The Nation's Pulse

Thanksgiving and American Exceptionalism

An "awful responsibility" to mull over as we enjoy a holiday given to us by some of the first American exceptionalists

By 11.24.10

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The left-of-center Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Brookings Institution have released a post-election survey showing nearly 60 percent of Americans believe God has assigned America a "special role" in human history. Over 80 percent of white evangelicals believe in this special role for America, as do two thirds of minority Christians. Majorities of white Mainline Protestants and Catholics also agree. Two thirds of the religiously unaffiliated disbelieve in any special role for America.

Probably the surveyors were discomfited by the results, especially that the devotees of American exceptionalism were not confined to white evangelicals but were nearly as numerous among minority Christians, which presumably mostly means blacks and Hispanics. American exceptionalism essentially originated with the ancestors of Mainline Protestantism, who were America's earliest European settlers and America's primary religious pillars for most of our history. A half century of leftward drift by Mainline church elites unsurprisingly has dampened their confidence in exceptionalism, but most still adhere. Likewise for most Catholics. The survey frustratingly does not provide a detailed break-down, but almost certainly most religiously active Mainline Protestants and Catholics are more prone to American exceptionalism than the nominally affiliated.

Much and perhaps most of American exceptionalism originated with the Calvinist English religious dissenters who settled New England, the first wave of whom landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. With Thanksgiving, America celebrates those dissenters' founding holiday. Later waves of Puritan immigrants conceived of their American adventure as an "errand in the wilderness." And some metaphorically likened their new civilization to the Chosen People of the Old Testament, with special blessings but also special obligations, always under both God's gracious care and sometimes severe judgment. Subsequent immigrants were not always as religiously devout. But the Puritan conception of America on a special mission from God that would benefit not just Americans but all peoples was reinforced by the heroic and spiritually animated struggle for American independence. Later immigrants, though far removed from the British Protestant tradition, still often comfortably embraced the notion of America as a sort of Promised Land, especially when compared to the travails of the old country. The Calvinist conception of American exceptionalism expanded to include other Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

PRRI's chief, a seeming proponent of "progressive" Christianity, tried to put a naughty slant on his survey's results about American exceptionalism "Americans who affirm the idea of 'American exceptionalism,' a belief that God has given the U.S. a special role in human history, have a distinctly more militaristic approach to foreign policy than those who do not affirm this idea," Robert Jones ominously observed. "Those who believe in American exceptionalism are more likely to favor military strength over diplomacy as the best way to ensure peace, and they are also more likely to say torture can be justified than those who do not believe God has given the U.S. a special role." In other words, American exceptionalists are potentially dangerous.

A columnist for the Evangelical Left Sojourners group was also disturbed by the survey. "As a Christian, I tend to believe that God has a 'special role' for every person and every nation," noted Evan Trowbridge, a Sojournerscommunications staffer. "Too often, however, we confuse 'special' with 'exceptional.' If we agree that God has granted the United States a special role in history, then shouldn't we also agree that God has granted Thailand and Kenya a special role? Unfortunately, I don't think that's what most of the respondents in the study had in mind…"

No, it almost certainly is not what most American exceptionalists have in mind. Even non-believers in American exceptionalism must grant that America's story has an outsized influence on the world that exceeds Thailand's and Kenya's. Many on the Left fret that American exceptionalism is synonymous with superiority, imperialism, and exploitation. But the original Calvinist theorists, from the first Thanksgiving onward, envisioned American civilization having special duties, not special privileges. Failure to comply with these duties risked divine wrath. Later, more generic versions of American exceptionalism, at least at its best, cited America's special role as exemplar of democracy and justice. American exceptionalists were never exclusively property owning, patriarchal, Anglo-Saxon Protestant white males. Social reformers of all races and both genders, especially religious ones, successfully cited exceptionalism to justify their appeals for a more just America.

The traditional spirit of Americanism exceptionalism was articulated by a Methodist bishop at World War I's close: "We want universal humanity to share the freedom we enjoy -- a freedom which we believe to be God-given and the birthright of every human being. But let us not become self-righteous and self-complacent. We too have sinned." Citing "over-luxurious habits" and "pleasure-seeking," the bishop still rhapsodized: "God is not through with us. He has a mighty task for us, which no other nation is able to perform," entailing not "world domination" but "world leadership." He wondered: "Are we prepared to assume this awful responsibility?" The answer depended on America's "attitude toward the great moral issues, upon our attitude toward God and His cause."

American exceptionalism is not traditionally a pretext for domination, as critics like to allege, but instead an "awful responsibility" intertwined with obligation towards God and the rest of the world. We should mull over that thought as we enjoy a holiday given to us by some of the first American exceptionalists.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.