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.

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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.

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. Leftcoastrocky

    God would not have given us the most powerful military in the world if God did not believe that we were exceptional and would frequently use the military.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • daveinla

      Defends your right to cut America down. You ever stepped up to defend this nation?

      July 1, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      DEFEND this nation? You mean the nation whose shores last saw the boot of a foreign soldier back in 1812 — TWO CENTURIES AGO?
      You are mistaken if you think this nation has had any problem defending itself. Quite the contrary, it has enthusiastically adopted the motto that the best defense is a good offense and has launched pre-emptive attacks all over the globe wile spending more on its military-industrial complex than EVERY OTHER NATION ON EARTH COMBINED. This is not a track record to be proud of.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  2. JamesC

    The USA is far from exceptional in the world. You are way down the list when it comes to educational test scores, especially science and math. Child poverty, infant mortality, crime, incarceration, your medical system, are all way way below most Western Countries. What you do have in spades are lots right wing Christians who belief you are chosen by god. Absolute nonsense.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • daveinla

      If you hate America soooo bad go check out North Korea for awhile. They also hate America.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • John P

      To me, this knee-jerk "love it or leave it" retort I read when anyone offers an honest criticism of this country, only reinforces that we are way down the list in terms of academic accomplishment and personal responsibility.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Even though I am a christian, I admit that I don't really believe in prayer but my therapist told me that if I keep posting anti-atheism posts on all of these chat boards, I would be able to work out my anger and hatred for God. God doesn't love me or anyone else, and I know that. In fact I hate god!

    July 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • charlieorlando

      Interesting post. But... why hate God? Given all the heartache and misery in the world - especially that suffered by innocent people - God (assuming such a being exists at all) doesn't care about anyone or anything regardless of all the blather in the Bible. So, in that sense, you're in good company. Don't rely on the supernatural to help you - it most likely doesn't exist. However, your mind and your reasoning abitlity most certainly DO exist. Use them as best you can to make your own path in this world. Don't use religion as a crutch. Use your brain and your will power to make your life what you want it to be.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Pat

      In fact, you are very angry at God, and that is one of the great things about God. In fact, God would encourage you to say that directly to Him (or Her). God would like to know your sufferings. Also, let God know exactly what you want to see done about these sufferings. In my opinion honest angry hatred would be better than a million hypocritical smarmy grovels.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  4. Leftcoastrocky

    But God only chose America if we promised to be white and Christian.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • daveinla

      So America would be better if it were non-white and non-Christian.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Keith

      and, speak English like Jesus did

      July 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  5. jp

    The only thing exceptional about this country is the huge number of people gulled and swindled by religion, including CNN

    July 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Keith

      Or, the other half who have been swindled by politics

      July 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  6. yuighkg

    (This is sarcasm for those who fail to recognize it.)

    *sarcastically chants* We're number one! We're number one!

    How can you even refute that we are the greatest nation on earth. We lead the world in everything!

    Like education! .....hrm no wait we are way way down the list..
    Or health care!....hrm no wait we are way down the list...
    How about happiness!....hrm no wait way down the list...
    life expectency!....no way down the list...

    Hrm what are we #1 in then....

    percentage of population incarcerated, woohoo fear our criminals!
    debt! ya were number 1!
    millitary! fear us!!!
    drug use! woot woot, give us more drugs!

    Seriously, anyone who cants were number one, is a freaking moron. Were number one in the worst areas, and like number 30 in the areas that matter....

    July 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • daveinla

      Hate America? Go to Iran.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Pat

      I don't think it means you hate America that you understand we can learn from other countries and that we have areas in which we need to improve. And I know you don't need to be an atheist to believe in separation of Church and state.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  7. Leftcoastrocky

    Of course, America was chosen by God. It is in the Bible, isn't it?

    July 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  8. daveinla

    America is an exceptional place...unless you listen to revisionist historians like Howard Zinn or most Obama supporters who think America is an evil place.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • jp

      America is number one in the category of sheeple who believe in a some mystic being that is an American and loves us better than the rest.
      These people are seriously deluded

      July 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Keith

      You don't have to be a revisionist to know America is phucked up.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  9. real american

    those to immigrate, legally, to America assimilate themselves into American culture and society and become Americans-it's worked great in the past and proves the total failure of a multicultural culture-even European nations have discovered the failure of multiculturalism

    July 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • daveinla

      Adolf Hitler predicted that America would implode becuase of multi-culturism...perhaps he was on to something?

      July 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  10. Phattee

    It's the height of stupidity to think that just because you were born in some random patch of land you're special for some reason. Individuals are exceptional, countries are not.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • sensable christian

      A country that embraces and madates by law the notion that human beings are all equal and have certain rights that transcend race, social status, religious beliefs, and disablitlities is an exceptional natoin. That is the United States. So many nations do not do this -even in western europe there are legal class divisions depending on how many generations your family has lived in a particular country.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  11. charlieorlando

    I agree with the thinking many have expressed here regarding the belief that "God" has chosen Amercia to be an "exceptional" nation. Such a belief in exceptionalism is clearly delusional. Indeed, the entire concept of "being chosen by God" is utterly absurd to all truly rational minds. However, America isn't the only country with such a supernatural-nationalistic delusion. Israel also thinks that it (via "God's"a covenent with Abraham) is exceptional. Many Islamic nations (most notably, I suppose, Saudi Arabia) believe the Allah has chosen them to be exceptional too. So, exceptionalism is not privy to the United States. The phenomenon global in scope, a world-wide symptom of mental feebleness and intellectual self-constriction fueled by a belief in a being for which there is no scientific evidence whatsoever.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  12. Keith

    America is not exceptional unless you are measuring death and destruction. We have spread more death and destruction all around the world than just about anyone else.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • real american

      @ Keith-socialism,communism,marxism and islam have set the records for death and destruction world-wide-–America could never come close to them

      July 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
      • Keith

        You must detest research. One at a time sweetie, you could add Christianity to your list

        July 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Engineer

      Those are generalizations...they don't hold water...WWII was actually the most devastating man made catastrophe...do some research on the amount of lives lost on the Eastern Front...terrifying....also...the history of Asia...death on some scales that westerners have a hard time getting their head around...The absolute destruction of the Native Americans....which America seems to take the brunt of...but when you REALLY take the time to crunch the numbers and research the history...a vast....VAST majority of Native American deaths are attributed to contact and war with the Europeans...the ancestors of the colonists...have you seen the latest numbers on the impact of disease in the Americas? The Europeans brought that....either way...to generalize death and destruction like that...hmmm...Americans have NEVER held the monopoly on evil....that's a human condition my friend...anywhere you find human beings...you'll find death and destruction...

      July 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
      • Keith

        My point didn't have anything to do with details of when and how. What I am against is supporting America causing futher Death and Destruction. Nothing is inevitable if you are willing to fight for your beliefs.

        July 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Keith

      I pray ever day that you will not be here tomorrow, it never works

      July 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Entertained Tyler

      Lol no it doesnt.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Nathan

      Question; Do you post this between checking your favorite child P.oR.n sites?

      July 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Z

      I prayed and I never got that mini-bike.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • ArthurP

      All prayer does is give you callouses.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • jp

      The only thing prayer changes is the number of people who know you are crazy for praying for something instead of doing something worthwhile

      July 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • ArthurP

      Atheism never burned anyone at the stake.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Pat

      Atheism never burned anyone at the stake? The atheist Soviet Union murdered millions of its own citizens. I do agree, though, that theocracy is a terrible form of government.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  14. MyselfOfCourse

    As always, what's at the core of issues like these becomes evident only when terms are defined and concretized.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  15. RichardSRussell

    America! Where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.
    Yay us. U S A ! U S A !! U S A !!!

    July 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  16. Lost

    Manifest Destiny+Arrogance And Self-Righteousness=A Shining City Built On A Foundation Of Sand.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  17. ZedATL

    I don't know how people get off thinking they're the greatest thing in the Universe. Give me a break.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • charlieorlando

      Bingo. I totally agree. Well said!

      July 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  18. Engineer

    Actually, America HAS been exceptional. The British Empire was also exceptional...The Holy Roman Empire...Charlemagne....The Romans....for better or worse...America has been exceptional...these things go in cycles...I am proud to be an American...a Texan...an engineer....a Catholic....a father...a husband...and I'm happy....why does that enrage some of ya'll? If we tried as hard to find common ground as hard as we try to find differences and hate....maybe the world would be a better place? I don't disagree that as a nation, we have some serious hurdles ahead of us...maybe hurdles we can't overcome...either way...we'll give her hell...its what we've always done...its what anyone from any country or culture would do...when the cows are out...you never know how many you'll bring back...sometimes more...lol....sometimes less...we'll see.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • RedSoxFan

      Well said.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  19. iminim

    "Exceptionalism" is found in one's actions. It is not a birthright or religious virtue. We are a great nation when we accept our responsibility as a rich & powerful nation in addressing the major world problems of our day. We become exceptional when we devote ourselves to making life safer & healthier for both our own citizens & those of other countries using our significant technological, educational, and monetary and man power. We are a bunch of mediocre braggarts when we sit around and gloat about how we have some kind of God given right to consider ourselves special.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Keith

      It is about time we got back to minding our own business and taking care of our own instead of blowing up people's houses and killing their childrem

      July 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  20. Ms Jackson

    The notion that more than 1/8 of the people in the USA are exceptional suggests a comparison to a chimpanzee cage. Most Americans I know are dangerously ignorant, preprogrammed robots and as dull as dishwater. Thank "god" for the influx of hopeful and intelligent immigrants. The old guard is made of Elmer's Glue and dirt. Sorry if reading this caused your diapers to misalign; it's likely the truth about you.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Keith

      Ms Jackson, on any given day many like you believe that you are in the top ten percent of intelligence on the internet. The problem with that, is that, polls show that 90% of us believe that we are in the top ten percent of intelligence. That means that every day at least 80% of us are wrong

      July 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.