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. Cory Mathewson

    To claim exceptionalism by comparison is disgusting. To be exceptional is a commitment not a boast. The World’s tolerance for imperfection and is abhorrent.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  2. Sly

    So American religious people are stupid AND selfish?

    The ignorance of American's leads the world ... other cultures have persisted for hundreds of thousands of years ... America for 300.

    Oh well ... the Arabs feel the same way about themselves and the 79 virgins - birds of a feather.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  3. simplehuman

    This article is a great opportunity for each of us to examine the ideas that we give belief to and ask, is that really true? Not just the ideas that make us feel bad, but the ideas that make us feel good and even the ideas that generate no feelings at all. With this sincere inquiry, the ideas themselves can be seen for what they are.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  4. Carla Vazq

    This seems to say it right; John Smith

    Hmm, let's see... A country that enslaved millions of people for over a century; that wiped out native Americans who were there before them; that then segregated and oppressed the freed slaves throughout the 20th century; that now has the highest ratio of incarcerated individuals in the world and a highly dysfunctional prison system; that is responsible for numerous coups against democratically elected leaders around the world (Mossadegh and Allende being the best-known examples). All these things that make America exceptional.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • JPC

      Yup, that's all America has ever done. No other contributions to the world. Just oppression. Didn't save Europe in world war II. Hasn't been a leader in technology for the past 150 years. Hasn't created a way of life that has been envied by the rest of the world. Wasn't instrumental in ending the cold war. Didn't put a man on the moon. Nope, American history has been solely about oppression as you say.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  5. ObamaUntil2016

    You see, this is the issue on a global scale: to say "exceptionalism" is a short jump to "supremacy".

    July 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  6. whybs

    Can't tell kids to stop sucking their thumb! 🙂

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

    Linki to an interesting post on the idea of why Amreican Exceptionalism might be tradition but is only really circlular reasoning with a note and link to the clip at the beginning of the new HBO show Newsroom tht slams this bs idea into the garbage. http://zdeaconblue.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/america-is-not-the-greatest-country-in-the-world/

    July 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • ZDeaconBlue

      typing too quickly in the morning – link & nod to sorry for the typos

      July 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  8. bernie

    CHosen by GOD???!!!! OH HELL NO!!!!!! I"m a proud american and I DO NOT APPROVE this arrogant BS

    July 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Carla Vazq

      You only need to read the headline to disagree with this garbage. I didn't read the article and wouldn't waste my time.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  9. nolimits3333

    Science flies you to the moon.

    Religion flies you into buildings.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Nope

      science built the first weapon ever that has the power to destroy the entire planet.

      Science not religion built the Atomic bomb.Science not religion later made that into nuclear technology.

      Atheists of course will deny it.


      July 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • chubby rain

      Yeah, science built the atomic bomb but it's religious extremists that want to use it. How exactly has religion contributed to society?

      July 1, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Tim in MN

      To Nope:
      Compare how many human lives have been taken in the name of religion over the years vs the atomic bomb. Heck, just look within the Old Testament alone. God sure was a warmonger.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Cory Mathewson

      Science and Religion don't DO anything. People DO.
      Science promotes the study of Religion and other Belief Systems.
      Western Christianity promotes ignorance and subservience.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • Cory Mathewson

      I really should said "Science is a base for the study of Religion and ,,,"
      Science is a methodology for Learning. The Christian-Style religions are methodologies for controlling people en-masse

      July 1, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  10. Will

    As a son of a Southern Illionis coal mine, who today is a the director of a foundation and a community leader..we are exceptional. Your opportunity to make dreams come true are limited only by your own personall ability and determination to make them happen.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • ZDeaconBlue

      You are absolutely right Will, it's just that it's arrogant to claim that America is the only place that happens.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • cccccc

      Will, I am happy for your success, but that is cliched bs...Most people will stay within their socioeconomic status that they were born into. A large number of talented, hardworking people barely get buy, while incompetent, lazy people are handed fortunes. The notion that we can all succeed and become wealthy, thus rise from our current economic class, is a tool used to get the masses to participate into a system in which there is gross inequity. Also, you homeland of Illinois of would not have had been there for you if it wasn't through violence and lies that eradicated the native population (who I'm sure were skilled and worked hard since they lived in that area successfully for thousands of years.)

      July 1, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  11. Cory Mathewson

    Any claim of influence by religion on history is inherently inaccurate because religion is founded on and perpetuates lies and deception.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • gavin

      No principles and beliefs are why America has lost its exceptionalism. Read American history, you actaully might learn something. The real lies and deception come from folks like yourself who ignore hsitorical facts and want to revise history.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  12. tony

    The entire "Belief Blog" is a frivolous pandering to the moron majority.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Saywhatyoumean

      and yet you still read it...hmmmm

      July 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  13. whybs

    Religious BS begs the practice of peeing on religious materials left in hotels – urine mixes well with dung! 🙂

    July 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  14. Lila

    Hate to break the news to you, America is not the only country to believe that. All countries do. Travel to any country and visit a local museum. Big egos are a human thing. All humans believe God is on their side.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Roscoe Chait

      Well said.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • ArizonaYankee

      I thought the liberal CNN didn't support the belief in any god...What a bunch of hypocrites.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Carla Vazq

      All humans do not believe god is on their side. Some humans are smarter than that.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Lila

      Name one group of people on the planet who didn't believe that at one time? BTW countries are made of people not individuals, sadly. We have always had leaders that control the group.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  15. Cory Mathewson

    Mr. Gilgoff,
    Your display of ignorance or intentional misinformation in this piece is infuriating. You are either pandering to mass ignorance or perpetuating it…or both.
    Stop the lies.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  16. Ray E. (Georgia)

    Nero Fiddled while Rome Burned. Franklin said we will fix this Social Security so no Politician can repeal it, Lyndon Baines said, when looking at all that money in Social Security, We ARE GOING TO SPEND THIS MONEY, Ronald Reagan got a deal with Tip, we cut taxes, you cut spending, now 16 Trillion dollars later, Pelosi said, WE NEED TO PASS THIS BILL TO SEE WHAT'S IN IT., The Supremes said, if you want to muck it up, it's no concern of ours. You voted for it, now live with it. No doubt the inmates are still running the asylum. So who will get elected in November? Intellegence or Stupid. I am picking stupid, again.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  17. Ed Fern

    The Roman Empire had a whole host of gods that had chosen Rome to dominate the world. Those who believed in those gods, and those who believe in the modern god, are like children believing in fairy tales.

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

      Sheep are always sheep! They need to feel belonged to be right and to subjugate others.

      What about those pharaohs that believed in Ra, the sun god! Nice pyramids!

      July 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  18. steve-o

    The TParty is destroying this nation. All so millionaires can buy more imports

    July 1, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  19. Pat

    American exceptionalism? hahahaha There is nothing exceptional with the United States of America. When you can't even take care of your own people, you are not an exceptional country.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      But we have Michelle Bachmann. Doesn't she count ?

      July 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • whatever

      Despite our faults Pat, more people flee to the U.S. than another country in the world. That alone reveals some type of exceptionalism. I think the idea of American Exceptionalism should focus more on our ideals of freedom, etc. vs. that of religion. The country is far from perfect but the U.S. constantly looks to improve by being its own biggest critic. That is more than can be said for any country in history. America is exceptional because it is a wonderful mix of all races and ethnicities from across the globe who have gathered in one place because of opportunity that exists no where else.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  20. John Smith

    Hmm, let's see... A country that enslaved millions of people for over a century; that wiped out native Americans who were there before them; that then segregated and oppressed the freed slaves throughout the 20th century; that now has the highest ratio of incarcerated individuals in the world and a highly dysfunctional prison system; that is responsible for numerous coups against democratically elected leaders around the world (Mossadegh and Allende being the best-known examples). All these things that make America exceptional.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • stormsun

      No, these things make us imperfect. Perhaps you could point us to a more admirable nation in this world of imperfect beings?

      July 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • wrong side of the bed

      @stormsun..Look to the North.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:20 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.