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Some time ago President Obama was accused of not believing in “American exceptionalism.” No matter what a president says or does, someone, somewhere, is bound to criticize; most of us learn to take the endless sniping with a grain of salt.

But this time my ears perked up. Exceptionalism. I had never heard that term before. What did it mean? Where did it come from?

A little research revealed various definitions, all of which amounted to something like this: American exceptionalism is the belief that our nation is extraordinary and has a special role in history.

Where did this belief come from?

As I read about the origins of exceptionalism, I found three main strands: religious, political and cultural, and geographical.

 

From America’s earliest times there was a sense of a special mission as a pure people of God.

From America’s earliest times there was a sense of a special mission as a pure people of God.

The religious strand stems from the formative influence of the Pilgrims, who took the risk of sailing to America because they wanted greater freedom to worship and serve God according to their conscience. Here in the New World they would be free from the regulations of the Church of England, free to let the gospel shape a flourishing Christian community. Here they could be a glowing example for the whole world. Early Pilgrim leaders used Jesus’ image of “a city set on a hill” giving light to the world to foster a sense of a special mission as people of God.

A second strand in the development of American exceptionalism is political and cultural. When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, they left behind the rigid class distinctions of Europe. That spirit of equality is captured in the Declaration of Independence’s phrase all men are created equal.

In 1831 an observant Frenchman wrote about his visit to the United States. Alexis deToqueville was especially impressed with the absence of class distinctions, the respect for all citizens, and the democratic impulse of the American people. Contrasting America with Europe, he wrote, “The position of the Americans is quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”

A third strand that fueled the notion of American exceptionalism is geographical. Europe had long ago staked out and used up every corner of their land. But the vast continent of North America was brimming with virgin land and possibilities.

Throw in good old Yankee ingenuity and inventiveness, and by the 1800s a potent religious-patriotic mix, which came to be called manifest destiny—the belief that it was America’s destiny to expand American territory and American freedoms across the continent—characterized American exceptionalism.

The idea has been around in some form for a long time. But I wondered what it might look like from God’s point of view. What might be a biblical perspective on American exceptionalism? Is America really extraordinary? I wondered. Does it stand out from others?

Well, sort of.

  • America certainly is extraordinary when it comes to military power. Right now the U.S. is a Goliath—the undisputed superpower of the world. You may blush at this, but it’s true that we spend more on our military than the next six nations spend.
  • America is a leader in technology and has the largest economy in the world.
  • America is notable for its population. China has about 1.3 billion people; India, 1.2 billion; the U.S., 311 million people.

Considering all of these things together, the U.S. is extraordinary. But we aren’t the only nation to stand out. Others stand out in different ways: China for its population—more than triple ours; Japan for its cohesive society and microscopic crime rate; Italy in being home to the Vatican. You could go on and on.

Further, from a birds-eye view of history, there have been many extraordinary nations: the golden culture of Greece, which resulted in the New Testament being written in Greek. The power and peace of Rome, under whose empire Jesus was born. The breakthrough for democracy in Great Britain and the Magna Carta. Switzerland’s long-standing posture of peace and neutrality.

Clearly America isn’t the only country to be exceptional in one way or another. President Obama seemed to recognize this when asked about the criticism. He said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

So here’s a second question: Do extraordinary resources and influence give America exceptional responsibility?

Absolutely yes.

In Jesus’ own words, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).

Should America take a leading role in the United Nations to help nations work together and pursue diplomacy rather than war? Yes.

Should we take a role promoting the dignity of human life and individual rights? Yes. Should we take a leading role in providing food to starving people? Yes. Should we take a leading role in battling diseases around the globe? Yes. Given our exceptional resources we should take exceptional responsibility.

Here’s a final question we need to ask in trying to come up with a biblical perspective on American exceptionalism. Do extraordinary American resources and responsibility make America morally superior? Are Americans less prone to sin and its corruption? No. Absolutely not.

Here’s the great danger: Americans who talk about exceptionalism sometimes imply that America and Americans are better than other people, are somehow morally superior to other nations.

Presidents routinely refer to the American people as being great and good and generous, as if sin hasn’t tainted our nature like the rest of the world. We know that is false—the notion of American moral superiority is just another case of being puffed up.

Jesus makes that clear in his encounter with a rich young man. If anyone was cut out of superior cloth, it was this man. He had led a moral lifestyle. He was concerned with keeping God’s law, and his question about eternal life indicated that he was spiritually minded. Respectfully he asked Jesus for guidance.

But right out of the gate Jesus punctures any inflated self-image: “no one is good—except God alone.” No one is 100 percent good—not even this man who claimed he had kept God’s law since he was a boy. The apostle Paul echoed this truth in Romans 3: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That includes Americans.

The doctrine of total depravity knows no boundaries.

Some people talk as if American exceptionalism means we shouldn’t admit wrongs. As if we shouldn’t apologize; we shouldn’t be humble.

That’s worldly baloney. It’s just another form of false pride.

God stands against the proud. As the Song of Mary affirms, God will scatter those who are proud in their innermost thoughts, but God will lift up the humble.

So should God’s people believe in American exceptionalism?

If you mean extraordinary resources and blessings—in many ways, yes.

If you mean extraordinary responsibility—absolutely, yes.

If you mean morally superior—God forbid.

About the Author

Neil Jasperse is pastor of West Leonard Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MIch.

See comments (24)

Comments

Thank you for a thoughtful article on a topic that is often misunderstood. I was especially glad to see the survey of historical events that lead to the idea of American exceptionalism. We often forget that the world did not begin with us.

It seems as if US citizens changed the pilgrims humble dependence on God to a dependence on their own ingenuity and industry. Two hundred years later, many christians in the US have somehow created a type of theocratic nationalism in their heads where belief in God is somehow interrelated and almost dependent on US citizenship. It makes working a binational church rather challenging.

Actually, it is Canada that is exceptional. :)

Hi,
Good to read that God has a plan for America..We need to pray to GOd to change the hearts of the folks who want to make us a ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT..they use our military to do their dirty work around the world..participating in the United Nations is our downfall and allowing THOUSANDS of foreign troops (UN) into our country to run us is NOT what we want if we want to stay FREE..they are here you know.. NEED TO STOP the WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES from making us into all one RELIGION..stop the occult group the Masons who are behind this. We want to keep Americans free.
IT is a spiritual battle..too late to stop all the rest but we can get on our knees and cry out to ALMIGHTY God of the Bible..and staart reading up on these subjects..read about the Vatican's empire..and tell others..

No, we're not morally superior. But it is also true that no nation in the history of the world, possessed of so much power relative to others, has used that power as selflessly as has the United States of America.

This is not to say that we are free of selfishness or selfish ambition - I have no illusions about America or Americans. But it was the United States that sought to end the back-and-forth of recriminations that had plagued Europe from the Napoleonic Wars through the Treaty of Versailles. It was the United States that rebuilt its defeated foes after both WW1 and WW2, and we are trying to do so in Iraq and Afghanistan (imperfectly - selfishness and cultural myopia get in the way, no doubt about it).

Not Britain, France, Russia, China, Japan, Rome, Greece, the Ottomans, the Mongols, or any other imperial power has used power as benevolently as we.

I think that's exceptional. I pray it continues.

Eric, I do not want to denigrate what the USA has done with regard to rebuilding in europe after the WWI and II. But in both those wars, the USA was least damaged and had the greatest capacity to help, compared to european countries such as Britain and France. All of Europe suffered greatly, both in their economic systems and in their infrastructure. The USA had virtually no infrastructure damage.

And I don't know how Canada compares, in terms of percent aid per population, after the wars. I do know that Canada's government these days contributes significantly more to CRWRC aid than USA does, but that could be offset by other things.

Having said all that, I am still very appreciative of our USA neighbors. I appreciate their desire to help others, their desire for freedoms, their welcoming attitudes, their dedication, their hard-working attitude, and their genuine concern for doing what is right. You have good reason to be happy about being a USA citizen.

Britain was equally untouched by the Napoleonic Wars. The heart of the Mongol empire was relatively safe during their expansion, too. The same might be said of the Saracens, the Ottomans, Macedonia/Greece, Rome...

Every other conquering power in the history of the world forced the vanquished to pay reparations, tribute, or in some other way has carted off the wealth of the vanquished. Indeed, that was part of the point of conquest. The U.S. could very well have done the same in 1918 and 1945. Instead, a free people voted for representatives who forgave the debts of our allies and paid vast sums to rebuild our enemies.

Yes, we had the means. What we also had, which all these other imperial powers that rose and fell over the cource of history lacked, was the will to magnanimity. What is more, that will to magnanimity has become an ingrained feature of American foreign policy in the years since - haltingly and imperfectly acted upon, sometimes doing more harm than good, often painfully naive, but nevertheless constant.

I defy anyone to find another such example in human history. The United States of America is exceptional in that regard.

Eric, I hate to do this, but this is wikipedia's take: "The U.S settled for appropriating German patents as well as all German company assets in the U.S. The "intellectual reparations", such as patents and blueprints, taken by the U.S. and the UK amounted to close to $10 billion, equivalent of around $100 billion in 2006 terms.[1] The program of also acquiring German scientists and technicians for the U.S. was also used to deny the expertise of German scientists to the Soviet Union."
"...The initial plans proposed by the United States were harsh. The Morgenthau Plan of 1944 called for stripping Germany of the industrial resources required for war. The main industrial areas of the Ruhr and Silesia were to be removed from Germany, as were Germany's main sources of coal and iron, namely Saar and the German speaking parts of Alsace-Lorraine, which were to be once again under French occupation."
"....The Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive 1067 (JCS 1067), which governed U.S. policy in Germany from April 1945 until July 1947, stated that no help was to be given to the Germans in rebuilding their nation, save for the minimum required to mitigate starvation..."

"....the Truman administration finally realized that economic recovery in Europe could not go forward without the reconstruction of the German industrial base on which it had previously had been dependent.[3] In July 1947, President Truman rescinded on "national security grounds"[4] the punitive JCS 1067, which had directed the U.S. forces of occupation in Germany to "take no steps looking toward the economic rehabilitation of Germany." It was replaced by JCS 1779, which instead stressed that "[a]n orderly, prosperous Europe requires the economic contributions of a stable and productive Germany."[5]

John-
Don't know why you'd hate to do that.

Although from 1945-47 aid to Germany was minimal, and the technicians, scientists, engineers and their work were brought to the U.S., it is also true that those people weren't slaves. They were well compensated. And much of their work contributed to the defense of Europe from 1945 to the present day - a burden largely born by the U.S. Given the fate of those forced to work for the Soviets, I can't say I feel all that bad about it.

Despite the war crimes trials, even beginning in 1945 the U.S. minimized the vindictiveness for the war in general and from 1948-1951 the U.S. spent about $13-15 billions on direct aid to Europe under the Marshall Plan. Transfers of materials in kind were also significant, though difficult to establish a monetary value. Germany received a significant portion of this aid as the Ruhr industrial area was rebuilt. That assistance did not begin in 1948, nor did it end in 1951.

Favorable trade deals were also put into place to encourage European - including German - industry. Along with that went transfers of U.S. technology for more efficient mining of coal, manufacturing of steel, automobiles, developments in computers, communications, organization, and more. Again, hard to put a price tag on that, but it was not insignificant.

Did Britain do anything remotely similar for France in 1815? Did Russia provide anything like this for Eastern Europe, much less the DDR, in the 1940s? Did Rome povide this to Gaul, Greece to Persia, the Mongols to Bagdhad, the Ottomans to Byzantium or North Africa...? How did the European powers act in 1918-1919 in dealing with a defeated Germany - was it like this? Did Japan do as much for the Philippines or Indo-China after 1941?

I didn't say the U.S. was perfect. I didn't say there was never a hint of self-interest in all of this (the threat of Soviet Communism definitely was a spur to the Marshall Plan). I said no other conquering power in the history of the world behaved as magnanimously in victory as we did - and do. It is a comparative exceptionalism, not an absolute exceptionalism.

Having received my K-10 education in Canada as an American (and graduating Grade 9 in Alberta with Departmental Honors), I can say that some of what I read reminds me of when I was kicked out of Grade 9 History Class in Nobleford for simply bringing an America History book to class to get a different take on the War of 1812.

I still treasure my Canadian education but came to realize that what an African-American male told me about his community trying to bring down peers who rise above their cohort also in some ways may apply to comments Canadians make about the U.S.A.

Eric, well said! I agree with you that at heart, many americans were magnanimous and charitable, in spite of the political jargon and justifications presented to justify aid to Germany. There were two factions to satisfy: one was the magnimous faction, the other were the economic and retribution faction. Politicians tried to satisfy both.

preacherkid: Whenever someone says they are exceptional, it suggests that they are better than someone else, thus someone else is not quite as good. Therefore, in a light-hearted manner, I am simply trying to put a balance on the argument, not denying the entire essence of it. I appreciate the role of the USA, and the magnamity of its people. But I also believe that Canada has magnanimous citizens as well, including people who are concerned about the welfare of others.

So, for example, Canada voluntarily joined the European war effort to stop Hitler, in 1939. The USA didn't join until 1942, only when it had personally been attacked. Doesn't this make Canada also exceptional?

I think the European and North American persona had changed in general, in the twentieth century, compared to the nineteenth century. The ideas of freedom of thought, freedom from territorial aquistion(conquest, empire), freedom from colonialism, freedom of trade, were gaining ground in the twentieth century. The USA and Canada had the best capacity to contribute towards post-war rebuilding at that time.

I agree that the USA did much more than Russia (although Russia also suffered much, both due to WW2 and due to internal strife), China and Japan in this regard, and set an example for others to follow.

" .. By war's end, 1 million citizens would have served in military uniform, and Canada would possess the fourth-largest air force and third-largest naval surface fleet in the world..." Isn't this also exceptional for a nation one tenth the size of of USA?

John Z.
Canada does have much in her history also that she can justly point to with pride. She has not been given the geographical position, climate, or resources the U.S. has had and has not had opportunities that we've had. But Canada has done well with the gifts given her.

American exceptionalism is not merely what we have done, but what we have had available with which to do it. Much of that we can't take credit for - it's not like we put this land mass here with these waterways and ports and natural resources. We have been given much. More is expected of us, as it should be. Sometimes, we've even met those expectations.

American Exceptionalism:
It’s the belief….that America—its people, its system of government, and its culture—are exceptional. It is qualitatively different from other nations in the world; not superior, but unique. The system of government our Founders brilliantly crafted works….(not the perversion corrupt politicians are giving us.)
It’s the belief… an idea made America great. Liberty, individualism, egalitarianism, populism, laissez faire—are different, and have given the individual more freedom than any nation in the world.
It’s the belief…. The American founders relied on the guidance of Divine Providence and together… peoples of all colors and creeds united around a core set of universally shared values.
If you don’t believe you are exceptional… then who else will? If you don’t hold yourself to the highest possible standards, then how can you expect to accomplish anything great? If you are unexceptional…. then you deserve to be ruled by others.

American Exceptionalism is the axis on which human freedom spins. Abraham Lincoln said …”America is the last best hope for mankind”…

beesknow, it is good to fight for your country. Good to fight for your freedoms. Good to hold a nation to the highest standards. But it is never a nation or piece of territory, nor even a set of ideals that is the last best hope. It is always Christ who is our first hope and last best hope.

Just when we think we have it all, in terms of governments, democracy, economy, freedoms, they all can bite us in the butt. Governments can become corrupt, democracy can be manipulated, democracy can also become the tyranny of the majority, economies can become debt ridden, and freedoms can become perverse. Our last best hope is always Christ.

It is only that foundation that allows American US to really be a light and hope for the world.

@beesknow-

I'm aware of Lincoln's statement. If it's true, we're toast.

For myself, I always thought Jesus was the last, best hope for mankind.

I'm grateful for the U.S., proud of her history and her ideals and thankful for the principles embodied in the Constitution. But this ain't heaven and it's never going to be. Let's not confuse the two.

With all due respect to Neil Jasperse ….American Exceptionalism is not about moral superiority, extraordinary responsibility, extraordinary resources and blessings, admitting wrongs or thinking we have it all.

Webster Dictionary definition of exceptionalism”…..
the condition of being different from the norm; the fact of state of being an exception to some rule or general principle.

AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM IS/WAS AN “IDEA”. I repeat...an IDEA....
The IDEA refers to the United States…founded as a unique and free nation based on certain ideals and personal liberty. The Founders deliberately constructed a government based on the belief (idea) that religion was at the root of the personal and public virtues necessary to sustain freedom and to govern ourselves locally without waiting for any central authority to show us the way.
Tocqueville noted that every place he traveled, it was the “the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom intimately united” that dominated the political landscape.

It was also America's Christian faith that created ….. Exceptionalism….(NOTE: it’s the condition of being DIFFERENT from the norm; the fact of state of being an EXCEPTION to some rule or general principle).

Of course, no one country or people are perfect and unfortunately some Christians feel the need to “snipe” at America’s rich Christian heritage which has managed to be, for the most part, the moral and upright people that our Founders hoped we would be.
@ John… Yes, Governments can become corrupt, citizens can be manipulated, race wars, class wars, media deceit, freedom of speech threatened and religion under attack, a republic can become the tyranny of the majority, economies can become debt ridden,unalienable rights can be threatened and Communism knocking at the door.

It should go with out saying that… “the foundation that allows America be a light and hope for the world… is and has always been Christ.”

@Eric…is that burnt toast or toast with chocolate sprinkles?

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I'm with beesknow on this one. When Lincoln said …”America is the last best hope for mankind”…, I don't think he had the ultimate salvation of men and women in mind (if he did, he's wrong). Rather, I think he had in mind what he reflected on in the Gettysburg address, musing that four score and seven years prior, a great experient in the conducting of the affairs of human society had been born, and that it was being severely tested to see whether it could last, or would go the way of the American states under the Articles of Confederation, or worse, the way of highly centralized political power exemplified not only by Europe but by the rest of the world throughout human history.

This is American exceptionalism: the idea that people should live their lives in communities with values of their choosing, relatively free from centralized political power, for their own betterment or otherwise, and that such freedom should be actually defended, and not attacked, by government.

Of significance, this "experiment" was the brain child of the Reformation. It was John Locke, a thoroughly Calvinist thinker born of staunch Calvinist parents, who wrote down, in two treatises, these remarkable political ideas, which were born much earlier out of of the historical phenomena of people reading Scripture for themselves, something made possible by John Wycliffe, whose English translation of the Bible circulated in the English countryside before Martin Luther was ever born.

America was where these remarkable reformational/revolutionary ideas wereput into effect. America was, therefore, exceptional (exception to the historical rule). Lincoln's musings were about whether this crazy idea could survive the challenges they would no doubt encounter, not the smallest of which occurred during Lincoln's presidency.

Yes, America -- a political system -- was exceptional (exception to the rule), and still is to some extent.

Doug, it seems the southern states believe in that exceptionalism as well, the right of individuals to determine their own communities and values with a lack of centralized power. The north created the centralized power that stopped them from seceeding, and from owning slaves.

While individual freedoms are a highlight of the american experiment, it seems the dignity and value of the individual human being supercedes it.

John: No doubt a critical part of the American experiment was finding just the right balance between the rights of: (1) the federal government and state governments, (2) federal government and individuals (and/or their voluntary associations), and (3) state government and individuals. The experiment never included the elimination (or the "lack" as you say) of a centralized power, but rather a search for the right balance, starting with the remarkable, downright revolutionary, idea that government was merely one of a number of authorities in human society (John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, first chapter) that, along with other authorities, had a unique and proper jurisdiction ("sphere" in Kuyper speak).

Just as the US Constitution adjusted the Articles of Confederation (tweaked the experiment), so the Civil War (effectively another constitutional congress) finally resolved the questions involved in the slavery relationship (thirteenth amendment), and adjusted the relationship between both the federal and state governments, and the state governments and individuals (fourteenth amendment).

Certainly, the US Constitution does not represent extreme theoretical libertarianism ("the less the government the better"), but it was clearly exceptional, when viewed within the context of its age, in how much political (including economic) freedom it gave to individuals (and the voluntary associations created by individuals).

And the North created no centralized power -- it merely exercised what had been previously created. And even though the North amended the constitution after the war, it do so but according to the rules that already existed.

@beesknow - burnt toast. Though if you wish to add chocolate sprinkles, go ahead.

Doug -
Lincoln wove the language of scripture into his speeches and pronouncements during his presidency, in part because he believed them (his 2nd Inaugural is an excellent sermon for the country at that time). I agree that Lincoln had in mind something of the principles he discussed at Gettysburg, but I'm not sure that he did not also intend some sort of eschatological meaning as well.

Weaving that language in and out of political discourse is dangerous, however, and it invites the kind of civil religion and religious politics that blur the lines between these respective spheres. Whether Lincoln intended to or not, his statement regarding the U.S. as the last best hope of mankind has been expropriated in the years since and used to foster the kind of utopic, eschatological thinking about the United States.

As exceptional as the U.S. is, and as magnificent as the U.S. Constitution is, I think it important to avoid even a hint of raising it up beyond this earth. Check out James Piereson's book CAMELOT AND THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION for a bit more on Lincoln's rhetoric (and a somewhat different tack than mine).

@Eric
I think I'd better go with plain ole burnt toast. I just remembered.... Michelle really frowns on the chocolate sprinkles...lol

John:

your statement that "Canada VOLUNTARILY joined the European war effort" is not quite the whole story. You left out what I was taught so strongly for ten years in Canadian schools: that Canada was deeply part of the British Commonwealth and that when Great Britain declared war on Germany, for Canada to refuse to join would have been slightly like Michigan refusing to join the rest of the country in WWII.

I still recall the big arguments for "repatriating" Canada's constitution the BNA Act from Great Britain so as to complete Canadian sovereignty.

You are right, Canada's volunteering in 1939 is not the whole story, without recognizing the British Commonwealth. Canada and Britain still share a queen even today. But nevertheless, Canada had to declare war on its own; Britain could not do it for Canada. Canada gave refuge to the Dutch Royal Family as well. There were other allegiances besides the british.

Still, Canada itself was not attacked before it declared war. It put itself on the front lines for the sake of others.

The repatriating of the constitution was a technical legal thing, which Canadians decided needed to be followed by including royal assent. If they had unilaterally declared Canada's constitution to be patriated, the effect would have been exactly the same, since Canada governed itself, without any help from Britain. But governments and lawyers and a sizeable portion of the populace love legal niceties and public ceremonies. In effect, if not in appearance, Canada did patriate its own constitution, which had already previously given Canada control over its own armed forces. Thus it made its own decision in 1939.

I have lived in the United States my entire life, suspect I am older than you and have friends from many denominational traditions but do not personally know any who hold to a "theocratic nationalism...where belief in God is somehow interrelated and almost dependent on US citizenship". I agree that nationalism can be an idol in nations like the U.S. more so than in Canada, but this statement strikes me as a bizzare caricature.