Guest commentary by Michael Parker
As our 45th president is about to be inaugurated, following the most contentious and ill-mannered presidential election in recent times, one might well wonder if America is an exceptional nation, an idea often debated in recent years.
The idea of American exceptionalism began with the discovery of America itself. It was implicit in the term Europeans used to describe the Americas, mundus novus (new world), a venue in which past mistakes could be left behind and humankind could begin again.
In the decade of the 1630s, when 20,000 disgruntled Puritans crossed the Atlantic to establish colonies in New England, John Winthrop (the governor of Massachusetts) gave the most famous lay sermon in American history, “A Model of Christian Charity.” To Puritans fleeing persecution in England, Winthrop said that God had commissioned them for a special task: to preserve the true faith in the wilderness and create an ideal society based on Christian love. “We shall be,” he declared, “as a city upon a hill.”
In the colonial era, the idea of American exceptionalism was kept alive by Puritan ministers. As late as the Great Awakening of the 1740s, Jonathan Edwards wrote, “The latter-day glory is probably to begin in America,” musing that God had hidden America from European eyes until the culmination of salvation history was at hand.
During the era of the American Revolution, Congress accepted a national seal that evoked the idea of America as a special nation. Seen today on the back of the one dollar bill, it includes three credos: E Pluribus Unum (from many one, a nod to America as a nation of immigrants), Novus Ordo Seclorum (A New Order for the Ages) and Annuit Coeptis (He [providence] favors our undertaking).
In the 19th century, America’s special mission in the world was largely to be an exemplar of republican government. The dark side of American exceptionalism also became apparent in the 19th century with the idea of “manifest destiny,” an expression coined by John L. O’Sullivan to assert America’s right to the whole continent of North America, even if this meant disregarding Mexican claims, removing Native Americans and extending slavery.
Amid the fury of internecine war, President Abraham Lincoln redefined American exceptionalism to be more inclusive. He believed that the equality and natural rights affirmed in the Declaration of Independence applied to all people, not just white Americans. As a believer in providence, Lincoln struggled to understand why a just God did not give immediate victory to the Northern armies. But he never gave up on the democratic promise that America represented. In his Annual Message to Congress in December 1862, Lincoln declared America to be “the last, best hope of earth.”
After the war, America continued to see itself as a refuge for the world’s oppressed, an idea never more dramatically symbolized than in the Statue of Liberty, dedicated in 1886. In the 1883 poem “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus interpreted and celebrated the statue while showing her contempt for Europe: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries the Mother of Exiles. “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Like Moses descending from Mount Sinai, Liberty’s face shines with beams of light, and she holds the tablet of a new covenant for the world engraved with the date July 4, 1776.
Throughout the 19th century, Americans saw their nation as an exception to the old nations of Europe. America did not have a king, an aristocracy or an established religion. Class differences, at least in the beginning, were minimal; and America seemed providentially protected by two great oceans from the wars of the Old World. In his farewell address, President George Washington urged Americans to avoid “entangling alliances” with the nations of Europe in order to develop our own nation and stay out of the endemic conflicts of those ancient lands.
With a long history of isolationism, Americans were reluctant to participate in World War I. Knowing Americans’ strong idealistic bent, President Woodrow Wilson justified the war as “a war to end all wars” and a war “to make the world safe for democracy.” In his “Fourteen Points” summarizing America’s war aims, Wilson included self-determination for all nations and the establishment of a League of Nations that would enforce the peace. Speaking before the U.S. Senate in 1919 to urge acceptance of the Versailles Peace Treaty, he asserted that U.S. leadership of the world community in the League was America’s special destiny. The Senate saw things differently and rejected the treaty.
American isolationism, the “Fortress America” policy, was practiced though the interwar years even as the world sank under the weight of the Great Depression and the rise of totalitarianism. Nevertheless, President Franklin Roosevelt, a great admirer of Wilson, slowly guided the country towards entry into World War II. On January 6, 1941, 11 months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt in a message before Congress called for a new world order to be based on four fundamental freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. This stirred Americans, and the principles of the “Four Freedoms” speech were later popularized in a series of paintings by illustrator Norman Rockwell. During the war, Roosevelt achieved the establishment of the United Nations, an organization he hoped would lead to a peaceful and united world.
During the Cold War, America gained a renewed sense of its mission, seeing itself as the champion of freedom and democracy against the “godless communism” of the Soviet Union. Underscoring the religious nature of this conflict and the link between religion and patriotism, America in the 1950s enjoyed a religious revival that saw church membership climb to the highest levels in its history, and in 1954 the U.S. government added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. In his farewell address to the nation, on January 11, 1989, President Ronald Reagan recalled Winthrop’s sermon, proclaiming America to be “a shining city on a hill.” For Reagan, Winthrop’s vision spoke to America’s continuing call to be a leader and an example among the nations of a free, open, democratic society.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991, American exceptionalism was hardly mentioned in the following decade, but it came roaring back after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when America appeared once again to face an existential threat. In recent years it has been evoked by presidents, presidential candidates and even been the subject of comment in a New York Times OpEd piece ostensibly written by Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The English Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton famously observed in 1922, “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” For an essentially religious people (but one without an established church), it was perhaps inevitable that belief in a national mission would at least partially fill this religious gap. Yet for all its inherent nobility, American exceptionalism can also be a form of idolatry that puts the nation in the place of God or the church. It should be, as it was for Lincoln, an idea to which Americans humbly aspire to be worthy.
Michael Parker is Presbyterian World Mission’s interim coordinator for Europe and the Middle East. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.