A Conversation With Jonathan Den Hartog about American Exceptionalism

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At the risk of shamelessly self promoting my book (!) allow me to direct your path over to the venerable Religion in American History blog for a conversation about American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. RiAH is a fantastic resource, and I was extremely thrilled to be invited to respond to an author interview. I was especially excited to join Jonathan Den Hartog, Associate Professor of History at the University of Northwestern. By the way, check out Den Hartog’s excellent book, Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (UVA Press, 2015). He argues that American religious patterns were shaped largely by the Federalists in the first decades of the 19th century, after John Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election.

Here is a portion of our conversation:

3. To clarify your ideas, what is the relationship of “Exceptionalism” to “Civil Religion?” Also, you differentiate an “Open Exceptionalism” from a “Closed Exceptionalism.” What sets them apart?

I define civil religion as “a set of practices, symbols, and beliefs distinct from traditional religion, yet providing a transcendent paradigm around which the citizenry can unite” (20). In his recent book American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred (Oxford, 2014), Peter Gardella emphasized that civil religion is meant to unify members of a political community around “monuments, texts, and images, along with the behaviors and values associated with them.

So civil religion is a broad term describing what amounts to a real religion, complete with liturgies, traditions, symbols, sacred texts, and even individuals who minister in its name. American exceptionalism is a doctrine of civil religion, and is made up of sub-doctrines. The sub-doctrines, which comprise American exceptionalism are those I mentioned above: national chosenness, divine commission, innocence, sacred land, and glorious past.

American civil religion and exceptionalism are thus exclusive, at least if they are understood in these terms. Exceptionalism is philosophically exclusive in that it divides people into two groups, the Chosen and the Other. And historically, exceptionalism has been articulated in exclusivist terms over the years, to exclude African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans to name a few examples. Furthermore, exceptionalism hijacks its tenets from Christian theology. Election, divine commission, moral regeneracy, theology of place, and historical thinking are all either specific Christian doctrines or they have an important place in the Christian tradition. American exceptionalism often counterfeits these beliefs and practices for nationalistic purposes. Thus, in my historical and theological discussions, I classify this exclusivist, nationalist, and religious brand of exceptionalism as “closed exceptionalism.”

But I also argue that it is not necessary for civil religion and exceptionalism to be rigidly exclusivist, or to hijack Christian tradition or theology. Civil religion and exceptionalism can indeed exist in a way that is not inconsistent with Christianity. This is done through observance in the ideas expressed in the founding documents, particularly the Declaration of Independence. In the final chapter of the book, I juxtapose Justin Martyr with W. E. B. Du Bois to make this argument and to propose a model for open exceptionalist civic engagement.

Read the whole interview here.

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