Civil Religion and American Exceptionalism


It’s been a good week at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Baltimore. For one thing, I had the opportunity to take my friend and colleague, Stephen Presley, on a little tour of Washington, DC this past Monday. He is an Irenaeus scholar with a PhD from the University of St. Andrews, a very impressive teacher and scholar. But, being from Texas, he never had much of an opportunity to visit DC. So I gave him a “civil religion” tour. We stopped over at Arlington Cemetery, the most hallowed ground in America, to see JFK’s grave and the Tomb of the Unknowns. Then we went over to the Lincoln Memorial, and saw the “temple” in which the great statue of Lincoln is situated between the walls on which his greatest pieces of oratorical flourish are inscribed forever.

I say this was a “civil religion” tour because the topic was heavy on my mind. This past Tuesday, I presented a paper on American exceptionalism as an aspect of civil religion. The paper was a shortened version of the introduction to my forthcoming book on exceptionalism, and I was anxious to take my thesis out for a spin. Here’s what I said in a nutshell.

American exceptionalism, as an aspect of civil religion, takes two forms. High exceptionalism conceives of the nation in normative, transcendent, providential terms. It misappropriates theological themes from Christianity and applies them to America. Two of the most salient examples are 1) America is a chosen nation, and 2) America has been given a divine commission. Others include the ideas that America is immune to corruption, America possesses a sacred land, and that America has a glorious past that is peopled by saints and must be recovered.

Low exceptionalism does not go so far as to assign America a transcendent status, nor is it a providential interpretation of American history or society. Rather, low exceptionalism is the idea that America presents its people and the world with an example to pursue. This is an example of justice, natural rights, freedom under the rule of law, and equality of opportunity. No other nation was founded upon such principles. No other nation has been so singularly possessed of realizing that example over the course of its history. And no other nation has attracted people from all over the world to its shores on the basis of such an example.

Low exceptionalism as an idea includes Seymour Martin Lipset’s conception of exceptionalism as being “a double-edged sword.” Not only is America exceptional with regard to rights and equality, but it is also exceptional in terms of rates of incarceration and income inequality. Fair enough–America has many flaws, some of them profound. America still has far to go on the road to justice and equality. But it is on the road, and has already come very far from its point of departure in 1776. Acknowledging flaws is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Indeed this is another aspect of the idea of low exceptionalism–America is an exceptionally self-examining nation, and is never satisfied with itself as it contemplates how it lives up to its own ideals.

It is important to insist that both high and low exceptionalism are aspects, not of Christianity, but of civil religion. For one thing, Christianity should not be asked to pay for the sins of high exceptionalism. And nothing in Christianity places hope in any nation, but solely in the person and work of Jesus Christ. For another thing, Christianity does not articulate an explicit doctrine of natural rights or of equality. These ideas are found in the Western philosophical tradition, and are in many ways compatible with Christianity’s view of the dignity of the individual and conception of justice. High and low exceptionalism reflect the same pitfalls and values that civil religion offers. There is the pitfall of deifying the nation, one that high exceptionalism tends toward in its providentialism. Then there is the value of unifying the nation under great liberal ideals rooted in natural law. We find this value in low exceptionalism.

As a concept, American exceptionalism must be refined. There is a need for such refinement in public discourse, especially when we as a nation reflect on our engagement with ourselves and with the world. If we embrace high exceptionalism, our actions will be animated by hubris leading to destruction. But conceiving of ourselves in terms of low exceptionalism can cause us to value our principles and do that which preserves and extends those principles to others by the force of example and not coercion.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s