Exceptionalism and Christian Citizenship

Got all settled back in Houston, Texas after being at Gordon College for the Conference on Faith and History. It was such a wonderful time being in New England, and it was equally uplifting being in the presence of so many first rate Christian historians. I enjoyed traveling with my colleague, Miles Mullin, who teaches church history at Southwestern. I also enjoyed fellowship over breakfast with John Fea of Messiah College. And it was a real pleasure to meet some new friends, such as Fred Jordan of Woodberry Forest School in Orange, VA (10 miles from my old house and my dad’s alma mater), Jerry Summers of East Texas Baptist College, Barry Hankins of Baylor University, Nicholas Pruitt, Ph.D. student at Baylor, and Jay Case of Malone University.

I presented a paper giving a brief (understatement) history of exceptionalism since 1630 and a critique of the concept. Americans have always understood themselves in exceptionalist terms, and this exceptionalism has consistently manifested itself as a theological commitment. Divine chosenness and a divine mission have been common themes in the way exceptionalism has been expressed since John Winthrop declared Massachusetts Bay to be a “city on a hill” in 1630.

But if exceptionalism is to be defined in theological terms, then it must be problematic for the Christian. American exceptionalism, in short, confuses salvation history with Christ as the focus with American history. It supplants the Christian doctrines of election and mission and makes America the subject of those doctrines, which is inappropriate. However, it is possible for a Christian to accept a notion of exceptionalism, provided that the notion does not carry a theological message with it.

So that’s what I said in my paper. I was amazed at how much has been written on American exceptionalism. There seems to be some more work to be done on this idea, particularly on the theology of exceptionalism. We’ll see where it leads.

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