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. robert

    It is exceptional to believe in God's salvation in a decaying world. Our Puritan forefather's believed it then, as do many Americans today. Let the scoffers spew their venom, but the ideal remains the same. America, bless God!

    July 1, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Deborah

      And G-D Blesses America!!!

      July 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Rick James

      You both are delusional.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • robert

      God bless you Deborah!

      July 1, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • History Lesson

      I imagine that sound almost like it makes sense if you know absolutely nothing about history, robert, but the Puritans overthrew the British monarchy in the mid-1600s, and the result was a brutal, repressive dictator-run theocracy (which happily did not survive) which included burning of theaters, near genocide of Catholics in Ireland, and a totalitarian government.

      The Cromwell experience was so intensely negative that his reign was one of the major reasons that seperation of church and state was so broadly desired in the establishment of the U.S.

      So reality is actually opposite of what you suggest – Puritanism was the disaster that led America to freer notions. It was not the basis of America but a strong example of what we did NOT want.

      July 1, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  2. haha

    I sympathize completely with Jerry Sandusky.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  3. Anton Dubinski

    As an American, I take exception to this story on two levels. First, as an American who has actually bothered to travel to other countries I can say without doubt that we are not the greatest country in the world. And second, it gives credit to an invisible imaginary being in the sky created by the figment of man's imagination.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • robert

      You two points make no sense. First of all, we in America live in North America, which is separated by two vast oceans from the rest of the world. Most Americans who have "bothered" to travel overseas have the means and education to do so. Second, without God, America or any other nation would not exist. We are exceptional because we are created in God's image, endowed with reason, conscience, and inalienable rights. Without which, we are nothing but soulless combinations of water and dust to serve the whims of nature, and not the Holy Spirit. We don't deserve better, but God gives it to us anyways. Praise God!

      July 1, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  4. gager

    Religion is the last thing that had anything to do with the greatness that was once the US. This article is nonsense.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Mormon

      Early American thought was all about religion. The 13 colonies were in many ways religious separations. The west was settled by Mormons who were seeking religious freedom. I believe America is in no way better than other countries. Exceptionalism means has more to do with freedom. The very fact that you are expressing your opinions on CNN is because of freedoms we enjoy in this country.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  5. Anima

    Lady Liberty is the Goddess of America .

    July 1, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  6. MrDune

    America is exceptional all right, exceptionally arrogant, exceptionally ignorant, and exceptionally annoying.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  7. larry5

    Don't worry. Obama's getting rid of those old fashioned ideas of America being exceptional. Everyone should be the same and the only way to do that is to chase the lowest common denominator, otherwise it's discrimination. People that aspire are now required to retire. People that achieve are requested to leave. People that believe in God are given a wink and a nod. The new status symbol is an EBT card. Obama is our leader. Finally we are experiencing hope and change. No more America the beautiful. As Obama says, we are not a Christian nation anymore not what Obama is here. Listen for the call to prayer at sunset.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • haha

      you fail.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Anton Dubinski

      Right, because 'W.' did an 'exceptional' job by involving us in two wars and attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Rick James

      Go take your meds. We were NEVER a Christian nation, despite instances where we acted like it. All of the people that are requested to retire are doing so at later ages. We have a slow recovery that will take years to end. The misguided notion that Obama should have let everything fall and then it'll all bounce back is not sound political policy and,one can argue, economic policy either.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • robert

      The attack on Iraq (an Arab country) was consistently referred to by the Bush administration as the beginning of a sea change in the Middle East (away from dictatorship, towards democracy). If the recent Arab revolutions fail (starting with Lebanon in 2005), then the Bush followers will have been proven incorrect.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Rick James

      robert, so the Iraq War was nothing more than a geopolitical war? Join the party. Many people figured that out. The problem with Bush's approach is that it can have unintended consequences (a stronger Iran).

      July 1, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  8. Kenny

    Anyone thinks that W. has made it better than Obama is the reason why America has lost its free spirit and turned out to be the way it is today. Our neighbors has become isolated, anger has spawned upon us and we become strangers to ourselves because of the depressed conditions that was bestowed upon us between 2000-2008. It is no longer the American dream for middle-class citizens. The housing market has collapse greatly after and Mideast tension rises to a new level because of Governments intervention and corruption. We lost billion$ and thousands are killed under W's two-term presidency. He disappeared and retired off his new found wealth without a trace.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Cheese is the answer

      If your going to blame President Bush you also have to back up and blame President Clinton as well

      July 1, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Kenny

      Well, I can forgive Clinton for screwing Lewinsky, but I will never forgive Bush for screwing us!

      July 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • robert

      Don't let Al-Qaeda obscure the post-9/11 era by blaming Bush for the problems of the world. We are stronger than that, and America must remain united.

      "If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand." Mark 3.25

      July 1, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  9. ipmutt

    Obama has set that back into the dark ages. And don't come to CNN for input on faith. Wow will you be mislead.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Rick James

      I love how the recession was Obama's fault....yep things were fine before he got there.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  10. rosa, b'ham al

    Wow scary, that any one country would think they are chosen by God and are therefore better than everyone else is super scary. I know America is not the only country with this delusion but it is scary anyway.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  11. Christians Worship a Baby-Murdering Rapist lol

    Haha what a bunch of stupid freaks.............

    July 1, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • robert

      He who is without a freakish screen name cast the first stone.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  12. ALLAH

    Hello kids!! Please draw a picture of me and mail it to your local mosque. Thanks!!

    July 1, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • haha

      haha it's even funnier now than the first thousand times you posted that, you're a great comedian hahaha
      not really..................

      July 1, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Anton Dubinski

      They have enough clown photos of you already, Mr. poster.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  13. Mormon

    Book of Mormon: "And thus the Lord did pour out his blessings upon this land (Americas), which was choice above all other lands; and he commanded that whoso should possess the land should possess it unto the Lord, or they should be destroyed when they were ripened in iniquity; for upon such, saith the Lord: I will pour out the fulness of my wrath." – Ether 9:20

    July 1, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  14. 1nd3p3nd3nt

    name an empire that didn't think god was on their side.
    heck, name a sports team : (

    July 1, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Cheese is the answer


      July 1, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • robert

      Correct. The USSR was an empire that fanatically tried to deny the existence of God. It didn't turn out too well. Wayward American Atheists, take note.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  15. Lisa

    This article's and the Christian commentary here is a joke. No wonder other countries think we're conceited...because we are. Where in the bible does gawd say America is the greatest? It doesn't, but like everything else in the bible, idiots chose to "interpret" what they believe to be the word of gawd stating that we're meant to lead the world. What a crock!

    July 1, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  16. roos

    This is and always has been dangerous thinking. It has and can lead to the delusion that the US can with impunity, ignore basic laws of physics, economics, politics, etc... And, not too surpisingly, this "idea" has mostly been championed by republicans, with predictably disastrous results, some of which are still seeing now.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  17. Your pep pep's bones

    If God is watching everyone all the time that means he is watching young children go to the bathroom. I find that criminal.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  18. Hank E. Panky

    All we have to do is vote for Chicago Jesus in November , then all will be well .

    July 1, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  19. Violet Weed

    This is just another article that pushes the devil's agenda... to downplay the fact that the USA is a CHRISTIAN nation, founded by CHRISTIANS. They did not believe they were on a 'mission' from God (I think you are mistaking The Blues Brothers movie for Christian beliefs, but then you are of course most likely not a Christian but a 'religion' writer who 'dabbles' at pseudo-intellectual babblings).
    God's Saints need to pray continuously for this country and those who are non-believers... God is not willing that any shall perish, His Son Jesus died for ALL... but if you do not surrender and declare Jesus as your Lord, you will be left behind... and spend all eternity burning in Hell, yearning to be with God and denied entrance to heaven. "Judge not lest ye be judged" is the biblical verse that is quoted by non-believers but God did not mean it to deny absolute truth and the reality of Sin. It is LOVING to call Sin what it is ... SIN... the wages of SIN are DEATH, after all. Even Jesus in the Sermon of the Mount makes that clear... do not cast pearls before pigs.

    July 1, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Your pep pep's bones

      Wow. You are a scary human being.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • rosa, b'ham al

      Scary scary. The US is a secular nation, if you want to live in a theocracy go to Afghanistan.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Perhaps you should study a little history before making such horrible accusations about America, Violet. You don't seem to understand this country at all.

      Real Americans understand that this is a nation founded on freedom and equality. We understand that our secular government protects people of all beliefs or lack of beliefs. We understand that our Counst.itution is in place to prevent us from becoming a repressive, regressive theocracy like Iran.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  20. lolz

    all communist and terrible countries = atheists

    July 1, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • just sayin'

      Stalin ! ! ! ! !

      Oh wait; I am responding to my own post.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Rick James

      LOL. That's all I have to say to you.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Typical christian fanatic. Throw out unfounded accusations in order to deflect from the fact that you don't have a single shred of evidence to show that the god you believe in or the immortality you so desperately desire actually exist.

      July 1, 2012 at 5:31 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.