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.
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The democratic ideas that made up this new political exceptionalism owed plenty to Winthrop & Co.
“Puritans had mapped out the relationship between church and the community that included the seed of democratic participation,” said Madsen. “The idea was that everyone had rights but also responsibilities.
“By fulfilling their responsibilities and respecting the rights of others, they would achieve happiness through the social contract.”
That egalitarianism helped lay the groundwork for the American Revolution, though Madsen notes that “the terms of reference had changed from salvation to democracy.”
America’s revolutionaries were keenly aware that their calls for democratic government in the face of English rule were exceptional for their time.
“Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression,” Thomas Paine wrote in 1776 in “Common Sense,” which helped galvanize colonists toward the Revolutionary War.
“Freedom hath been hunted round the globe,” Paine wrote. “Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger. … O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
The Puritan vision of America as world’s godly beacon had been replaced by the image of the nation as the world’s workshop for political and social progress. America’s founders wanted to break with what they saw as the corruption of European politics and society, where a person’s status was mostly a matter of inheritance.
By contrast, the founders proposed in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
While other republics had come and gone, many of the founders who signed the Declaration - and, later, the Constitution - wanted the American Republic to endure forever.
This was city on a hill 2.0.
Reading the founders’ paeans to American exceptionalism - about aspiring to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” as the Constitution puts it - can put a lump in your throat.
But their vision excluded huge swaths of the population, like women and slaves. And other applications of the idea had their own dark sides.
Take Manifest Destiny.
As the nascent United States strove to expand westward in the 1800s, its leaders faced major problems, including how to justify taking land that belonged to Europe or that was occupied by Native Americans.
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Manifest Destiny – the idea that it was God’s will for the U.S. government to occupy North America or all of the Americas – offered a big part of the answer.
“A civilization that has the sanction of God is always the ultimate justification,” said the University of Geneva’s Madsen. “The idea was that God had made it manifest that the U.S. should expand. … It’s not much different than the idea of American exceptionalism.”
Like many facets of exceptionalism, the notion of Manifest Destiny wasn’t entirely new.
In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth of England had established herself as a divinely ordained monarch whose reign had been presaged by the Bible. That mythology, which inspired Puritan exceptionalism, had helped English plantation owners justify forays into what is now Northern Ireland.
In the same way, Manifest Destiny helped justify the United States as it laid claim to European land and forcibly removed tens of thousands of American Indians. Many asserted that the campaign was meant to civilize or Christianize the natives, making good on America’s “chosenness.”
And the American image of a continent brimming with virgin land – which denied the presence of American Indians there – synched nicely with long-held exceptionalist visions of an unspoiled and utopian New World.
“Our manifest destiny (is) to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions,” American newspaper editor John S. O’Sullivan wrote in 1845, arguing for the annexation of Texas, in what is believed to be history’s first mention of Manifest Destiny.
It’s hard to know how much America’s leaders truly believed in the idea versus how much they employed it for purely political ends. Manifest Destiny certainly had high-profile critics, including Mark Twain, who declared himself an “anti-imperialist.”
“If you’re a cynical person and you see something like the Mexican-American War as a land grab, you can say this idea of Manifest Destiny was construed to create a moral tissue for a war of aggression,” Boston University international relations professor Andrew Bacevich said.
The westward expansion was driven largely by Southerners who wanted to farm the land and expand American slavery.
But abolitionists like Frederick Douglass also appropriated American exceptionalism, arguing that the nation’s “peculiar institution” was evidence that America was falling short of its Christian mandate.
That abolitionist line foreshadowed a key argument of 20th-century liberals: If America is exceptional, it’s because of the decisions we make around justice, not because of innate “chosenness.”
By Douglass’ time, American exceptionalism was so deeply entrenched in the American psyche that it transcended religion. Abraham Lincoln, often described as a deist - believing in a distant, uninvolved God - was nonetheless a hearty exceptionalist.
“He believed that America was leading the way in history toward democracy and equality,” said Dorothy Ross, a history professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University. “At that time, Europe is still steeped in monarchs and failed revolutions, and America was still the only mass democracy in the Western world and believed that it was leading the historical way.”
Even the relatively unreligious Lincoln came to see the hand of God actively participating in American history through the Civil War.
“He gives to both North and South this terrible war,” Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, referring to God. “American slavery,” Lincoln said, was something that “He now wills to remove.”
The first president to say it
Despite its centuries-old influence, the term "American exceptionalism" didn’t emerge until sometime in the past 100 years.
Some historians say it’s unclear who coined the phrase, while others credit Joseph Stalin with doing so in 1929, when he admonished American communists for suggesting that the United States’ unique history could make it immune to Marxism.
In his reprimand, the Soviet leader decried “the heresy of American exceptionalism.”
Ironically, American intellectuals and eventually the broader public came to embrace the term, especially in the years following World War II, even after communists used the Great Depression as evidence of Stalin’s alleged "heresy.”
Just like President Woodrow Wilson had done in World War I, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman justified American involvement in World War II largely on the basis that the country had been chosen to lead and transform the world.
After the Second World War, “the United States had emerged as the strongest country,” said Johns Hopkins’ Ross. “Social scientists began studying things like national character and what makes America unique.”
American affection for the idea grew during the Cold War, as the U.S. attempted to distinguish itself from the “godless” Soviet Union.
“Our governments, in every branch ... must be as a city upon a hill,” John F. Kennedy said in a Boston speech just before his inauguration in 1961, citing John Winthrop by name.
In the ’60s and ’70s, however, American scholars and others began challenging the idea of American exceptionalism, mostly from the left and especially after the Vietnam War, which liberals criticized as a costly exercise in American hubris.
Historians began to see exceptionalism as a scholarly construct, a way of interpreting American history rather than as accepted fact.
Ronald Reagan illustrated the partisan gap around the idea, speaking of America as a “city on a hill” and attacking President Jimmy Carter for allegedly showing weakness on the world stage, including in the Iran hostage crisis.
“We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so,” Reagan told the first annual Conservative Political Action Conference in 1974. “We are today the last best hope of man on Earth.”
President George W. Bush employed similar rhetoric in his global “freedom agenda,” even after initially pledging a “humble” foreign policy.
Despite greater Republican than Democratic support for the idea (91% vs. 70%) , a 2010 Gallup poll found that 80% of Americans subscribed to the notion that the U.S. has a “unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.”
Boston University’s Prothero criticizes that definition of American exceptionalism, which he says is how most American politicians use the term today.
For John Winthrop, the shining city was an aspiration that depended on the righteous behavior of the Puritans, Prothero says, part of the social contract that laid the groundwork for democracy. Whether the city would in fact shine was an open question.
If the Puritans dealt falsely with their God, Winthrop had said in his 1630 sermon, there will be “curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”
In contemporary American politics, by contrast, Prothero says the idea of exceptionalism has been stripped of its conditionalism, becoming “a kind of brag.”
“Today, it’s ‘of course God blesses America,’ ” he said. “It’s presumptuous.”
Others have attacked the idea as little more than the kind of nationalism felt by citizens of countries all over the world.
“I believe in American exceptionalism,” President Obama said in France in 2009, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
But the president has since sounded a different tune. In his Air Force Academy commencement speech in May, Obama repeatedly expressed support for American exceptionalism.
“The United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” Obama said. “It's one of the many examples of why America is exceptional.”
In fact, Obama appears to be the first sitting president to publicly use those words, political experts say. Given their place in the modern American political lexicon, nearly 400 years after Winthrop first gave voice to the idea, he is unlikely to be the last.
The United States is exceptional in many way. Unfortunately, the main way in which we are not exceptional is that we still have so-called "conservatives" who from the very beginning have constantly undermined the promise of this nation. Whether it is human slavery, the destruction of the native population, fighting against every significant social movement that sought to extend that promise, supporting Jim Crow apartheid, trying to deny the vote to women, trying to make property ownership a requirement for voting, opposing the end of the international slave trade, opposing the end of child labor, opposing the struggle for better wages and working conditions, being openly racist to this day, trying to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else, etc., etc. That class of oppressors, and that part of the population fool enough to support them, have always been the millstone around the neck of humanity. Nowhere in US history are "conservatives" to be found on the right side of any of these important human struggles for freedom, just as they are not found there in world history.
American is exceptional and all, but until its been around several hundred more years as a dominating power in the world, it really doesn't hold a candle to other places that have dominated the world stage in the past: Britain, Germany (Holy Roman Empire), Turkey (Ottoman Empire), Rome.....
If you don't think America is an exceptional place, you can always leave....There are lots of Loservilles......
Keep America FREE... vote out the freedom killers Obama/Accomplices.... Nov 2012
Obama/Romney, Democrat/Republican, it's all the same. Both want to severely limit our freedom in different ways.
Here is a perfect summation of American exceptionalism.
The meaning of exceptional has changed from being one used by the rich white male dominated power structure to mean richer, whiter and more macho male dominated power which was revered by other white males around the world.If you are a rich and successful man looking for beautiful young girl, you can upload your photo and personal information on the sugardadmeet(gogle it)
Yeah. And you can get lost, Spamareena.
You're an ass hole.
Holy Crap! Great minds think alike!
Me and my shadow. We make a great portmanteau!
But we're cousins.... identical cousins all the way!!
you need a video to make your point
the video you post is more relevant than all the comments you have ever made
no other country has done for humanity then america. no other country has made the world a better place for all who needed help. no other country opens its arms and says we welcome you. no other country gives you the freedom to take advantage of the education, to believe in what ever religion you want to worship. to peacefully protest what you feel is unjust.a right to a fair trial and judged by your peers. are we blessed yes. i believe that god has looked upon america to be a lighthouse on the planet to be seen by all who don't or can't enjoy what we enjoy.
No other country does that huh?What about France don't they have religious freedom?Don't they have a court too what about Spain,Italy,Germany,UK,Portugal?Don't all those countries have All the things you just mentioned? And when you say that America has done so much for humanity by that you mean what exactly land on the moon? Wow get out of the way America has landed on the moon to satisfy its ego and last time I checked America has been racist toward every Immigrant that has been here the Irish the Italians etc.. The only thing America has done for the world is spread Materialistic societies and and made businesses that pretty much control the world and the only thing its Number 1 in is military spending, prisoners per capita ,and consumption of products and other resources so before you say all that do some research and don't just listen to your stupid media.
unless you are a red Indian , then you will have your country stolen and be either killed or imprisoned on a tiny plot of land 'generously' given to you by the murders and thief's
People like Eric Holder are the reason we can't have American-180s that aren't castrated.
If you think there's something sinister about that, move to Mexico I hear they do just fine without legal guns down there.
Americans should skip Internet comment sections on the 4th of July, and focus on real life here. The anti-US propaganda comments are numerous on the Internet, and the people doing it are paid so they will always just say whatever hateful things they can think of. It's great to ignore them on holidays and focus on what's important.
I enjoy taking holidays off of internet comment sections. I don't let foreign propagandists have a say, they simply don't exist. So just skip the comment sections on the 4th of July, enjoy your holiday!
yet, here you are on the holiday eve reading messages from perfidious foreign propagandists.
I read the comic strips in the daily paper. Why not read the perfidious perfidications from the assortment of perfidious perfidifiers on this blog?
's'all just good fun. I mean, really, what self-confident American can take such a wild-eyed American hate-fest seriously? It's sort of like reading Peanuts and watching that crazy beagle trying to play softball.
OOoh, I REALLY like "perfidications" It's a great portmanteau!
@Who give a damn [sic]
Ummm ... exactly what "wild-eyed American hate-fest" are you referring to?
A thoughtful article examining the concept of American Exceptionalism in the context of religion?
Comments you disagree with?
Can you articulate a resoned message or just behave like an old fart on a porch and say "Damn kids, get off my lawn".
Hi. Everyone is welcome to visit ... thestarofkaduri.com
Open and free debate makes us exceptional. What people choose to do with that freedom is really what makes the so hated by people from all races, political ideologies, religions, etc.
Exceptional as a nation? No. Exceptional as a people. Yes.
America – love it or leave it! no doubt about American exceptionalism. we were even better before the immagrants, f@gs, atheists and liberals over ran us.
The Native Americans and Hispanics were here before the "immigrants". I wonder what they're thinking as they watch the country rot culturally while it implodes.
So given your name indicates you're most likely Christian, and your bigotry that you are a white, conservative, Christian I'm guessing you didn't want to suggest as you absolutely did, that we should return America back to its native peoples. So I guess you are advocating you leave America and I'm all for that.
The USA is the Land of Milk, Wheat, Corn, Soy Beans, Rice, Oil, Coal, Iron, Natural Gas, Hydroelectric/Nuclear Power and Coal. (Plus, she takes in a lot of smart people like A. Einstien and E. Teller).
Mix that in with the Consti-tution and the Bill of Rights and top of the line military units and you have a formula for exceptional success in making a better world.
America usedto be this exceptional place where people worked hard , achieved success and got all the credit for doing it themselves....
Then the Democrats decided to sell the idea of govt. hand outs which takes the drive away from individuals. They no longer work hard. Its sad.
if you don't think America is exceptional get the hell to north korea. see how long you'd last there.
How tolerant of you. Did you learn that from your religion?
Yeah...we're exceptional in that we let ***holes like you shoot your stupid mouth off.
trouble is that the Democrats want this country to resemble other countries ( i.e. Socialism) and if we let them get away with it, we willl have lost our exceptionalism.
And Republicans want to turn this into a theocracy, in which they will suppress all other religions and lock up gays.
See how easy being a partisan douc.he is?
Why does the Tea Party always insist on using Straw Man arguments? It's always "If you don't like it here, go live in *insert most extreme example possible*" You may not know this, but there are many other countries that are equal if not better than the United States. Sweden, Canada, hell even Germany has a higher standard of living than us.
@Tyshunn Felton, Thank you for saying that. I was just about to say that when I saw your comment.
I realize America was less than exceptional after Bush got re-elected. I realized that it was not the best place to raise children. So when I started my family, I moved to Tokyo. It is TRULY exceptional here. If we ever leave, it would be for Canada, most likely.
I think it's no wonder when you have a country that's overrun by religious faith-based fanatics, that the idea that America is #1 is still so believable. After all, these people don't need things like facts, and evidence. It's enough that they believe it. Meanwhile, the ship is sinking, and the orchestra keeps playing.
Any one who considers themselves exceptional is lost. I've always considered America to be a great country but when Americans start calling the country exceptional, special, chosen, etc. it's shameful. No one would ever teach their children to be so vain (or disillusioned). Grow up America. There are all kinds of special people and places on this planet. You are one of them, not the one.
The only thing proclaiming how special or exceptional you and your country are gets you is centurires of wars and conflicts and attempted genocides coming from everyone you have excluded. Just ask the Israelites...
Claiming you are exceptional is just a backhanded way of telling others you dislike how insignificant they are.
Hey. Everyone can see you two in the back of the theater jerking each other off.
Why don't you try living in a country with no freedom and no liberties like Cuba, but don't go there as tourist like all you Canadians do taking advantage of the situation there,after that you'll call the USA not exceptional but the best country in the world.
Raul: Or you could de-Manichean yourself and realize that the world isn't divided into extremes. One could go to, for example, Canada, or most of western Europe, and see that the US is pretty average.
People often confuse exceptional as perfection...America is not perfect but you would have to be insane not to see all the amazing things we've accomplished in just 200 years, compared to countries who have been around for thousands what about space exploration? Getting to the moon? I'd say that was exceptional...
Well, it seems that the democrats think they have the Messiah on their side!!!!!!!! The Messiah can do no wrong anf he can even walk on water. Guess who is the Messiah!!!!!!!!
the issue is not about the great things that the United States has achieved. The evidence is clear that the United States has achieved much, and in many ways remains a great country. The issue is the notion of "American Exceptionalism" – the idea that United States is better than every other country because God has blessed it to be so.
This idea is nonsense.
Prayer changes things ,
Prayer does 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!
You've been posting this dreck for months...who are you trying to convince – us or you?
Yeah, I'm getting pretty tired of seeing the same thing over and over.
If prayer worked, every time it changed an outcome from what it otherwise would have been would be a violation of natural laws – physics, chemistry, etc. If you believe in prayer then you deny science. And if you deny science, you should also abstain from all the advances brought to you by science.
Science is much better at predicting outcomes than religion is.
you oppose the truth of prayer
Obama being elected is one of the last shreds of anything exceptional about america... a mixed race son of poor parents excels to the point of being elected president.... no other country gives every youngster that opportunity.
The meaning of exceptional has changed from being one used by the rich white male dominated power structure to mean richer, whiter and more macho male dominated power which was revered by other white males around the world. Now we understand that exceptionalism has no color, it has no pay grade, no religion and has no gender or s.exual orientation and can come from anywhere. However, there are still persons like Chuck who are still defining exceptionalism in terms of how white and male our leaders are, thank goodness the Chucks will soon all die off from old age and ignorance.
Statisically speaking America is very poor at providing oppurtunities to achieve the "American Dream"
the country with the smallest raito of intergenrational poverty is Canada.
But you are saying is still nonsensical. Are you upset that someone from a poor background did well?
Lisa, Lisa.. Sad Lisa, Lisa.
too bad Obama doesn't believe in hard work as the cornerstone to greatness.
Obama believes in govt. hand outs and taxing one group to give to the other..
Is America exceptional? We were, until Obama was elected. God Save The Republic!
Just come out of your coma after Bush left office?
exceptionally bigoted and full of zealots, see previous comment for confirmation of this.
Just read Fareed Zakaria's "The Post-American World"...it will answer the question
Not since January 2008:(
Yes, "W"'s last year in office was pretty terrible.
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.