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. Doc

    When people believe or claim that they have been ordained by God, bad things usually follow. If there is a God, which is a very big "if", he doesn't ordain anyone to do anything. He doesn't favor any person or any country over another, and he doesn't endorse any cause or any so-called religion. God is just a convenient rationalization some people use to convince and intimidate other people. The fact that his ordination cannot be disproved has been used as a cover for any number of self-serving objectives throughout history.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Hermes96

      So many wars have been fought in the name of a pacifisst...

      July 1, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  2. Paulie

    We are an exceptional nation. Too bad our President is a horrible mis-user of our government and rights.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Sam

      Pauline, something has control of your mind, try to break free!

      July 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • mrdeepblue

      haa there'ya be, ya had us sick worried about ya Paulie, com'on take your meds now, dress your nice straight jacket and get back in your padded cell, ya know ya can't be wondering about messin and disturbing the folks out there.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  3. blah blah blah

    I think the Nazi's felt the exact same way about themselves too


    July 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  4. inewt

    We shall lead the world straight to hell

    July 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • mrdeepblue

      " are we there yet? "

      July 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  5. Hermes96

    America's whole history is full of hypocrisy, from being created by religious conservatives that sold the land from the native people till today...

    July 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  6. Yvonne

    Religion is a belief in something greater than you. So is this country. We need more to watch the rights and privacy we're losing. Including the right to believe or not in a god. People are corruptible, make their beliefs fit their world and do not accept anyone outside their norm. It never occurs to them that they may be incorrect. Faith is different, it supports the idea that the belief is correct. I still believe this is a GREAT country, I'd rather live here than Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Russia, or anywhere else.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Hermes96

      It is one thing to have the right to believe in God, or not believe in God..It is another thing to force that belief on others..

      July 1, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Faith is the world's worst method of making decisions, because it lets you believe anything you want, regardless of whether it makes any sense or not, and feel fully justified in doing so.
      Nobody ever uses faith to decide anything really important, like what kind of car to buy or where to send the kids to college or even when to step of the curb. You only haul out faith to support opinions that will never, ever be put to the test of reality.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Yvonne

      Hermes and Richard, I agree with both of you wholeheartedly.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  7. ryan evans

    thousands of years of human history, yet god waited untill 200 years ago to pick a team. awful nice of him...

    July 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  8. Argo

    Go to any third world country in Africa, Asia, Latin America. By and large you will only find AMERICAN CHRISTIANS there trying to help.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Sam

      You mean convert, right!

      July 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Argo

      And Sam here in the US almost all private organizations that distribute food and clothing are Christian-based.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  9. God

    Hey everybody! I'm God and I just I'd drop a friendly note about this exceptional-ism business. I took human form a few hours ago to check out the bars on the south side and I especially wanted to say hi to everyone on planet earth. Hey dude. I took the human form of a cool eighties type dude finding this intensely amusing. I just wanted to say that I created the entire human race in My image so everyone is exceptional. Cool, huh? As for people not believing in Me. No prob, dude. The less people who believe in Me the less responsibility I feel for anything. I can drink beer, see loose women and tattoo my arms so everybody will pat me on the back on what a cool dude I am. Fooled you, didn't I?

    July 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • God

      Everyone should note that at precisely 1:03 p:m two comments used the name God to refer to Themselves. It's feasible that the eighties dude who is presently drinking a beer in a south side bar in Pittsburgh is the real God. The other one is might very well be the old goat himself. LOL

      July 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  10. God

    I thought Israel was the chosen land.
    P.S. – Jesus did not have blonde hair and blue eyes.

    July 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Yvonne

      Jesus was a Jew but died as the Christ to save all the non-Jews. Israel is still the promised land, did you notice Christians are not the only ones who believe it's their promised land?

      July 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  11. disgustedvet

    Figured this would be the story that attracted all the "real " patriots. Bash and bitttch but do nothing except run your chicken do do mouths .

    July 1, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  12. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 1, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Cedar rapids

      like rain dances change the weather

      July 1, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Doc

      Yeah, it changes thinking human beings into sheep.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • mrdeepblue

      ok let me try that !
      Dear Lord, PLEASE make all this religious M O R O N S that are trying to destroy our nation go away.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Look, everyone, TMR boy is back, still capable of doing copy and paste of the only 3 words in his vocabulary. Look for him again in another 2 or 3 pages worth of comments, but don't expect anything new. Or any reply to the challenge "Oh yeah? Name one!"

      July 1, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  13. caeser

    History is replete with "exceptional's".
    It's amazing how fast exceptional can lead to better than can become superior to,often it's difficult to remember that the exceptionalism comes from being exceptional to each other.(As quoted from "Bill&Ted's exceptional adventure").

    July 1, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • just wondering

      Was that bill and teds excellent adventure?

      July 1, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      The exact line was "Be excellent to each other ... and ... party on, dudes!"

      I have tried to live by those noble words ever since.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  14. whatever

    To all you who claim the U.S. is so horrible and a terrible country....

    I expect you to immediately contact your legislature or dictators and demand they stop taking any money or military assistance from our evil country. Stop using products developed in the United States. Stop associating yourself with our awful country by using american company's websites like CNN. The fact that you can sit here today and criticize the country freely without recourse is a truly american ideal. No country is perfect but you all sure enjoy the protections and advances free societies have made, largely due to American progress.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Cedar rapids

      "The fact that you can sit here today and criticize the country freely without recourse is a truly american ideal."

      believe it or not its a ideal in more than just the US

      July 1, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  15. Sam

    What would be truly exceptional, is if we quit thinking of ourselves as better than others, or the Chosen People, or the Greatest Nation on Earth, and realize that every single organism on this Planet is interconnected, codependent and equal.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Yvonne

      We are dependent on each other, the problem is that many are oppressed by their leaders and suffer greatly by a cruel dictator's hands.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Bone

      False. That we all have equal ability, for the most part, is true. What we do with those abilities creates huge disparities in our "equality." We are NOT all equal. Take your participation trophy and stick it up your nose.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Yvonne

      Bone, I take it you don't believe in biology or any of its parts (Anatomy, Botany, Ecology, Zoology, etc).

      July 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  16. WhatWhatWhat?

    Yeah, it's a powerful force of DELUSION. Talk to any crazy nut job who has delusions of grandeur and you'll see the power that delusion generates. It's not a good power, since it's mental disease, but a power none the less.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  17. steve ferzacca

    yes amerikans are exceptional alright... exceptionally undereducated (and so stupid as a group)... exceptionally selfish (interacts with the stupid factor)... exceptionally without a clue (rest of the world wants US stuff which is mostly symbolic stuff these days; but no one wants the 'exceptional' amerikan national character defined as stupid and selfish). Yeah you're exceptional Amerika!

    July 1, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • disgustedvet


      July 1, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Izzy

      At least we can spell America.

      July 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  18. Kingofthenet

    One could say the one REAL 'American Exceptionalism' thing was the whole 'melting pot' idea, where no matter where you came from you could become 100% American and fellow Americans would look at you that way, not sure that is unique anymore.

    July 1, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  19. Steve C.

    If "the USA" is the exception, why do all of the hottest women come from South America?

    July 1, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  20. 1word

    The Beginning of Wisdom is the Fear of the Lord! Do you fear the Lord?

    July 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Jose S.

      Fear? Screeew god and those idiots that believe this stuff.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Not You


      July 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Douglas

      No more than I fear the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.

      July 1, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Jae

      Only cuz hes white

      July 1, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      I used to fear my dad, but then I grew up.

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

      NOT A BIT ! ! !

      July 1, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • 1word

      I almost laughed at some of these responses but it is not funny to see people so blinded their willing to go to Hell even when we try to tell them the truth. Lord, have Mercy on their souls.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What's laughable is you, thinking you know anything about god, hell, or other people.

      July 1, 2012 at 3:22 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.