My profound thanks to Phil Sinitiere of Baldblogger fame for inviting me to join his American religious history class at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston this coming Monday evening. I am really looking forward to it, and am honored to receive the invitation.
Phil is an American historian who focuses on religion and culture, race and religion in America, and African American studies. He is the author of Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (with Shayne Lee), co-editor of Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion After Divided By Faith with J. Russell Hawkins, and co-editor of Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. DuBois, the Crisis, and American History with
We’ll be talking about American exceptionalism in the nineteenth century as it diverged into two civil religious expressions during the 1840s-1860s. One of these expressions is represented in the writings of John L. O’Sullivan, editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review and the person responsible for coining the term “manifest destiny.” O’Sullivan’s brand of exceptionalism was heavily nationalistic, overtly Anglo-Saxonist, strongly expansionist, and based on an Enlightenment style certainty in the ways of providence. Manifest destiny is the brand of exceptionalism I am classifying as “closed exceptionalism” in my forthcoming book.
The second expression of nineteenth century exceptionalism is represented by the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s exceptionalism was based on an objective and universal conception of justice. He derived his exceptionalism from the Declaration of Independence, which he elevated to near-biblical status. His clear conception of right and wrong animated his views on patriotism, slavery, and disunion. And his humble agnosticism regarding God’s providence set him apart from almost everyone else of his day. While he regarded the United States as the “last, best hope of earth,” he believed that the nation was fallible, as was clearly seen in the nation’s failure to do right by African Americans and prevent the Union from breaking up. But he also believed the nation had an innate instinct to strive toward the right, and it was Lincoln’s mission to set the nation on that path. I am calling Lincoln’s expression “open exceptionalism.”
The students will be reading a couple of primary texts in preparation for the lecture. The first is O’Sullivan’s “Great Nation of Futurity,” in which he wrote that America represented a formal break with the past. America was God-ordained to be the nation at the tip of the spear of human progress. The second is Lincoln’s December 1, 1862 Annual Message to Congress, in which he made his famous statement, “Friends, we cannot escape history.” He advocated for a new way of thinking about the abolition of slavery, but his proposed solution represents a step on the way of his own moral and intellectual development on the subject.
Phil is helping me out immensely by inviting me to come and teach on nineteenth century American civil religion and exceptionalism. I also owe him big time for reading and offering suggestions on the drafts of my chapters. He loves a good philly cheese steak, and he definitely deserves a lifetime supply. Thanks a lot for your help and friendship, Phil!