The presidential primary season is now in full swing, with candidates jostling for their party’s nomination and a chance to occupy the White House.
But no matter what policy differences the candidates may have, they will all be singing in unison about the “greatness of America.” From Donald Trump promising to “make America great again” to Marco Rubio claiming America as “the greatest nation on earth,” politicians will keep praising the uniqueness of American values. This is one of the primary ways our nation’s leaders give voice to the idea of “American exceptionalism.”
Exceptional on Right and Left
Those on the right and the left often agree that America is an “exceptional nation,” but they apply these terms differently.
Conservatives tend to emphasize patriotism and the uniqueness of American values. Greatness is part of the past on which we build.
It’s true that some on the right no longer believe we are “exceptional” because we have deviated too far from the values that once made us great. In this case, their rhetoric focuses on regaining the exceptionalism that has been lost. But for the most part, conservatives are quick to praise American values and slow to question their assumptions about American greatness.
Liberals tend to see “exceptionalism” as something we hope to achieve, a way of atoning for the ways we have fallen short in the past and still fall short today. Greatness is part of the future, something to which we aspire.
It’s true that, for some on the left, the ongoing pursuit of this greatness is one reason we can say right now America is “exceptional.” But many liberals hesitate to lift up America as unique so as not to offend multicultural sensibilities or sound too nationalistic.
What is “Exceptional?”
The key to this conversation is what we mean by “exceptional.”
As an evangelical, I think it’s best to dig a little deeper, to go beyond the surface claims of politicians and analyze the meaning of American exceptionalism from the framework of a Christian worldview. If someone were to ask me if America is exceptional, my answer would not be an immediate “yes” or “no” but – what do you mean by exceptional?
Open vs. Closed Exceptionalism
John Wilsey, a professor at Southwestern Seminary, helps us better understand the meaning of “exceptionalism.” His new book American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion does exactly what its subtitle claims: it reassesses the history of an idea.
First, Wilsey shows the role that exceptionalism has played in American history. He traces the idea back to the earliest Puritan settlers of the United States, the theological roots of America as “a chosen nation,” the Enlightenment’s impact on the idea, and the eventual morphing of exceptionalism into “manifest destiny” that gives America a messianic role in the world. In each chapter, he shows how American leaders have made use of this concept, and how it has impacted our national story.
Secondly, Wilsey offers counsel to evangelicals who wonder if and how American exceptionalism fits within a biblical worldview. Here, Wilsey distinguishes between “closed” and “open” exceptionalism.
The “closed” view of American exceptionalism is “at odds with the Christian gospel,” he writes. It involves five theological themes imported from Christianity and applied to America:
- Chosen nation
- Divine commission
- Sacred land
The problem with closed exceptionalism is that it bestows “a transcendent status” upon America and sets up the nation as “a necessary player in redemption history.”
The “open” view of American exceptionalism is narrow, limited primarily to politics and culture. It sees America as striving to “serve as a communal paragon of justice, freedom and equality among nations” – with the goal of compassion, justice and general human flourishing. There is room for dissent in the “open view” without being accused of being unpatriotic, for “we affirm that America is different because it is a nation in which dissent is not only allowed; it is a virtue.”
Exceptionalism that Helps and Hurts
The strength of Wilsey’s book is that it explains the historical concept of American exceptionalism without reducing it to either “closed” or “open” variations. At times, exceptionalism has led Americans to be blind to injustice. Other times, exceptionalism has fortified the country for causes that were just and noble.
I resonate with Wilsey’s nuanced understanding of American exceptionalism.
On the one hand, I’ve spent extensive time in other parts of the world – 5 years in the Eastern European country of Romania, which suffered for decades behind the Iron Curtain of Communism. My friends in Romania would have laughed if I had argued that America was not a special place, or a nation not blessed by God. The rest of the world sees the success of the U.S.A., and we are foolish to deny that we live in a blessed nation or to stop calling or singing for God to bless America. We can be patriotic because we love this land.
On the other hand, I believe it is theologically dangerous to see America as having a special, privileged relationship with God. It’s problematic to take Old Testament promises to Israel or New Testament descriptions of the Church and apply them directly to the United States. We, the Church, are God’s shining city on the hill, not the United States, however contrary that may be to the late, great Ronald Reagan.
How Do We Do History?
Why, then, are so many evangelicals prone to adopt the “closed view” of exceptionalism? It’s here that I hoped for more from this book.
Wilsey critiques a number of Christian school history books for leaning too heavily in the “closed” direction. His analysis is on point, but he doesn’t help us understand why this is the case.
Let’s remember that these textbooks do not exist in a vacuum. They are direct responses to public school textbooks that so downplay any notion of exceptionalism that children are likely to question the entire American experiment rather than rally around it. If Christian schools err on whitewashing the American past, public schools err on neglecting America’s real and enduring accomplishments or our religious heritage, and thus they fail to generate sufficient levels of national pride or commitment to the values that will help build America’s future. Christian textbooks are a reaction to public school education that too often focuses on America’s vices instead of our virtues, or unites students by their grievances rather than their aspirations.
Overall, I hope Wilsey’s book gets a wide audience. Evangelicals should be especially wary of political language that casts America in messianic terms, relies on the myth of American innocence, or uses “chosen nation” language in a way that colonizes the biblical teaching on the Church.
At the same time, however, we should be concerned about decreasing patriotism among the millennial generation, and advocate for a more balanced telling of history in the public schools. Wilsey helps us think more deeply about what we mean when we call America “exceptional.”