Category Archives: American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion

Marco Rubio, “The Most Boring Man in America,” and America’s Great Commission

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John Foster Dulles (1888-1959) served Dwight D. Eisenhower as Secretary of State from 1953 until his death from cancer in 1959. When he died in May of that year, he was one of the most respected men in the world. Many Americans–including President Eisenhower himself–believed they had lost their best hope at winning the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

Dulles’ New York Times obituary from May 25, 1959 had this to say:

But when Mr. Dulles had to withdraw from the international scene one word was heard over and over among the diplomats of Europe and Asia: “Indispensable.”

When President Eisenhower announced Mr. Dulles’ resignation he had tears in his eyes. The moment was so moving that no one could bring himself to ask a question. With mixed pity and consternation some remembered a remark attributed to the President several years ago:

“If anything happened to Foster, where could I find a man able to replace him?”

Still, during his long career of public service, Dulles did not make an admirer out of everyone he met. William Inboden, in his book Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment, wrote that Winston Churchill described him as a “dour Puritan, a great white bespectacled face with a smudge of a mouth.” He was also popularly known during the 1950s as “the most boring man in America.”

And yet this was a man who sincerely believed that America possessed a God-given responsibility to defeat Soviet Communism and spread American style democracy everywhere in the world. Dulles’ deeply held conviction on America’s “Great Commission” helped inform US foreign policy until the end of the Cold War.

I wrote an op-ed for History News Network which appeared last evening discussing Dulles’ conviction–and his legacy, especially as seen in the candidacy of GOP hopeful Marco Rubio.

Here is a portion–

Dulles gave a speech entitled “The Power of Moral Forces” in 1953 in which he said “[our forebears] created here a society of material, intellectual, and spiritual richness the like of which the world had never known.” In contrast, the Soviets were atheistic, ontologically materialistic, and thus, “as a result the Soviet institutions treat human beings as primarily important from the standpoint of how much they can be made to produce for the glorification of the state.” Ultimately, the difference between the United States and the Soviet Union was the difference between a religious people committed to neighbor-love and an atheistic statist system in which people were compelled to obey through the constant threat of force.

Still, because America was founded on the basis of an active, rather than a passive, religious faith, its ultimate victory over godless Communism was assured. For Dulles, America’s spiritual heritage was three-fold. In a 1947 speech entitled “Our Spiritual Heritage,” Dulles said that first, Americans’ experiment in freedom was carried out by a religious people; second, Americans historically believed that “there are eternal principles of truth and righteousness which are reflected in a moral law.” Third—and most importantly—Americans’ religious faith was fueled by a transcendent obligation to serve others. Furthermore, this commitment to look beyond themselves and to the freedom of everyone in the world was essential to the survival of the American republic. Dulles said: “our society would quickly succumb if we renounced a sense of mission in the world.”

How do we see the continuation of Dulles’s legacy in contemporary times? Certainly we can see it in manifold ways, but let us consider that legacy through the lens of the presidential candidacy of GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. Rubio has made American exceptionalism the centerpiece of his personal narrative, and by extension, his entire campaign.

Read the entire piece here. And read a more extensive historical and theological analysis of Dulles and America’s “Great Commission” in American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

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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.

The Tamir Rice Case and American Exceptionalism

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This week, I contributed a post at Then and Now on how the Tamir Rice case flies in the face of closed American exceptionalism, particularly the notion of American innocence. As I wrote in American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, American innocence is one of several key religious commitments in closed American exceptionalism. American innocence–the notion that America has no social ills like the rest of the nations of the world, that American is an inherently good nation–is clearly called in question when it comes to race prejudice. In the post, I try to think historically about the idea of American innocence as well as racial injustice. And in a related development, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has gone on record supporting #BlackLivesMatter at its huge Urbana missions conference, as Religion News Service was first to report. This is noteworthy–a major evangelical para-church organization has come forward without ambiguity to urge Christians to take a stand in solidarity with the movement. We’ll see what impact this development makes in the new year.

Here is a short segment of my piece at Then and Now.

The notion that America is normatively different than other nations, that America does not suffer social ills like everyone else, is not new. The idea can be traced back to the first colonial efforts of the European kingdoms in the 16th and 17th centuries. European imaginations were moved by the western hemisphere’s stark newness to them. Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, contrasting the “new world” with overpopulated and degenerate Europe. In the excellent book The Intellectual Construction of America, Jack Greene wrote, “By associating Utopia with the New World, More . . . effectively directed attention not just to Europe’s own internal social, moral, and political problems but also to the as yet unknown potential of the immense New World.”

But racial prejudice is also found at the roots of North American civilization. If we sound the deepest parts of our identity as Americans, we find white supremacy along with the many forms of social ills that attend it as they have appeared over the four centuries since the first slaver in Jamestown. The tragedy Tamir Rice suffered—along with his community—is one manifestation of race prejudice’s degradation of American civilization.

W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1896 monograph The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America: 1638-1870 was based on his Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard. The work is, as Du Bois described it, “a small contribution to the scientific study of slavery and the American Negro.”

Du Bois closed with a short section he called “A Lesson for Americans.” There he reminded readers that as great as the founders were, they were flawed human beings seeking to achieve union of the colonies at the expense of leaving the monster of slavery in its cradle to thrive, flourish, and grow to ultimately turn on the new nation and tear it apart.

Purchase Signed Copies of *American Exceptionalism* Here at the Blog

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I am pleased to offer signed copies of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion directly from TBYFA through Paypal.

Order your copy by clicking on the “Buy Now” button on the right column. When I receive your order, I will sign your copy and place it in the mail to your address on the same day. Copies are $24.00 each, and I will cover the shipping costs for you.

Thanks to Mark Cheathem, author of Andrew Jackson, Southerner, for this great idea. I bought a signed copy of his fine work through his blog back in 2014 when it came out. So, I can vouch for the reliability of this system! And head over to Mark’s website and get your copy of his excellent biography of Andrew Jackson today!

On the Road with American Exceptionalism

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Over the next few months, I’m thrilled to be giving interviews and talks on American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. I’ll be heading to Atlanta next week to the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society to present on John Foster Dulles and the exceptionalist view of an American foreign policy based on a sense of a divine calling. Just after that in early December, I’ll be in Ft. Worth at SWBTS’s main campus to speak at the Land Center. In January, I’ll be giving a presentation on the book and having a book signing at North Oaks Baptist Church in Spring, Texas. I’ll also be heading up to The Brooks School in Massachusetts to give a talk on the book and co-teach a course on race and inequality with Edward Carson (The Professor). And in April, I’ll be speaking at Sienna Ranch Baptist Church in Missouri City, Texas.

The book seems to be doing well and I’ve had quite a bit of feedback on it in the short time it has been out. I have much to be encouraged about and thankful for in that regard. If your school, church, civic organization, media outlet, or community group would like to set up a speaking engagement, I’d be honored to come. See the Speaking page in the menu above for my full schedule, and contact me at johndwilsey@gmail.com. I hope that the book can make a difference, and I look forward to much constructive engagement.

American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion Has Its 1st Media Appearance

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Head over to Liz Covart’s early American history podcast, Ben Franklin’s World and listen to our conversation about American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion. I am a big fan of Liz’s podcast. She interviews authors of fascinating new books in the field of early US history, folks like Jessica Parr, Robert Middlekauf, John Ferling, and Eric Foner. I was thrilled and honored that she included me in her lineup.

Ben Franklin’s World is accessible via an Android or IOS app, so you can listen while you’re traveling. Consider also supporting BFW through a financial gift. If you’re like me, you will make listening to BFW a weekly ritual–new episodes go live every Tuesday.

American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion Now Available!

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Time for a little shameless self-promotion–head on over to InterVarsity Press to order your copy of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. The book has been released, and the copies in the IVP warehouse need to be depleted!

Amazon will have copies starting November 23, so you’d still need to pre-order with those good folks.

I’ve been told that reviews of the book are coming up soon in Christianity Today and The American Conservative. Also, watch for a couple of podcast interviews to be released soon–from Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World and one with Art Remillard on Marginalia: First Impressions.