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. AGeek

    ..and this, this is a symptom of the disease. As long as people ask the question "Are we better than them?", mankind will never progress past where we are now. It's not "us vs. them", it's "we're all in this together" as a planet.

    July 2, 2012 at 6:39 am |
  2. TheSnark

    America is exceptional due to some of the things that its people have accomplished. However, bringing god into the definition sounds awfully like "the divine right of kings" to me, which is a notion that our forefathers rejected.

    July 2, 2012 at 6:30 am |
  3. lex

    Its time to give the US and the rest of north america back to the Indians. Its only fair. If the Mosems are strivging to return to the days of Mohammid, we should be striving to go back to pre-1492.

    July 2, 2012 at 6:06 am |
    • arturo torres

      It is time to get Republicans out of congress for they have become the problem to our future and progressive growth. They remind me of Tories during the American Revolution.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:28 am |
    • .

      @ mariner & jason: The liberal pseudo intelligentsia have run the country since the 2006 mid term.

      The poverty rate has doubled. And where are the jobs?

      I voted for Jimmy Carter. He was my generation's liberal object lesson.

      Now it's your turn.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:38 am |
  4. ciaopaparazzi

    Every citizen of every country should feel theirs is "exceptional" – and work to make it so. But you need a leader that embodies that idea – not a bureaucrat like Obama or a demagogue.

    July 2, 2012 at 5:53 am |
    • sgreco

      It also doesnt hurt to respect the president of the united states, regardless of your political affiliation, and try to work together to save our endangered nation.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:03 am |
    • .

      America is not exceptional under Obama because the standard of living for so many people has been lowered to food stamp status.

      Liberals do not create wealth. They detest wealth. Liberals create economic malaise.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:07 am |
    • .

      Hey, greco.... did you respect George W. Bush?

      July 2, 2012 at 6:08 am |
    • mariner I

      You are delusional. You think someone like Mitt Romney is going to help rebuild this country and make America exceptional? You've got a better chance of getting struck by lightning than that ever happening in your lifetime. If the Republicans win the election this country will go over a cliff and count on they will take all of us with them. Just the fact that you would make the comment that you have made tells us all that you are not capable of higher brain function, you are a simpleton. The unfortunate reality is that people like you are in the majority and vote for idiots like Bush. The man who got us into two wars, 8trillion dollars worth of debt and was at the wheel when Wall St. almost went over the cliff. Yea, you and your people will really help America get back on track.......in a thousand years maybe, if the evolution process continues among your kind.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:30 am |
    • Jason

      If you think voting is going to stop the collapse of this nation then you are really naive. The problem isn't politics, or religion, or immigration. The problem is the worlds monetary system, the free market system, and the actual concept of economy. The idea of cheap credit, of endless resources for a growing demand, and the consumption ideology of Western Civilization ( if you can call this a civilization, its definitely far from civil) is coming up against the real immutable laws of nature. We live on a planet with finite resources, and the most utilized resource is running out. Either we have a complete change of paradigm on our idea of what economy is or we as a species will die, or be locked in a endless loop of war, famine, and disease that hasn't existed since the Dark Ages. Saving a nation state is irrelevant if the human species itself may fail.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:35 am |
    • .

      @ mariner & jason: The liberal pseudo intelligentsia have run the country since the 2006 mid term.

      The poverty rate has doubled. And where are the jobs?

      I voted for Jimmy Carter. He was my generation's liberal object lesson. The country was mired in economic malaise, just as it is today.

      Now it's your turn.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:40 am |
  5. snakeplissken87

    It will be a great shock when China will be more powerfull that USA.

    USA is a great coutry, and is the most powerfull today since the WW2. But at their times, countries like Greece, France, England, Iran (Persia), China, Italy (Roman Empire) and even Mongolia were the biggest country of the world and all believed to their exceptionnalism.
    The truth is they were exceptionnals because they were the most powerfull, not they were the most powerfull because they were exceptionnals. Same story for USA.

    And do you really think that God, if he exists, blessed a country built with the blood of native americans and the hands of black slaves ? I dont think so. If he exists, God never blessed a country, because countries are human creations and not godly creation, he doesnt care of what USA, China and Europe are.

    July 2, 2012 at 4:49 am |
    • mariner I

      I'm not very religious but from time to time a quote from Christ seems relevant. "What does it profit a man if gains the whole world but loses his soul?" America has lost its soul! These are not the times of our Founding Fathers when men had the courage of their convictions. Today America is anything but Exceptional. The fact that this question is even being asked illustrates just how insecure we have become regarding out status. When men have confidence in themselves, that don't bother with narcissistic indulgences of this type. The men who are presently responsible for being caretakers of our country are made up of frauds, hucksters, flim flam men, shysters and the like. Gone are the days of statesmenship and diplomacy that allowed the US to stand out among other nations. Gone are the men stood for something of value. Look around you, America is in the throws of Rome on the decline because our guardians are sell outs and traitors. Why else do we have the moral and financial problems we face as a nation? This just didn't start in 2011 and arrive here at our doors in 2012. Obama is one of the few men to come along in a long time that suggest the possibility of what America can be and he is treated like a pariah. He is cut from cloth of a rare kind and is trying to turn the country around and yet he is challenged on every front. We have reached a point in our history where men have gone mad. People can no longer seem to separate the quality of goods from the garbage. We have recently been offered a chance to provide healthcare to a lot of people and it will save a lot of lives. What is the response to what is a contructive attempt to provide something of value? To wrap it in as much garbage as the Repbulicans can possibly muster to make people think it is something bad. This is the ProLife party trying to sell the American Public on DeathCare. Why bother with concerns about Exceptionalism when 47,000 people died last year in the United States because of men like Mitt Romney, John Boehner and Mitch Mcconnell. Men who would rather see you and someone you know die, rather that support the President and your fellow countrymen with regard to making it the best HealthCare System in the world. There have been few men of vision lately in the United States but President Obama is one of them, in that we can take some comfort. It is my prayer that he will continue to be able to move our country from the abyss that we are heading. As for exceptional, America has not been exceptional for quite some time. It would be better if we focused our energy on rebuilding the country and not waste our time on such things. Let others comment on our accomplishments, should we be fortunate to be able to turn things around, there is little or no value for us to do it ourselves.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:20 am |
    • .

      Blah, blah, blah..... you could cover a cow pasture, mariner......

      July 2, 2012 at 6:41 am |
  6. Seth

    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

    July 2, 2012 at 4:43 am |
    • .

      Seth is a pseudonym for Barack Obama.

      Now he's gloating.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  7. Tim Willard

    I'm proud of this country and its history. We definitely have a lot to be proud of, and one of the things we should be most proud of is that we're a culture that acknowledges and scrutinizes the things its done wrong (and there certainly is some to scrutinize) in an effort to improve and adapt. I believe that culture helps make us exceptional, but you must realize it's the process (like the pursuit of happiness being a verb) not some pre-ordained blessing.

    I also have a real issue as a Christian with this discussion of capital-P Providence somehow blessing us as more exceptional than the rest of the world. If you claim to be Christian as well, the Bible is pretty clear that God's love is universal and equal. It's man's love that is petty and divisive.

    July 2, 2012 at 4:00 am |
    • Tim Willard

      I guess my last thought is this: our exceptionalism comes from our aspiration and constant work to be so, it's not something we attained the moment the Declaration of Independence was written up. Always keep working and aspiring to improve,

      July 2, 2012 at 4:05 am |
    • No Way Yahweh

      You say "we should be most proud of is that we're a culture that acknowledges and scrutinizes the things its done wrong". No we're not. The US Government has NEVER acknowledged and or scrutinized the atrocities they've committed. The very foundation of this country's origin is genocide and the economic imperialism of Central and South America. Try reading about that in a US History book.....

      July 2, 2012 at 4:13 am |
  8. mattjosephdavis

    I don't know if "American exceptionalism" is necessarily the right word; I don't believe that people should simply believe in the righteousness of their country because of strong, blind feelings – instead, we have to look at why America can be considered special. We always have the potential to create an "exceptional" country, one that upholds the beliefs of individual liberties, and the ability of the individual to make choices for his/her self-good that ultimately result in the common good of all. One should never consider themselves to be exceptional – this is simply elitist and makes it seem like there is no room for improvement. Instead, we should always see opportunities to better ourselves and our nation – we are not superior to others in the world; after all, the Declaration of Independence states that "all men" are created equal, not just Americans – but it is up to us to maintain and express the highest qualities of humankind and help others around the world become who they wish to be, free of oppression, so that they, too, can enjoy their ability to obtain "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

    The ideals of America are not limited to our country – instead, they are there for the entire world to enjoy. It is up to us to create a country that stands up to the legacy of those who came before us; and while there are bad events in our history, it is our responsibility to make a country that will be ever the purer, the better and the more representative of the democratic ideals of freedom that we all hold in our hearts.

    July 2, 2012 at 3:44 am |
  9. Lizardking75

    Are we better than most? Yes. Are some the equal to us? Yes, they are. Is there more than one United States of America? No, there is not.

    July 2, 2012 at 3:43 am |
    • Thinker23

      You did not ask if anyone was BETTER than you. Coincidence? Hardly because the answer is YES.

      July 2, 2012 at 6:07 am |
  10. Wrong

    Bannister they just gave you facts and you didn't listen. Secondly, our public schools are in shambles compared to where they want them to be and the truth is that urban schools get less 25% or more less funding. This shows a very NON-exceptional (and so does your post which pulls down America's "exceptionalism") trend of continued systematic prejudice that does nothing for the country's betterment. You can't expect to be able to outperform anyone at anything if you have numbers that make it look like Hitler or Sadaam are running things but being 'tactful' about it and cretons like you espousing things like cooking the American public education books, while skimming off the top, to make the US look superior. Oh and btw. there are a lot of rural mothers and fathers who will tell you they want to see better funding for their kid's schools, and teachers at those schools who will tell you that the test scores (which can tend to be on the low side) are because jerks that have no clue but run their mouths on forums....don't want to admit to certain things, and so guess what....white kids suffer for it.So no matter what you think, people like you keep this country very average or below average when you have too much influence on things. Please shut up.

    July 2, 2012 at 3:42 am |
    • Lizardking75

      Most of what you said is one sided and of a obtuse mind. Mostly, it sounds like regurgitated garbage you might have picked up from CNN and FOX.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:48 am |
  11. Austin Noyes

    Would any of you agree that our democracy was the first true representative democracy to withstand so much scrutiny? And what happened to the men that believed in this exceptionalism SO MUCH that they put their lives on the line for themselves AND THEIR POSTERITY? They put their "lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor"...there for US and US (United States). So, America. Please WAKE UP. We are exceptional. We aren't a nation that is here today, gone tomorrow. That's only true if you let it be true. So embrace the Founding Fathers' beliefs, embrace humanity for what it is and isn't. Don't be shallow and give in to the words of jokes like Bill Maher and losers like him. Be sincere, trust, and KNOW that America and Americans are exceptional. We aren't another breeze in the winds of time. We are the gust that carried, carries, and will forever carry the voice of a true democratic society, with a government "by, for, and of the people." God bless you, your family, and God Bless our exceptional United States of America."

    July 2, 2012 at 2:30 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      can you get through doorways with your giant elitist ego?

      July 2, 2012 at 2:34 am |
    • Martina

      Of wow!! That's coming from someone, whos country is 150 y/o. Travel to Europe sometimes, will you.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:43 am |
    • Jay

      150 years old? Hey Martina, why don't you open a history book sometime?

      July 2, 2012 at 3:01 am |
    • HPG

      Uh, I guess you never figured out that if the Revolutionary War had gone the other way, these "forefathers" would have been executed for being traitors. They were 13 British colonies who declared their independence - in essence declaring themselves outlaws and pirates against the tyranny of Britain, King George, and the Church of England.
      There's nothing all that special about such an event other than the fact that dozens of tiny theocracies banded together to take up a common cause against a totalitarian government, agreeing to a common law that was supreme over all others, most especially religious laws.
      And one of the first things these theocracies did was ignore many of these laws, violating the First Amendment with the inclusion of religious ceremonies in Congress. They have continued to violate all the laws of these United States whenever they think they can get away with it every year for the past 236 years.
      It was pure greed to murder the Native Americans and take their land, breaking treaty after treaty while saying they thought their god wanted them to murder people who did not have guns, viewing the Natives as animal-people and therefore okay to murder them.
      You think they were totally honorable when they were not. There were plenty of evil, bigoted, murderous people in the bunch.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:17 am |
    • Bob

      Awesome. Thanks Austin, well put. If we work hard to do our very best, and learn to rely on God again, I think we can avert this catastrophe.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:49 am |
    • Mag

      Who cares, Jay? Th more important point is that we as a country are no longer número UNO in areas that should matter to all of us. Not even close in many instances, unless you count number one in things like incarceration to define exceptionalusm.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:43 am |
  12. ArdDruid

    ""And the American image of a continent brimming with virgin land – which denied the presence of American Indians there"""

    This is exactly the same as the Israelis claiming " A land without a People for a People without a Land"" Which denied the presence of the Palestinians.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:24 am |
  13. Harold, Phoenix,AZ.

    America is exceptional as are all other nations. Empires are built on power , we will last and fade in the same manner as all of them before us.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:18 am |
    • Austin Noyes

      You are so wrong. You are sad, wrong, and out of order if you really are fine with us being another drop in the rain of history. What is your problem? Do you have no respect for what our Founding Fathers, the Civil War soldiers (Confederate and Union alike), the WW1 and WW2 veterans, Vietnam/Korea/etc. vets did for US and US (United States)? Get a grip on yourself and shut your mouth if you think we're just "another nation." Please don't type ONE MORE WORD if you can't embrace the fact that we are here for a reason, God-given or not. And know for a fact, sir, that America, if nothing else, IS EXCEPTIONAL.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:33 am |
    • Bootyfunk


      do you also recognize the completely non-exceptional things we've done? genocide of american indians to take the land we live on? slavery? witch trials? KKK? tons of awful cr@p we've done to people outside our country?

      i believe the US is a great country - but we've also done a lot of bad things. and there's always room for improvement.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:37 am |
    • Jalen

      @ Austin – You seem to be under some delusion that our forefathers, and our soldiers throughout our history are they only ones in the history of the world to lay it all on the line for their country... Something you consider "Exceptional". Past, present, and future, the entire world is full of people who do the same thing for their countries. They are no less, or any more "exceptional" to their own people. You seem to think we as American's have a trademark on it.. we do not.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:46 am |
  14. Jason

    May I recommend the book "Guns, germs and steel" by Jared Diamond to start off.
    If you believe American exceptionalism you should believe in other countries exceptionalism too, even USSR and Nazi Germany. Honestly it's getting scary because the American flag is multiplying and the ignorance is increasing.
    What's so exceptional about being the fattest drugged up nation to ever come into existence? Our president has a kill list which if unabated will set us back 500 years.

    July 2, 2012 at 2:14 am |
    • Austin Noyes

      You're a disgrace to the nation. The most "drugged, fattest nation?" What is the matter with you? We are also the most power nation militarily, economically, diplomatically, and everything else that even semi- matters in a nation. You are so sad and you deserve to get kicked out. Americans and fellow brothers of freedom, take hope. We ARE EXCEPTIONAL. Don't be ignorant, but be proud of who you are and thank your ancestors who GOT YOU HERE. GOD BLESS THE EXCEPTIONAL UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:36 am |
    • Jason

      I'm a 6 year navy veteran (FC2) and I love this country, but don't get me wrong you can't deny the truth. We are all humans on the same third rock from the sun, individual creations of luck and dust; how far fetched it is to say one group is better than another. What jealousy one has of the ignorant, for after all the easiest answers are always brandished as the pure truth to them. So just eat your happy meal and enjoy how great the US is, and then down an oxy from the medicine cabinet and sleep away the doubters, for after all you are the choosen one.

      July 2, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • Knucklehead

      I hear you about the flags. I remember when we used to scoff at the USSR for all their "patriotism" and flag-waving. We never had to brag about our "nationhood" or whatever you want to call it. Now, it seems we need to convince ourselves more and more that we are a great country, but in reality it's becoming every man for himself.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:24 am |
    • MC

      Exceptional average and on an exceptional decline maybe?

      Just tell me how exceptional America's education system, healthcare, wealth distribution, politcal systems, fanatic religious zealots and policy of destruction worldwide are? Oh wait, very exceptional, there is no other country in the world that can get so many things wrong yet its citizens think it is number 1 (yet curiously ignores plenty of facts telling them otherwise).

      You are just a richer, larger version of North Korea and these comments/article only reinforce that.

      July 2, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  15. Jim

    You make a false assumption that Manifest Destiny and the Puritans' pursuit is the same as the modern concept of American Exceptionalism. That false assumption would explain why the term only emerged in the past 100 years. Some religious people may think that American Exceptionalism is based on a God blessing one nation more than any other, but even atheists can subscribe to American Exceptionalism through the acts of this country. The best example is World War 2 and the emergence of the USA as the country that can get things done and lead the industrialized world into the modern age. We could even trace it back to the industrial revolution or WWI (hmmm . . . 100 years ago). The fact is that we put the first man on the moon (and the only men on the moon) because we are exceptional, not because God has blessed us or because Britain and Greece are also exceptional in the eyes of their citizens. You can even ask the Brits and the Greeks – many of them moved here from there (including my ancestors and my in-laws).

    July 2, 2012 at 1:48 am |
  16. brown

    Exceptional? No.

    The average American has been so disenfranchised by the elitists in America that we truly no longer
    care about the fate of America!

    -Your typical working stiff in America.

    July 2, 2012 at 1:45 am |
  17. Will Smith

    For about an hour, I've been trying to post a comment about what America was like when I thought of it as exceptional and contrasting that with what's going on today. It contains no profanity (real or implied), no racism and is intelligently written. I've reworded it several different ways but it never posts when I submit it. It would appear that that which is not stupid, insensitive or inflammatory can't make it onto your site. I'm done with you CNN!!!

    July 2, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • Helpful Hints

      Will Smith, Don't give up. Go back and look over your post for any of these types of things:

      Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters or some html tricks to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
      co-ck.....as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, etc.
      co-on.....as in racc-oon, coc-oon, etc.
      cu-m......as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
      cu-nt.....as in Scu-nthorpe, a city in the UK famous for having problems with filters...!
      ef-fing...as in ef-fing filter
      ft-w......as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, drift-wood, etc.
      ho-mo.....as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, etc.
      ho-rny....as in tho-rny, etc.
      hu-mp… as in th-ump, th-umper, th-umping
      jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
      ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
      o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
      pr-ick....as in pri-ckling, pri-ckles, etc.
      ra-pe.....as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
      se-x......as in Ess-ex, s-exual, etc.
      sp-ic.....as in desp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      sp-ook… as in sp-ooky, sp-ooked
      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, etc.
      va-g......as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
      who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!
      There's another phrase that someone found, "wo-nderful us" (have no idea what sets that one off).

      There are more, some of them considered "racist", so do not assume that this list is complete.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:48 am |
  18. md

    I can't believe that I am reading such a feeble minded question. The very fact that a major news source ask questions like this makes cringe in pain at the thought of anyone seriously considering this question. Yet, I must face the truth...people not only ask it, they believe it every day. There is no hope for a humanity that continues to believe in such decrepit ideas as nationalism and manifest destiny.

    July 2, 2012 at 1:39 am |
  19. Get Over It

    Bill Maher talked about this on his show a two weeks ago.


    July 2, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • John Smith

      Oh, that nut job entertainer that spews incoherent drivel to get money...okaaaay. LOL

      July 2, 2012 at 1:41 am |
    • John

      Funny video. Bill Maher makes valid points.

      July 2, 2012 at 1:57 am |
    • thomas Godfrey

      Why does this person remind me so much of Julian Assange. I think its because they are apples falling from a very similar tree

      July 2, 2012 at 2:27 am |
    • MesaMax

      Bill Maher is a clown. Why does anyone listen to a clown?

      July 2, 2012 at 4:22 am |
    • Knucklehead

      Because in America even a clown has freedom of speech.

      July 2, 2012 at 4:27 am |
  20. John Smith

    P.S. One other thing. I just retired from the Army a few years ago after 24+ years (no biggie, just a number), and would like to extend to everyone in the U.S. a very happy 4th of July. Have a wonderful and safe national holiday, and may peace find you in some way. Take care!

    July 2, 2012 at 1:39 am |
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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.