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o-american-flag-facebookThe 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?

9780830840946Open 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:

  1. Chosen nation
  2. Divine commission
  3. Innocence
  4. Sacred land
  5. Glory

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.

Conclusion

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.”


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11 thoughts on “America The Exceptional?”

  1. Doug says:

    It could be argued that contemporary American exceptionalism is a form of racism.

    “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” —Vladimir Putin

  2. Philmonomer says:

    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.

    This is a strong charge. What textbooks do you have in mind? What can you point to that supports this?

    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.

    Again, more strong charges (that don’t strike me as true), but if there is support for these charges, I’m definitely open to looking at the support.

    1. Christiane says:

      Very important that schools using ‘Christian’ as their identification will practice integrity in transmitting honest history, and not the sort of revised history practiced by some in the Church, especially concerning the evils of slavery. Doug Wilson, I believe, is one who has done some work in historical ‘revision’ on slavery, and he has lost credibility in the process.

      A school needs to have integrity in what it teaches its students, especially if it is a ‘Christian’ school. The children deserve honesty and integrity from those who educate them.

  3. Curt Day says:

    We should note that, outside of the classifications of exceptionalism given above, America is not exceptional in the following way: claiming to be special is normal. That is a point Benjamin Barber made in his book Fear’s Empire in which he listed a number of nations that saw themselves as being exceptional in the same way many Americans see America as being exceptional.

    We should note that this article is excellent. First, it asks us to make distinguish the different kinds of exceptionalism that could apply to America. Second, it asks us to be self-critical in how we view America as being exceptional. It does introduce a relative standard for exceptionalism when Trevin looks at America being exceptional as compared to the Communist Romania from the past. Third, this article recognizes that both conservative and liberal politicians–please do not include the left here–view America as being exceptional. All of these are points are not usually made by religiously conservative Christian writers when speaking about American Exceptionalism. Thank you to both Trevin and the author of the book he is reviewing.

    However, this political year will demontrate how both conservative and liberal politicians share the same view of American Exceptionalism. That view is that both look at America as being the leader of the Free World, if not the world itself. On a side note, regarding America being the leader of the Free World, we might want to ask ourselves two questions. First, how can the Free World be free when it has a leader? Doesn’t the presence of a leader imply a lack of freedom? And second, why does a Free World need a leader to submit to?

    But getting on to more important points, the view that America is exceptional because it is a/the leader of the world assumes that America has at least some extraordinary characteristics. And though not in agreement with all of those characteristics, both liberal and conservative politicians presume that America is exceptional because some of its characteristics are deemed as being superior to the same traits of other nations.

    But that, so far, still does not hit at the heart of American Exceptionalism as both conservative and liberal politicians view it. What both liberal and conservative politicians agree on regarding America Exceptionalism is that America is entitled to lead the world and part of that leading the world is that it can either ignore International Law as it intervenes in other nations or be the final judge of international law regarding the actions of other nations. In either case, the standards America uses to determine how it will treat other nations are not the same standards other nations are allowed to use in determining how they will treat us. And the question we Christian Americans need to ask ouorselves is this: Is such a double standard Biiblical or hypocritical?

  4. Brian Roundtree says:

    I will begin by noting that I have not read “American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion”, nor will I be able to any time soon (my cup currently runneth over with seminary reading), so I cannot say with any degree of certainty that the view I am about to express was not covered in some way in the book. However, based on a review (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/book-reviews-american-exceptionalism-and-civil-religion) I read previously and based on Trevin’s current analysis, it would appear to me that this view of “American exceptionalism” was not covered. But again, I could be entirely wrong.
    So what is this view? Rather than being a view based on utterly loaded philosophical claims, this view is straight forward and succinct – based entirely on the nature of our republic. America is “exceptional”, first and foremost, by being an exception. That is, an exception to the “normal” way sovereign nations were, and are, conceived. Our republic begins from the standpoint of limiting government, rather than citizens. Much to the chagrin of many in America, our constitution is explained as a charter of “negative liberties.” This simply means that our government cannot simply enact whatever laws it wants (even if popular opinion seems to be in favor), but must first determine what the constitution allows or prohibits it from doing based on the “inalienable rights” granted our citizenry, over and above government infringement (read tyranny). Thus, we are exceptional, at least as far as sovereign nations are concerned (much more so at the time of our founding than at present).
    I do not disagree with the perspectives Trevin Wax offered – to the contrary – many are spot-on. My point is, in this analysis we have missed the forest for the trees, because we have utterly ignored the starting point. Trevin is on solid ground for arguing against the ways this idea of exceptionalism has developed and morphed and shape-shifted, but it completely ignores the fact that America is, in point of fact, exceptional, unique and distinct. This manifestly does not crown us with righteousness, but at a bare minimum it means that we at least begin from the correct view of humanity. That is, as collections of individuals with sacred worth and value, rather than as collections of expendable resources at the hands of the state.
    America is, in fact, exceptional. As Christians, we have a sacred duty to see to it that this exceptionalism is employed to the glory of God, rather than to the glory of the “American dream” (whatever in the world that means). I am fairly sure this was Trevin’s point.

  5. Sheri King says:

    I don’t have time to write as detailed a comment as I’d like. But I would like to suggest that our generation of Americans cannot make an accurate assessment on whether our country is “exceptional” because most of us are too far removed from what the rest of world – or time – was like when this country began. Let me put it another way: I have an odd hobby and interest of reading old, historical newspapers. Once I read a transcripted speech given by a guy at a July 4th event in the 19th Century. At this early time period, he told his audience that THEIR generation was too far removed from the Revolutionary War to understand or grasp just how revolutionary the founding of our country was for the world at that time. If THEY were too far removed, then how can we think we could understand? We have been too sheltered to understand the alternative unless we were raised in some of the most 3rd world, corrupt nations on earth today. As a student of history, I fell in love with a story a few years ago about a Revolutionary War hero, General Lafayette. He was an extremely wealthy frenchman who left France to join the American “rebels” in fighting against the British. He became America’s youngest major general. Anyway, to understand the uniqueness of our country at the time of this country’s birth, it is helpful to read his story and find out why he would leave his comfortable, elite world in France to fight for another group of peoples’ cause. Gotta run but I hope this adds to the conversation somehow. For some reason, today’s Americans have bought into the lie that if you recognize the uniqueness of this country, you are somehow arrogant. And why has this country been great? I personally think it’s quite simple: when you write a document that honors the values that are God’s values, and challenge your nation to live by these values, you will find good things. Even nonChristians find success when they apply certain Biblical principles, like honesty, etc… Yes our nation has had “national sins”. But we held ourselves accountable to our founding documents and eventually corrected our ways. No nation is perfect but what standard do they hold themselves to? What direction are they headed? That tells a lot about how they will do.

  6. steve s says:

    Very liberal, very limited view of how the average American use to view American exceptionalism. No it is just the nature of any nation to found its nation based on the rights given by a Creator, who made all men equal, not the government, it is not an exceptional nation that fought a civil war to free a minority from the terrible sin of slavery, it is not an exceptional nation who save Western civilization twice and took no spoils of war, it is not an exceptional nation that is pursuing the hard goal of racial and gender equality, it is not an exceptional nation that opens it borders and blessings to all who come legally and tragically even illegally, it is not an exceptional nation that funds most Christian missionary medical, humanitarian, gospel sharing work, it is not an exceptional nation that the majority population of religion and racial groups protect the rights of the minority, I am sorry you guys are just liberals who like to interact with each other. Well, you are all right now, Thanks to leaders and thinkers like above America is now an exceptional nation nor a Christian nation based on our new value system. Congratulations to all the “truth’ teller though out the years. I guess all the people who dream of coming to America want to come to an unexceptional nation. Continue to congratulate each other and mock the average conservative Christian believer who was so stupid he thought American was exceptional because as individuals they prayed and trusted in God to bless them and the nation they loved. Progressive win, good luck in the next 50 years.

    1. Curt Day says:

      Steve,
      We took no spoils of war in Europe, not in the Pacific. And, in fact, we tried to help the French recolonize its former colony of Vietnam. In the meantime, we, like others before us, have an empire. It isn’t administrated in the same way as previous empires, but it is still one that has flexed its muscles over 50 times since WW II and in over 30 of those times we did so at the expense of democracies in other nations. We’re not as good as you say.

      And, btw, when we first recognized equality here, that was amongst white male landowners until too many people protested.

    2. Sheri King says:

      Good comment. Amazing to me how many Christian think tanks have started to fall for this lie that America is “mean” and no different than other nations. If they could only be taken back in time to the Middle Ages and the days of Spartans and Vikings and the like, they would come back trembling and filled with a whole lot of humility and gratitude for this country. To add one more thing to my comment above about the character of history, General Lafayette, I’d like to share what this frenchman’s observation was when the ragtag Americans beat the mighty British: “Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country.”

      1. steve s says:

        Sheri King, thank you for your post. As a 68 old white male I guess I am out of the loop on the current thinking of a lot of young progressive Christian leaders. As a country we are committing social and cultural suicide by this constant, forgive the poor choice of words “nitpicking”. America a country founded on Christian beliefs and values held up to an unreal expectation of accountability.
        I do not know how “leaders” expect patriotism, love of country and giving thanks to God for the blessing he has given us by being born in USA.

        If we use the same yardstick to measure the SBC or any religious organization they will be found lacking if that is your goal, to reduce the influence of the organization or support of the people. America the best country in the history of the world and we get this progressive liberal knee jerk responses. I just do not get it.

      2. Curt Day says:

        Sheri,
        The ethnic cleansing of Native Americans form the land, enslavement of blacks, exploitation of foreign labor, sexism and so on kind of disqualifies America from being exception especially for the nations of their time period. Note how you changed the time period for the comparison standards. According to the Middle Ages and the Vikings, America would not be exceptional because many other European nations would be superior to that time too.

        Why are some of us so fixated on the need for America to be recognized as special? Why join so many other countryies that have also insisted on being recognized as special. Again, claiming to be special is normal.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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