This is the first in a series exploring the concept of American exceptionalism. On Monday, we examine areas in which other countries lead the way.
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) – It’s safe to say the first European arrivals to New England wouldn’t recognize today’s debate over whether America is exceptional.
Though the United States wouldn’t be born for another century and a half, the Puritans arriving in the early 1600s on the shores of what would become Massachusetts firmly believed they were on a mission from God.
In other words, they had the exceptional part down pat.
Fleeing what they saw as the earthly and corrupt Church of England, the Puritans fancied themselves the world’s last, best hope for purifying Christianity - and for saving the world.
The Puritans never used the word “exceptionalism.” But they came to see Boston as the new Jerusalem, a divinely ordained “city upon a hill,” a phrase Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop used in a sermon at sea en route from England in 1630.
“They were reinterpreting themselves as God’s new Israel,” Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero said. “They were essentially playing out the biblical story.”
To modern ears, that literal exceptionalist thinking could sound at once both exotic and quaint, which makes the idea’s staying power and influence throughout American history all the more remarkable.
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Nearly four centuries after Winthrop uttered the words “city on a hill,” President Barack Obama finds himself responding to charges from Republican challenger Mitt Romney that he has insufficient faith in American exceptionalism.
“Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do,” Romney said at a campaign stop this year. “You have an opportunity to vote and take the next step in bringing back that special nature of being American.”
Obama has pushed back on that claim, saying in a recent speech that “the character of our country … has always made us exceptional.”
Though the particulars surrounding the idea have changed, the bedrock belief that America is exceptional when measured against the arc of history and against all other nations has helped forge the nation’s defining moments, from the American Revolution and the country’s dramatic expansion west to the Civil War and both World Wars.
More recently, arguments about American exceptionalism have helped elect and unseat presidents – and have fed a debate about whether the phrase still has any meaning.
'An asylum for mankind'
For New England’s Puritans, exceptionalism was a religious idea with big political repercussions.
They thought the Protestant Reformation, which had been set into motion a century before, hadn’t gone nearly far enough in rooting out the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.
Puritans saw the pomp and hierarchy of the Protestant Church of England as too much like another papacy.
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In New England, Winthrop and his fellow travelers established a theocracy that they hoped would be a model for English Christianity.
“They had to succeed to bring about this promised apocalyptic history that would culminate in the second coming of Christ, hopefully to New England,” said Deborah Madsen, an American studies professor at the University of Geneva.
“To fail would be to fail the world on this grand, transcendent scale,” said Madsen, who has studied the idea of American exceptionalism throughout U.S. history.
With the stakes thought to be so high, there was intense social pressure among Puritans to adhere to a strict moral code.
Everyone looked for signs that they were among the elect destined for heaven and kept a watchful eye out for neighbors who might be backsliding. The starkest example: the Salem witch trials of 1692, in which 19 people were hanged in Massachusetts for allegedly practicing witchcraft.
“If the members of the community fulfilled their part in the work of sacred history, not only would the individuals find salvation, but the whole community would be saved,” Madsen said, summarizing Puritan thinking. “But if any individual failed to live up to this grand destiny, the entire community would be denied salvation.”
Being God’s chosen people, it turned out, wasn’t all roses.
America exceptional? Not by the numbers
As new arrivals and subsequent generations enlarged colonial America, the Puritans’ faith-based ideas were gradually secularized.
By 1660, it had become clear to the Massachusetts theocrats that they wouldn’t be exporting their ideas abroad anytime soon. That was the year the British monarchy was restored after a decade of rule by the Cromwells, putting an end to Puritan rule in England and re-establishing the Church of England as a political power.
And with new Enlightenment ideas making their way from Europe about a rational universe knowable through reason, the Puritans’ quest for perfect religious institutions gave way to a colonial quest for perfect political institutions.
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The democratic ideas that made up this new political exceptionalism owed plenty to Winthrop & Co.
“Puritans had mapped out the relationship between church and the community that included the seed of democratic participation,” said Madsen. “The idea was that everyone had rights but also responsibilities.
“By fulfilling their responsibilities and respecting the rights of others, they would achieve happiness through the social contract.”
That egalitarianism helped lay the groundwork for the American Revolution, though Madsen notes that “the terms of reference had changed from salvation to democracy.”
America’s revolutionaries were keenly aware that their calls for democratic government in the face of English rule were exceptional for their time.
“Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression,” Thomas Paine wrote in 1776 in “Common Sense,” which helped galvanize colonists toward the Revolutionary War.
“Freedom hath been hunted round the globe,” Paine wrote. “Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger. … O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
The Puritan vision of America as world’s godly beacon had been replaced by the image of the nation as the world’s workshop for political and social progress. America’s founders wanted to break with what they saw as the corruption of European politics and society, where a person’s status was mostly a matter of inheritance.
By contrast, the founders proposed in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
While other republics had come and gone, many of the founders who signed the Declaration - and, later, the Constitution - wanted the American Republic to endure forever.
This was city on a hill 2.0.
Reading the founders’ paeans to American exceptionalism - about aspiring to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” as the Constitution puts it - can put a lump in your throat.
But their vision excluded huge swaths of the population, like women and slaves. And other applications of the idea had their own dark sides.
Take Manifest Destiny.
As the nascent United States strove to expand westward in the 1800s, its leaders faced major problems, including how to justify taking land that belonged to Europe or that was occupied by Native Americans.
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Manifest Destiny – the idea that it was God’s will for the U.S. government to occupy North America or all of the Americas – offered a big part of the answer.
“A civilization that has the sanction of God is always the ultimate justification,” said the University of Geneva’s Madsen. “The idea was that God had made it manifest that the U.S. should expand. … It’s not much different than the idea of American exceptionalism.”
Like many facets of exceptionalism, the notion of Manifest Destiny wasn’t entirely new.
In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth of England had established herself as a divinely ordained monarch whose reign had been presaged by the Bible. That mythology, which inspired Puritan exceptionalism, had helped English plantation owners justify forays into what is now Northern Ireland.
In the same way, Manifest Destiny helped justify the United States as it laid claim to European land and forcibly removed tens of thousands of American Indians. Many asserted that the campaign was meant to civilize or Christianize the natives, making good on America’s “chosenness.”
And the American image of a continent brimming with virgin land – which denied the presence of American Indians there – synched nicely with long-held exceptionalist visions of an unspoiled and utopian New World.
“Our manifest destiny (is) to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions,” American newspaper editor John S. O’Sullivan wrote in 1845, arguing for the annexation of Texas, in what is believed to be history’s first mention of Manifest Destiny.
It’s hard to know how much America’s leaders truly believed in the idea versus how much they employed it for purely political ends. Manifest Destiny certainly had high-profile critics, including Mark Twain, who declared himself an “anti-imperialist.”
“If you’re a cynical person and you see something like the Mexican-American War as a land grab, you can say this idea of Manifest Destiny was construed to create a moral tissue for a war of aggression,” Boston University international relations professor Andrew Bacevich said.
The westward expansion was driven largely by Southerners who wanted to farm the land and expand American slavery.
But abolitionists like Frederick Douglass also appropriated American exceptionalism, arguing that the nation’s “peculiar institution” was evidence that America was falling short of its Christian mandate.
That abolitionist line foreshadowed a key argument of 20th-century liberals: If America is exceptional, it’s because of the decisions we make around justice, not because of innate “chosenness.”
By Douglass’ time, American exceptionalism was so deeply entrenched in the American psyche that it transcended religion. Abraham Lincoln, often described as a deist - believing in a distant, uninvolved God - was nonetheless a hearty exceptionalist.
“He believed that America was leading the way in history toward democracy and equality,” said Dorothy Ross, a history professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University. “At that time, Europe is still steeped in monarchs and failed revolutions, and America was still the only mass democracy in the Western world and believed that it was leading the historical way.”
Even the relatively unreligious Lincoln came to see the hand of God actively participating in American history through the Civil War.
“He gives to both North and South this terrible war,” Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, referring to God. “American slavery,” Lincoln said, was something that “He now wills to remove.”
The first president to say it
Despite its centuries-old influence, the term "American exceptionalism" didn’t emerge until sometime in the past 100 years.
Some historians say it’s unclear who coined the phrase, while others credit Joseph Stalin with doing so in 1929, when he admonished American communists for suggesting that the United States’ unique history could make it immune to Marxism.
In his reprimand, the Soviet leader decried “the heresy of American exceptionalism.”
Ironically, American intellectuals and eventually the broader public came to embrace the term, especially in the years following World War II, even after communists used the Great Depression as evidence of Stalin’s alleged "heresy.”
Just like President Woodrow Wilson had done in World War I, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman justified American involvement in World War II largely on the basis that the country had been chosen to lead and transform the world.
After the Second World War, “the United States had emerged as the strongest country,” said Johns Hopkins’ Ross. “Social scientists began studying things like national character and what makes America unique.”
American affection for the idea grew during the Cold War, as the U.S. attempted to distinguish itself from the “godless” Soviet Union.
“Our governments, in every branch ... must be as a city upon a hill,” John F. Kennedy said in a Boston speech just before his inauguration in 1961, citing John Winthrop by name.
In the ’60s and ’70s, however, American scholars and others began challenging the idea of American exceptionalism, mostly from the left and especially after the Vietnam War, which liberals criticized as a costly exercise in American hubris.
Historians began to see exceptionalism as a scholarly construct, a way of interpreting American history rather than as accepted fact.
Ronald Reagan illustrated the partisan gap around the idea, speaking of America as a “city on a hill” and attacking President Jimmy Carter for allegedly showing weakness on the world stage, including in the Iran hostage crisis.
“We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so,” Reagan told the first annual Conservative Political Action Conference in 1974. “We are today the last best hope of man on Earth.”
President George W. Bush employed similar rhetoric in his global “freedom agenda,” even after initially pledging a “humble” foreign policy.
Despite greater Republican than Democratic support for the idea (91% vs. 70%) , a 2010 Gallup poll found that 80% of Americans subscribed to the notion that the U.S. has a “unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.”
Boston University’s Prothero criticizes that definition of American exceptionalism, which he says is how most American politicians use the term today.
For John Winthrop, the shining city was an aspiration that depended on the righteous behavior of the Puritans, Prothero says, part of the social contract that laid the groundwork for democracy. Whether the city would in fact shine was an open question.
If the Puritans dealt falsely with their God, Winthrop had said in his 1630 sermon, there will be “curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”
In contemporary American politics, by contrast, Prothero says the idea of exceptionalism has been stripped of its conditionalism, becoming “a kind of brag.”
“Today, it’s ‘of course God blesses America,’ ” he said. “It’s presumptuous.”
Others have attacked the idea as little more than the kind of nationalism felt by citizens of countries all over the world.
“I believe in American exceptionalism,” President Obama said in France in 2009, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
But the president has since sounded a different tune. In his Air Force Academy commencement speech in May, Obama repeatedly expressed support for American exceptionalism.
“The United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” Obama said. “It's one of the many examples of why America is exceptional.”
In fact, Obama appears to be the first sitting president to publicly use those words, political experts say. Given their place in the modern American political lexicon, nearly 400 years after Winthrop first gave voice to the idea, he is unlikely to be the last.
Whether or not you think that our country was divinely inspired is your opinion. Look at how this country was formed and come up with your own opinion. I will still believe that the Supreme being had his hand in the creation of our nation. With that said, it is the people who will continue to make it prosper in the 21st century. We should all believe that we are still the greatest country on Earth, despite what the politicians are doing to it! Evolve? Yes, I would like to see the day when there will be no more need for war or even human killing human. The whole world needs to be on this page, not just the U.S.A.! We need to treat each other like our brothers and sisters and that even goes for those of the muslim faith.
We are exceptional and always will be! We are citizens of the U.S. and not the world! This is the land of the free and the home of the brave!
You DO know that we started out thinking of ourselves as citizens of Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, etc., right? It took centuries before people started thinking of themselves as Americans. (Ben Franklin is usually credited with having come up with the term as a unifying influence.)
Just so we will eventually think of ourselves as citizens of our one world, as members of only one race: the HUMAN race.
O'alas...and as Rome fell the romans looked up to their god's and asked "we're we not exceptional, we're we not merciful for this to happen to us?" The Gods responded by saying. "Your only faults we're that you considered yourself before all others and used patriotism as a tool to oppress and maim". When the last brick fell in Rome a distant cry was heard that can still be heard today. Any nation can claim to be a Republic and claim blessings from God but in the end it's the people who damn themselves and the world to come take it's piece and in doing so This Republic will fall like those before her.
Atheists are a funny bunch. Why do they want everyone to be as unhappy and angry as they are? Why does it bother them so much that i believe somthing that makes me happy? I dont try to convert anyone. Its ironic that the only people that have tried to force their beliefs on me were atheists, a little hypocritical dont ya think?
Wow. Interesting Universe you come from. Sorry that we over here in the reality-based community have done such a poor job showing you around.
Interesting observation. I would add that a belief that makes you feel good is functioning at the same level as a belief that makes you feel bad. They are two sides of the same coin. Thus, arguments about which 'belief' is correct are inherently limited. Is truth self evident or does it require belief?
I'm not an atheist, I'm an agnostic, but I certainly don't agree with you. I have many atheist and agnostic friends and they're not unhappy at all. And for the most part, they aren't angry either. It's only when Christians tell them they're going to hell or try to convert them that they (and I) get a little angry. I applaud you for not trying to convert people. I have a lot of Christian friends also and friends of other faiths as well. But what does really make me angry is when self described "Christian" politicians try to pass legislation that is based on evangelical style religious beliefs. Such as forced school prayer, legislation that denies a woman's right to choose and legislation that limits or outlaws birth control. If Christians beliefs give them comfort then I respect their beliefs, but when they try to force their beliefs on others, that's when I have a problem with it.
I would say the roots of American exceptionalism reach even to Christopher Columbus who in his diaries saw the hand of God in driving his little fleet westward toward the Americas. This promised to be a land like no other and would give hope to the aspirations of those whose Europe, just freed from the yoke of Muslim invaders in the west and still mired in the east, was ready to break out with a burst of energy unmatched in human history.
Amen to that. God has a plan for good but man, without saving faith in Christ, keeps messing it up.
Except that Columbus was looking to America to prove the exceptionalism of Spain.
Ha! God has a "plan for good", does he? Reminds me of this passage from Douglas Adams's "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy":
= = = = = =
Mr. Prosser said, "You were quite ent¡tled to make any suggestions or protests at the appropriate time, you know."
"Appropriate time?" hooted Arthur. "Appropriate time? The first I knew about it was when a workman arrived at my home yesterday. I asked him if he'd come to clean the windows and he said no, he'd come to demolish the house. He didn't tell me straight away of course. Oh no. First he wiped a couple of windows and charged me a fiver. Then he told me."
"But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months."
"Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything."
"But the plans were on display..."
"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."
"That's the display department."
"With a flashlight."
"Ah, well, the lights had probably gone."
"So had the stairs."
"But look, you found the notice, didn't you?"
"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display on the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard.'"
American exceptionalism is based upon the suffering of African slaves , murderd Native Americans , and civil descentors .
Too much blood has been shed for greed and White racial superiority . We see the resuraction of this policy by the retoric and hateful dialog comeing from the Republican establishment . Racist white people are stiffling the vote of citizens , both legal and not legal . Only a socialist , black president can liberate us from the tyranny of the White oppressors . Any vote for anyone other then Obama is a vote for a return to slavery , genocide and profit from the blood of the oppressed .
"Doctor" Moanique? Certainly no Ph.D. in English! It is funny to me that the only way to avoid a return to slavery is to vote for a single person–all else being a return to the days of servitude. Perhaps it's time to stop focusing so exclusively on race and pay more attention to social disparity by class. The solutions for today's issues can be found by focusing on today's issues, not yesterday's.
More revisionist history BS. The goal was to make as much money as possible. True for the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, English and everyone else. The 'Puritan' cliche is worn out both historically and contextually along with being practically irrelevant.
I think such a belief diminishes the work. effort, time and lives of those who explored, pioneered and battled to create our country.
To the extent that America IS exceptional, it's due to 3 words: "We the People".
And there's nothing wrong with being exceptional when you're the first, as we were with modern democracy. (Of course, if you do it right, you set such a good example that everybody else adopts the idea, and it becomes the norm rather than the exception.)
The problem arises when you're exceptional because you're the LAST, as the US is with respect to, for instance, the metric system and capital punishment.
America is the most violent country in the civilized world. You enslaved millions of people for more than a century, you assasinated the native, you stole 51% of your neighbor's land (Mexico), you invade countries forr whatever reason, you are arrogant, insulting even you best allies (UK and Canada), your society is depraved, your shows are vulgar and influence negatively the youth. Oh yeah, that's an exceptionnal country. Exceptionnally STUPID !
Yet here you are Jan, on an "American" companies website. Why not go elsewhere? What country are you from? Should we discuss the pro's and con's of your native country's people?
As a Canadian with triple citizenship (CND, US, EU). I approve this message
Is that all you've got?
I too am a European-American (all of my ancestors arrived on this continent before 1800), and I agree with this message. That first painting says volumes – the Native Americans (who were here first, by 10,000 years or more) and Bison fleeing the Europeans who nearly killed them all off in their greed for power and land. The Bison slaughter numbered in the millions, just to deprive the Native Americans of their food supply. Unbelievable. Americans are the most arrogant (and obese) people on Earth.
I agree, this country was founded and run by slave owners. They killed the native Americans and took their land. White Americans have oppressed black people and Indians and other minorities for over 200 years and it still continues today. And the constant use of gunboat diplomacy to solve problems shows that the only thing we are exceptional at is being arrogant jerks when it comes to global politics.
My God would never choose a nation that is run by the weatlhy, that murders everyone in its path, steals everything it wants, that causes misery and death around the world, and that has a phoney democracy, to lead the world.
So God did not choose the US, satan did.
USA Under Satan's Authority
But that's the psychotic mentality of you believers. Everyone has their own god who is the real deal and speaks only to them and others' gods are phony or they don't receive the same anal probe that you did.
Come on, let's be serious; does anybody really believe that god spends the weekends cherry picking the favorite countries, people & tribes or communicating with us through an angel in upstate New York ? If I were religious, I would be offended. It is the character of the people that makes a country, a society or a historic period exceptional; so let's stop this nonsensical idea of a preferential treatment by god and let's earn the label of exceptional by making ours a more just and tolerant society than it is now.
I can back you up. We are told God chose Israel to lead the world as God's chosen people.
So why the conflicting chosen ones?
Each organized religion claims to be the chosen people.
God DOES NOT elect nations to lead the world.
Of course they believe god picks favorites. These are the same people are believe a talking serpent tempted Eve to eat a fruit from the tree of knowledge. That Jesus was from a virgin birth. That Jonah was swallowed alive by a whale. That Noah built an ark and collected two of every one of the millions and millions of plants and animals and then lived on the boat for years until the water receeded. These same people believe god created day and night before the sun and moon. Ignoring the fact the only reason we have day and night is the sun. Created plants before creating the sun. Created the sun and stars as if they are not one in the same. These people have a mental illness. No surprise they believe THEIR god picked THEIR country. Hahaha
We are an exceptional country regardless of what loons like Bill Maher have to say. Whenever another country is in trouble who do they call first? While we may not be perfect we sure are better than all the rest.
Except we're not the best. We're not even close.
Then perhaps you could explain why the Chinese have eight people with IQs over 137 for every ONE we have.
Exceptionalism? Did they make that word up in Texas? They make up a lot of things in Texas.
Let's get off the freedon of "religion" and dwell more on the free enterprise system. The free enterprise system goes 24-7-366, absoloutely! Enterprise is key to America; it's our daily bread. Our place among nations in the World depends on our economic success. Religious leadership is nebulous because it involves diverse beliefs vehemently opposed to each other and far too contoversial. Trade relations tend to be more agreeable because economic treaties are negotiated by the countries involved. Religions fail to interface with each other, because clergy can't agree on a single treaty for worship!
Ah, yes. The lie of "Manifest Destiny".
Great Bill Maher clip from a couple weeks ago:
Perhaps one day as the human race continues to evolve, we will leave behind our primate need for weapons, religious mythology, and the desire to reign supreme over others on this little planet!
"Whether or not you think it's true..." Seriously? THIS is exactly why "American exceptionalism" is a joke, and China and the rest of the world will clobber us in the 21st century. We still believe in a man in the clouds that impregnated a woman 2000 years ago. What you call faith, I call the downfall of America.
Finally. Someone hits the nail on the head.
The Pilgrims were the good guys, not the Puritans. Winthrop is all ego like the pope and the the king, Pilgrims were much more modest, if you examine their real leader John Robinson. Winthrop and Obama use to much hubris. Predestination had the odd effect of making people try to act better. The belief that people predestined to go to heaven would behave well made people behave.
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.