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. jbc

    Arrogance masquerading as humility

    July 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Sure is

      Absolutely what it is.

      July 2, 2012 at 3:45 am |
  2. The King

    I would ask, at what is the US exceptional at? Our defense budget is exceptionally excessive, though we're not too good at fighting wars. We've got more people in prison per capita than any other country. Our health care and public education systems are each ranked internationlly in the 30's. Instead of pretending that we are some how "exceptional" we need to humble ourselves and look toward those countries that truly are exceptional and try to emulate them.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  3. glorydays

    We are now only exceptional in gullibility, ignorance, self concern and greed.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  4. forfacts

    The United States is exceptional for the same reasons every person is exceptional. We have qualities and capabilities and a way of interacting with our environment that are unique – and should one want to compare in a broad sense they can collectively be viewed as 'exceptional'. Does NOT make the US better. Does not make what the US does right.
    No one is arguing that China is the next rising superpower. They are taming their dragons with draconian, patient policies. And they're working – irreprehensible as they may be (1 child policy, damming rivers). And they are paying the costs of moving swiftly into prominence: rampant environmental pollution, rampant business corruption (think 'building collapses during the last large earthquake').
    Bottom Line: the US will fall from both economic and military dominance within 100 yrs. Economic first; I reckon w/in 30-50 yrs. Military will follow. The US position as the hegemonic ruler of the world will be view hundreds of years from now as the shortest ever; up to this point.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  5. the voice of reason

    What happened to all the candidates earlier this year that said God told them to run for president? Who lied?

    July 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • James

      Awesome, thanks so much for pointing this out, liberal media does not acknowledge this but needs to be told!

      July 1, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • tony

      There's obviously a different god for each of them. Which means that most likely the "god concept" is each persons personal interpretation of their sub-conscious (id?) and conscience.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  6. Dionysus86

    US rankings:

    Life expectancy: 50th
    Infant Mortality: 49th
    Math: 25th
    Reading: 12th
    Science: 20th

    Leading the world in what, exactly?

    July 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • bannister

      These figures are misleading.

      For example, take infant mortality. America has one of THE BEST infant mortality rates in the world (after all, we invented all that incubation technology) – even PREMIES that would die in another country are able to thrive because of American hospitals.

      So why are the numbers different? Because other nations (like Cuba) do NOT count even baby. If a baby dies in childbirth, they simply don't count that baby whereas the United States counts EVERY baby. So you are comparing Apples to Oranges.

      Math, reading and science – guess what? If you subtract Black and Hispanic test schools (and only count the white and Asian schools) you'll find that America is EXCELLENT at math and science and compares with Canada and most European countries. It is the high population of Black and Hispanic students who are pulling down the nation's scores – despite the fact that we spend MORE money in inner city schools than anywhere else.

      So, you need to look at these statistics more carefully

      July 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  7. labman57

    Truly exceptional people (and nations) allow their actions to speak for them - they do not feel compelled to continually boast and convince the world of their "exceptionalism".

    July 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  8. the voice of reason

    As Pogo once said..... "We have met the enemy, and he is us!" We have become the same intolerant group of religious nuts that we ran from to settle in this country.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  9. llɐq ʎʞɔnq

    We still want to believe we are special. When David McCullough told the Wellesley Commencement that they were not special, and would have to actually achieve something to earn the ti'tle, he caused a furor. All you have to do is go travel in Northern Europe. We are not special, and in fact have lost the position of #1. Medicine, Education, Engineering, Physics, etc etc. Partly it's a global village. Partly the culture of the US is stridently anti-intellectual.


    July 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  10. Dodo

    Satan has chosen America as it's playground.


    July 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  11. gary

    A sick, dangerous belief that USA has a mission from god. God is pretend. USA is sick with violence and bigotry. Genocide was committed to steal land from Native Peoples. USA is only nation to declare nuke war; then we nuked civilian cites. USA is basically evil in most ways. So much is rationalized by believing in a pretend ghost in the sky. We are Toast.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  12. miketofdal

    "...Puritans fancied themselves the world’s last, best hope for purifying Christianity – and for saving the world." And WE expressed this last, best hope by killing the native peoples and stealing their lands. I'm sure God was very pleased with our actions, on His behalf.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  13. B

    Sounds like America has always had an anxiety to be the world's example. Exceptionalism sounds more like an anxiety that supports elitism. When you compare our example of medical coverage to other countries where all citizens have medical coverage, we still look more like a 3rd world country then that of a world leader setting the example. History has proven that all super nations that have believed in their their mission of elitism eventually failed to maintain that role and their position through time.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      It's the same as skin-head racism. And we know what they're afraid of.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • bannister

      America has THE best medical care in the world, hands down, no exceptions. Why do you think that thousands of Canadians, Europeans and rich Middle Eastern sheiks come to the US every year for medical treatment?

      Coverage is another subject – and more people would have coverage if the government would get out of the way and allow the free market (and not insurance companies) to work. Then you would see medical prices drop just like the price of HD TV's drop in the private sector.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      You are an idiot. Why do you think Sweden and Denmark better medical outcomes than the US ? The survival of newborns in the US is FAR from #1. You live a fanatsy land.

      July 1, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  14. Nate

    Obama does not believe in America and it shows tremendously. You can tell it in the way he talks and the way he seems so purposely to be running our country into the ground. He is the worst President we have ever had.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • gary

      President Obama is best ever.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • miketofdal

      how in the hell do you go from Puritans to divisive politics in the 21st century. Can your brain not comprehend anything but political bs? Sad for you, really.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Mario

      Wrong. You don't know the man, just the negative propaganda. Just because he doesn't talk like you doesn't mean he doesn't love America.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • tony

      He just happens to the blackest US president ever. And that's basically your problem.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • riamb60

      ____________________________OBAMA 2012____________________________________________

      July 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  15. jesus

    There was another country that formed strong beliefs that it was divinely selected to conquer the world during the 20th century....a little nation called Germany.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • pdale

      Exactly. Nationalism can be a very dangerous thing. We are a great country because can and have done great things not because we exist. Big difference to me.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • tony

      And now Israel, after a few thousand years hiatus.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  16. Oprah Winfrey

    This article is all about subtle manipulation. If CNN can frame enough conservative principles in a bad light before the election, the chosen one might stand a chance, right? So, instead of publishing an article about genuine American Exceptionalism from the perspective of those who believe in it, they publish a subtly distorted and negative perspective. Guess what? God is real. Jesus is the most influential figure in history, the Bible is the best-selling book in history, Israel is STILL at the centre of world history just as written in the Bible, and America was a specifically Christian nation at one time. There's no rule that says America has to stay blessed, but at one time America knew that Jesus was God and wasn't so busy with legalism, religion, and moral relativism to forget grace. Grace is what made America exceptional.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      The fact that the "concepts" of god and jesus were infulential does not make them *retroactively* "real". In fact there is no evidence for any gods, and any historian of the ancient Near East knows that most of the claims about Yeshua ben Josef were invented by worshiping communities, and were different in every case, depending on the location.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • tony

      Principles are last thing you'd attribute to modern US "conservatives. Extrreme Greed and selfishness and guns to force that on weaker others seems to be their only philosophy

      July 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  17. Darth Cheney

    Exceptionalism is just a catch-all fallacy designed to stop any valid argument or criticism from being seriously considered. It goes something like this – Every affluent country in the world has universal health care, and socialized medicine is cheaper and more effective? Won't work here – American exceptionalism. Doesn't matter how many facts, how much logic, how much support. It's just a way to stonewall change and progress, and to justify the past.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  18. Get Over It


    July 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  19. Pete

    There truly was American exceptionalism. However, we lost it somewhere along the way. This country used to be a shining beacon of freedom. Now we are oppressed by a government we no longer recognize.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  20. Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez

    This column is sad, but true... that is, that belief is out there... despite that, it is flawed.

    The origins of this idea came with Columbus. Examine the Doctrine of Discovery.

    There is one additional point to be made: “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.

    One needs to cynical to know or state the obvious? To call that cynicism is denial at best.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • PH

      Like Paul Rodriguez once said: “The Mexicans didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them!”

      July 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
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About this blog

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