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. Tony

    The whole reason this country is failing is because we don't believe it is exceptional. That's what government wants, is for us to lose that, lose our prosperity, and thus hand over our freedoms to them.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Hannah Banana

      That's total bullshit Tony. America is hardly failing. Only people who are pushing a radical extremist political agenda say that.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  2. Andre

    How many non-americans are commenting today? I'm curious. The whole concept of America being exceptional for its values, the chosen country, is laughable. It's like you do not have any knowledge about the rest of the world. There is life outside of the US, did you know? America IS a great country. Its society is among the most developed of our planet. Yet, it is far from being the ONLY one. It is in very good company and actually should learn from some other countries, that are even better at building an advanced society. This is why this article is a JOKE and an insult to any individual with a developed brain, that has not been brainwashed by years of propaganda where the word "freedom" has been abused beyond belief.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  3. History Teacher

    BTW, it's John "L" O'Sullivan, not John "S" !

    July 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  4. Basically

    American exceptionalism is actually an illusion. The two things that we really had that let America be what it was and is were safe borders and massive untouched natural resources. We could become ultra prosperous because we have never been at any risk of invasion – those oceans still keep invaders away. Our neighbors to the north and south were weak and either cooperated (Canada) or stayed weak (Mexico).

    The esceptionalism is really nothing more than geography.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  5. Mike Buck

    The concept of Manifest Destiny and the power of prayer changed things all right...Trail of Tears, War with Mexico and genocide of the Native Americans. Get religion out of politics!

    July 1, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • daveinla

      Let me guess? You read Howard Zinn and listened to your liberal history professor in college.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Babs

      Let's not forget 2 1/2 centuries of free labor, i.e., slavery.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Mark Taylor

      And Babs... let's not forget that 1/2 the states were vehemently anti-slavery. Lots of American white boys died to correct that evil. People keep conveniently forgetting that little matter.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Mike Buck

      Daveinla, Yes I have researched and have two history degrees. Are you denying that these events took place? Perhaps you should try some research of the time period called Manifest Destiny.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  6. Hannah

    America is exceptional all right. Of industrialized nations, more people in jail per capita, more children starving, highest health care, lowest education. And this has been going this way for 30 years or more. And the reason being is that so many in America are believers and not thinkers, and they vote against themselves and for the right wing because they hate gays and blacks and Hispanics. Because they don't' want women to choose for themselves and have family planning and they don't' want to take care of anyone who is born into poverty. That's an exceptional country. I will say one thing, we have exceptional armies, because we have the largest armies in the world. Is that anything to crow about? I don't think so.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  7. joe

    What makes America different and better? Easy answer. Our freedoms and a democratic republic.

    Nobody ever works as hard for somebody else as they do for themselves. As long as we keep that alive, we'll stay out front.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      STAY out front? That implies that we ARE out front. Statistics say otherwise.
      Unless, of course, you're particularly proud of being the most imprisoned nation in the history of the planet, with the most gigantic military expenditures ever, and a world leader in the use of inches, pounds, and quarts.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  8. davewyman

    I think many politicians today, particularly on the right, use exceptionalism to pander to their base, whether or not they believe in the concept.

    It's easy to understand why people who are willing to believe in a god would believe in the equally absurd theory that the U.S. (or any other nation where irrational belief exists, which is everywhere) is special in some divine way.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  9. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • 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! I love Satan. I really, really love him with all my heart. Right now I wish I could get out of this hospital so that I could get back to my alter to SATAN!

      July 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • just sayin

      Poor sad little atheist Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww. God bless

      July 1, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Peikovianyi

      The mystic agrees with Meister Eckhart, God doesn't say to do something because it's good, it's good because God says to do it. Such medieval reasoning is opposed to American Exceptionalism, to the European Enlightenment, to the Renaissance, and is the same state of mind that has Jihadists killing themselves if they can also kill your children.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • davewyman

      Your belief that you have a direct pipeline to your god, and that you can change your god's plan, is a delusion of grandeur. Understandable, because you feel so powerless, so insignificant – all you think you have left is the ability to change your god's mind with your thoughts.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • ComputerRat

      Cnn is such a tool. They change the anti Christian story to a Christian story after church is let out.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • James PDX Mostly Straight

      Ppayer does change things. When fools spend their time praying, despite the fact history shows that God doesn't answer prayers, the bad things they pray to stop continue unabated and just get worse. So prayer does change things by helping people feel they are doing something so that they don't really have to do anything.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  10. thought so

    amazing how the most LIBERAL tv network still talks about GOD.......something doesnt seem right.....I think that liberals know there is a creator they just ignore it

    July 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Argo

      They do know. They are just ANGRY at him.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Mark Taylor

      Stop mixing political ideologies with Faith. I am a committed Christian and I vote issues that benefit the poor and downtrodden. typically these are Democratic causes but to me that's just not important. The spirit of the initiative is what matters. Christ's second commandment is to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. Even the tough ones. We can talk about following Christ or we can go to where the rubber meets the road and really do something.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      "I think"

      No, you don't.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Atheists are about as likely to be "angry at God" as they are to be angry at the Easter Bunny because their chocolate eggs had a those icky jelly centers instead of malted milk. Maybe that's the way you thot as a kid, but some of us grew up.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  11. Peikovianyi

    We are exceptional in that our imbeciles have such a good life, they think themselves geniuses.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      Two thumbs up.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  12. Dallasareaopinion

    Just because you do not believe in God doesn't mean God doesn't exist. Yes RELIGION has made some horrible mistakes, but these are the mistakes of man not God. Where is your prove, well look around you. Do you really believe we are just a fluke from a random puff of smoke. Believe it or not science proves we are created. It is religion's job to bring people the word of God. And yes mankind sometimes has failed in doing so, but God still has truth for us and we should listen. And another proof is you can reach out and touch the Holy Spirit. Just because you don't doesn't mean you can't. It has recently been said you shouldn't strive to be a great athlete or the richest man in the world we should strive to be a saint" most people don't because it is easier to be the richest man on the planet than to be a saint in your own backyard. (my comment) way too difficult to hold yourself up to the light of God as a person. Way easier to criticize religion than face the truth. If you know where the preceding was paraphrased from you are probably smiling to yourself. For the rest don't be confused the Church has made mistakes, but the Holy Spirit has been there to correct and guide and the Holy Spirit is there for you, you just need to reach out and touch.

    July 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • just sayin

      Thank you for your opinion. It's just that. An opinion. No different than me believing that Zeus is the only TRUE GOD!

      July 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Peikovianyi

      This magic stick keeps lions away. We know it works because we don't see any lions.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • just sayin

      Poor sad name stealing little atheist awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww. God bless

      July 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  13. brett

    Ron Paul!!!!!!!!!!! Down with your corruption you promote CNN! We have the support of God!

    July 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  14. Dean

    Interesting how there are so many "chosen" peoples in this world...can they all be "chosen"?

    July 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  15. jp

    CNN is to blame for continuing ths worthless blog about "belief". I believe that people who believe in a supreme being are dumber than a box of hammers; now can we jut shut this thing down?

    July 1, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Mark

      If you do not like it go away – I dont even like the article, its silly and arrogant – but they have a right to publish it.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  16. 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! I hate him!

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

      You don'r have issues
      You have the full subscription

      July 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • just sayin

      More issues than you know. When an atheist has to steal to fulfill itself you know you're right. The fool posts a lie under a stolen name and a wonderful Truth... atheism is not healthy for children and other living things. God bless

      July 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  17. w l jones

    We might not be exceptional nor chosen but no better feeling when get back on our shores. 4 sure.

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

      If we weren't exceptional or chosen it wouldn't feel so good to get back on our shores. Thomas Paine's words are still true today, ...America's cause is still in great measure the cause of all mankind.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  18. a disgrace but you voted for him

    america is sick of obama going on vacation and partying with celebrities while the rest of the country suffers in a growing recession.its time to throw obama out in the street and bring in a president interested in doing the job!

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

      and of course that would be a GWB clone (HarvardMBA) with the identical plan that put the ox in th ditch (tax cuts for the rich and wars)

      You are a moron

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

      and yet, Obama is still ahead in the polls. remarkable!

      July 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Can you tell us exactly what the president's job entails?

      Just what do you think he can do to improve the economy, when the entire world is in a recession?

      July 1, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Jimmy Joe Jim Bob

      Growing recession? Maybe that's the way things look from the trailer park, but it doesn't gel with reality.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • tallulah13

      You are certainly ent.itled to your own opinion, disgrace, but it is by no means universal, or even the majority opinion. At least you still have your one vote, just like the rest of us.

      July 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  19. Dread

    We're exceptional only in our bluster and haughtiness. "Pride comes before the fall..."

    July 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  20. denroy

    America DOES have an exceptional national debt – does that count?

    July 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
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About this blog

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