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Exceptionalism through time
June 30th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

Despite fights about its merits, idea of American exceptionalism a powerful force through history

This is the first in a series exploring the concept of American exceptionalism. On Monday, we examine areas in which other countries lead the way.

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) – It’s safe to say the first European arrivals to New England wouldn’t recognize today’s debate over whether America is exceptional.

Though the United States wouldn’t be born for another century and a half, the Puritans arriving in the early 1600s on the shores of what would become Massachusetts firmly believed they were on a mission from God.

In other words, they had the exceptional part down pat.

Fleeing what they saw as the earthly and corrupt Church of England, the Puritans fancied themselves the world’s last, best hope for purifying Christianity - and for saving the world.

The Puritans never used the word “exceptionalism.” But they came to see Boston as the new Jerusalem, a divinely ordained “city upon a hill,” a phrase Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop used in a sermon at sea en route from England in 1630.

“They were reinterpreting themselves as God’s new Israel,” Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero said. “They were essentially playing out the biblical story.”

To modern ears, that literal exceptionalist thinking could sound at once both exotic and quaint, which makes the idea’s staying power and influence throughout American history all the more remarkable.

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Nearly four centuries after Winthrop uttered the words “city on a hill,” President Barack Obama finds himself responding to charges from Republican challenger Mitt Romney that he has insufficient faith in American exceptionalism.

“Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do,” Romney said at a campaign stop this year. “You have an opportunity to vote and take the next step in bringing back that special nature of being American.”

Obama has pushed back on that claim, saying in a recent speech that “the character of our country … has always made us exceptional.”

Though the particulars surrounding the idea have changed, the bedrock belief that America is exceptional when measured against the arc of history and against all other nations has helped forge the nation’s defining moments, from the American Revolution and the country’s dramatic expansion west to the Civil War and both World Wars.

More recently, arguments about American exceptionalism have helped elect and unseat presidents – and have fed a debate about whether the phrase still has any meaning.

'An asylum for mankind'

For New England’s Puritans, exceptionalism was a religious idea with big political repercussions.

They thought the Protestant Reformation, which had been set into motion a century before, hadn’t gone nearly far enough in rooting out the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.

Puritans saw the pomp and hierarchy of the Protestant Church of England as too much like another papacy.

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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.

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. Dan

    It will be a great day when everyone learns to reason and forget about this religious nonsense.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • ObamaUntil2016

      I agree.

      Achtung, Baby!

      July 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  2. Mike in AZ

    The case for American exceptionalism fades away when you look at the people promoting it.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • ObamaUntil2016

      You mean like the phonies on MSNBC? Chris Matthews, Ed Shultz and Rachel Mancow?

      I agree.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  3. Dan

    America is inherently or divinely exceptional. The fact that much of the natural resources were unexploited gave a large cushion for Americans to make mistakes and not suffer as drastic consequences as other societies without the same advantage. Americans have done exceptional things in the past, both good and bad, but it is not a result of fate, divine intervention, or some genetic make-up. The fact that Americans have done exceptional good without those says much about their potential while the exceptional bad done by the same society should give them pause and make them consider their future actions.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  4. Conservative Vato

    America is exceptional in that although there are classes of social and economic status, the barriers to mobility between statuses are much less than any other government in the history of the world. It is important to note that the mobility is both upward and downward for most citizens and even non-citizens. As with any organization, it is not without some areas needing improvement. However, I would rather be a poor man in the USA than a poor person anywhere else in the world. I would trade the nanny state that some other countries enjoy for the mobility to exceed when the individual drive and the spirit endure.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Henry

      Since the mid 1970s downward mobility has been very prevalent but upward mobility not so much. Of course one can point out examples of upward mobility but they are exceptions more than the norm.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Joe

      You'd rather be a poor man in America? I don't think you'd be saying that if you were a poor man in America.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  5. Dave

    Bob Dylan sang...

    But now we got weapons
    Of the chemical dust
    If fire them we're forced to
    Then fire them we must
    One push of the button
    And a shot the world wide
    And you never ask questions
    When God's on your side.

    In a many dark hour
    I've been thinkin' about this
    That Jesus Christ
    Was betrayed by a kiss
    But I can't think for you
    You'll have to decide
    Whether Judas Iscariot
    Had God on his side.

    So now as I'm leavin'
    I'm weary as Hell
    The confusion I'm feelin'
    Ain't no tongue can tell
    The words fill my head
    And fall to the floor
    If God's on our side
    He'll stop the next war.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Keith

      Dylan is sometimes a wise man

      July 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  6. Kandi

    ROTFLMFAOAYG (at your god)

    93% of South Americans are Catholic. But is more important to watch the Futbol game today than it is to go to church and pray that Spain wins over Italy. I agree.

    Spain 2 and Italy 1 > watch the game and watch Spain make history...that's exceptional! Get the beer and pot out and love it.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • letushelp

      Cheer up. We will be exceptional if another 80 million get eliminated, like 200 years ago. How nice. Can not wait.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  7. Smokey

    Exceptionalism, like potential, is something that one should strive for but it can never really be achieved. It's a continual lifelong process. There are some that act as though that goal has already been accomplished; that they are exceptional simply on the basis that they were born in America. There are those that think exceptionalism is a dirty word not worthy of being discussed aside from ridicule and derision. Both groups of people are fools.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  8. ObamaUntil2016

    Vote for Obama in November. 15 percent unemployment is the new norm. Your company can cancel your health insurance and throw you under the government bus. Your children's children all owe $45,000 on the deficit - and they're not even born yet. The public sector unions can all retire at 55 years with 150 percent of their salary - at your expense!

    C'mon, folks! Vote him in again! Life is great - under Obama!

    Did I mention I'm a complete idiot?

    July 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Keith

      Okay, better than a Thief

      July 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  9. obama is an exceptional closet muslim

    :-)

    July 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  10. Dana

    Exceptional at some things yes. Absurd religious nonsense no.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  11. halfbakedlunatic

    'god' is an idiotic idea promoted by immoral people to control and pacify the weak minded.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  12. America IS exceptional put next to almost any other country...

    who else is exceptional? canada, israel, singapore, mayyybe india.

    most others are basket cases...

    July 1, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • ObamaUntil2016

      NO WE'RE NOT! WE SUCK!

      But not enough.

      Vote Obama 2012.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  13. FaveDave

    Welcome to Fox News. What a pile of dung.No wonder it was you folks and Fox that messed up the reporting on the Obamacare Supreme Court decision.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  14. Snowyowl

    To make a long story short: it's nationalism combined with an unhealthy dose of religion.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  15. Dana

    A long, long, long time ago people believed in sky fairies.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Objective

      A long long time ago people also believed the world was flat, that man was never meant to fly, and that electricity was magic.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  16. RainCityLady

    This arrogant American superiority complex needs to stop!!!!! And please, leave God and religion out of it. It's just plain embarrassing and will be the destruction of this country.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  17. Argo

    The best and brightest always immigrate to wonderful Atheist countries like North Korea, China and Vietnam, right?

    July 1, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • letushelp

      not necessary. But nuts of you type obviously can not survive evolution, just like 80 million of those who were eliminated 200 years ago

      July 1, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      So Koreans who worship their leader as a God on Earth are now atheist? You don't have one example of an atheist country because there are none and never were any.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Argo

      NO real argument or disagreement just an insult, letushelp?

      July 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Well, for a long time, the best and the brightest made their way to the United States, because our secular government guarantees the freedom to worship or not worship as we choose. Now they probably come because there are a lot of jobs available in high tech and health care.

      There simply aren't enough educated Americans to fill these jobs, either because of the outlandish expense of education in this country or the political neo-con posturing that denigrates higher education. With our crumbling infrastructure, our divisive and corrupt politics and our cultural greed, it's easy to see that any "exceptionalism" remaining to America is largely in the heads of people blind to reality.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Keith

      no one knew how ignorant you were until you spoke

      July 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Christianity

      America is a Christian country. The best and brightest gather at the throne of God.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Yep. There's that good old christian humility. You just go on and sit there and wait for your god while the U.S. crumbles around you. Those of us who actually care about the fate of this nation will do our best to bring it back from the brink.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  18. JMissal

    Do you people stand in front of the mirror every day and talk yourselves into believing that America is "exceptional"?

    For those of you who may have missed it, go back and watch the season premier of "The Newsroom" with Jeff Daniels. His opening speech is EXACTLY why we aren't exceptional. Yes, at one time we were....and not that very long ago. Yes, we can be an exceptional nation again....but what made us exceptional cannot be said of us at present.

    The Great Experiment. Just like all experiments, some are successful, others are not. America was successful....and then, in 1913 we decided to begin discarding all those things that made us unique. Another example are recent decisions by the Supreme Court has hammered yet more nails in the coffin of Liberty and Freedom. So to all of you who claim we ARE exceptional, wake up. We WERE and we CAN BE....but right now, we ARE not.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  19. Josef Bleaux

    America was founded by slave owners. The original settlers killed and persecuted the native Americans. Blacks, Indians and other minorities are still being oppressed today. We stole the land from Indians, from Mexico and from Spain. We continue to use gunboat diplomacy to force our beliefs and lifestyle on other countries. Exceptional? Yes, we're exceptional arrogant jerks.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • JMissal

      Go back and brush up on your history Jack. The original settlers worked WITH native americans. It wasn't until the different crowns around Europe got actively involved that the natives began getting oppressed. Further, land wasn't "stolen" from Mexico and Spain; wars were fought and they lost; that's the way it goes.

      And show me where minorities are being oppressed today....I'm on the edge of my seat waiting to hear this glimpse of wisdom from you. The fact is that now, better than any time in American history, does EVERYONE have an equal opportunity to make something of their lives; whether they take advantage of it or not does NOT make them oppressed. Sure, there are pockets of prejudice and racism, but they are committed by BOTH sides. If you don't see THAT, then you surely need to remove your blinders.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Keith

      J just because you are blind doesn't mean that Josef can't see

      July 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Kandi

      While Mexico was at war with Spain, thousands of white colonists, cattleman, adventures, and mercenaries, were coming from other parts of North America that had been already invaded and occupied looking for land and gold they could find and obtain “by any means.” These mercenaries fixed their eyes and interest in what is today “Texas,” placed themselves in land plots, and later enlarged their population so that by 1835 there were more white foreigners than native Mexicans in the area. In 1836 the white foreigners occupied most of the territory by force, declared “independence” and called the stolen lands “Republic of Texas.” This bandit’s act caused the war between Mexico and the United States for the first time until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed between the two countries on February 2, 1848. Mexico lost the land the whites called “Texas” but subsequently the rest of the Northern territories which eventually became part of the whole mass land known today as the US “Southwest.”

      July 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Missal, just google the Pequot tribe if you want to see how the settlers "worked with" the native population.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  20. Jack

    Wow, I forgot that the "American Progress" painting (picture 1) was so racist. Nothing screams manifest destiny like genocide.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:14 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.