinking they are not part of the "globe" and only think about the immediate needs of American People without looking at the long term consequenses to themselves or the precarious piece of rock they perch upon.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  17. DJR

    It's a decent article told over and over again. The problem with "manifest destiny" charges is that the U.S. sat in Mexico city as a conqueror. But returned it to the mexican citizen. Go figure. Why, is because it wasn't meant to be. There is and was something / SOMEONE who decides these things. America is loosing it's exceptionalism, as taught Biblically, because we are turning are back on the word of GOD. Solomons example, Sampsons example, Jesus to the Pharisees and sadducees white washed tombs example. Our president declared us a non-GOD country when he chose the words not christian. He would have been better served to admit we need to strive to BE a Christ like country. Our exceptionalism has always been in one place, with in the walls of the church. Today the church is under attack, all the way to the white house, and there is nothing exceptional about that.

    July 2, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      So God was behind the genocide of the indians then? What a crappy god.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • niknak

      No, we are losing our exceptionalism because of people like you who believe in religious dogma instead of hard work and intellignece. Hell, if someone in the repub party has more then a high school diploma they are considered "elitist" and will have a hard time winning an election. Rmoney can't even think about saying anything in French, lest he be run out on a rail for being too educated.
      But go ahead, believe in your fairy tale, all the while availling yourself on all the technology that hard science has given you.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Mass Debater

      "America is loosing it's exceptionalism, as taught Biblically"

      I don't recall that part of the bible that taught American exceptionalism...unless of course you want to add in the Book of Mormon and Jesus extra trip to the new world...

      July 2, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • James

      America has been on the decline ever since evangelical churches replaced mainstream protestant and catholic churches as the majority. The new wave of atheists came after the decline became apparent. If you're looking to blame someone, blame yourselves.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  18. Jack

    Hello. Everyone is cordially invited to visit ... thestarofkaduri.com

    July 2, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Jack's Ass

      .... or don't.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      Spam spam spam spam spam spam

      July 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Jenna Jameson

      I love you Jacques. May I pull your Strappe?

      July 2, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      Go for it babe.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Anderson's Pooper

      Hey, Jacques, wanna play? I've got strong white teeth – all the better to pull with !!

      July 2, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  19. J. D. Hunter

    "Americans" act as if they think they are the new species of human and the new world begins with them. Completely dissociated from the rest of history, an American growing up in the USA never sees any artifact of his own culture older than the USA itself. The world began with us.

    July 2, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Ham Salad on Rye, Hold My Pickle

      So, you're a Muslim, 'eh? That's unfortunate, but we understand.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Derek in Seattle

      With our higher genetic diversity than the rest of the world, we are a new species.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  20. HenryB

    American Exceptionalism – The only people who still believe this are Americans. We live in this world totally devoid of reality. We are like the emperor without clothes. Everybody knows it except us. We used to be HOT sh!t. Now we are nothing but hot SH!T.

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

      Henry B. You and the rest of the left are the ones clueless here with the right policies you'll see America back as usual. American exceptionalism is not only true, but below in another blog entry I'll prove you and J.D. Hunter wrong and you like most lefties will not even acknowledge that.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Ham Salad on Rye, Hold My Pickle

      HenryB, You're just another whining, sniveling, American detractor. Our country is full of the likes of you. Sort of like my bowels are full after a big Christmas dinner.

      *FLUSH*

      July 2, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • Mass Debater

      I guess awinchester and Ham Salad believe our exceptionalism includes slavery, not giving women and blacks a vote for over half our history, ban's on interacial marriage and equality, massacres and mistreatment of civilians from Mai Lai to Abu Ghraib. True strength is to be able to stand up and say "Yes, that is part of our history and we know that mistakes have been made and poor judgement has been used at times, but as long as we never forget those failings we can strive never to repeat them and be a greater nation with our faults than we would be trying to bury or forget them just to make ourselves feel better."

      July 2, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
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About this blog

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.