Category Archives: civil religion

Some Historical Context for Clinton’s Remarks on Exceptionalism


J. William Fulbright

During the first half of 1966, rifts in the Democratic Party began to develop over American involvement in Vietnam. By then, about 250,000 US troops were engaged in operations against the Communists in Vietnam as a result of Congress having granted President Lyndon Johnson a blank check in the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In televised hearings, speeches on the Senate floor, and public addresses in early 1966, Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned that if the war in Vietnam continued indefinitely without prospects for victory or negotiated peace, domestic divisions over the war would become dangerously pronounced. There was also grave risk of the war escalating into a general Asian war involving China.

On April 21, Fulbright spoke to the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies on “The Arrogance of Power.” In this speech, he insisted that dissent against the government’s policies during the course of a war was not unpatriotic, but one of the purest expressions of patriotism. “To criticize one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment,” he said. “Criticism . . . is more than a right—it is an act of patriotism—a higher form of patriotism, I believe than the familiar rituals of national adulation.” Ultimately, Fulbright’s argument was moderate. Rather than advocating for a withdrawal from Vietnam, he underscored the necessity for serious reflection in the application of military power. That reflection must take place in government according to the pattern laid down in the Constitution—in the give and take of advice and consent which was supposed to occur between the legislative and executive branches of the government. Fulbright noted that as a first rate power, the United States is continually tempted to “confuse” its power “with virtue.” Furthermore, it is “particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations . . . to remake them in its own shining image.”

Less than a month later, Johnson responded to Fulbright with a speech of his own—“The Obligation of Power.” He delivered this speech to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, shortly after the completion of Robertson Hall at Princeton University on May 11. Johnson spoke of how Americans did not exercise power in a spirit of arrogance, but of “agony.” “We have used our power not willingly and recklessly ever but always reluctantly and with restraint,” said the president. “The United States of America has never sought to crush the autonomy of her neighbors.” (A strange statement, considering the events of 1846-1848, for example. But I digress.)

Johnson went on to insist that America was not a servant of its power, but the master of it. He warned against withdrawal from Southeast Asia, implying that doing so would not only send the message that America could not be trusted, but also that darker forces would enter and fill the vacuum left behind. Johnson said, “a great power influences the world just as surely when it withdraws its strength as when it exercises its strength.” In the Vietnam War, America was engaged in defending transcendent values—the triumph of right over might, the defense of the weak, and the championing of the principle of self-determination. It might be tempting to cut and run, but Johnson’s advice to dissenters against his foreign policy was to face reality such as it was. “That is all we expect from those who are troubled even as we are by the obligations of power the United States did not seek but from which the United States cannot escape,” Johnson said.

Both Fulbright and Johnson were calling on American exceptionalism, even though their appeals represented two distinct articulations of the idea. Fulbright said that “America is worthy of criticism,” and that its strength lay in diversity of cultures, nationalities, and points of view that were united “in an open, receptive, generous, and creative society.” Ultimately for Fulbright, it was precisely because of America’s greatness that the nation would be able to overcome the destructive allure of power.

In contrast, Johnson articulated a rigorously interventionist form of exceptionalism. He believed America was indispensable to freedom and justice in the world. “What nation has announced such limited objectives or such willingness to remove its military presence once those objectives are achieved? What nation has spent the lives of its sons and vast sums of its fortune to provide the people of a small thriving country the chance to elect the course that we might not ourselves choose?” Johnson asked.

Johnson’ brand of exceptionalism imagined a consistent (even inherent) judicious and humble exercise of power. Johnson’s America was innocent of the transgressions of empires past—even though it only takes a cursory look at American history to witness the emptiness of such a conception. Fulbright’s exceptionalism is celebratory of American ideals, but realistic enough to recognize that America is flawed, and vulnerable to great error. Fulbright identified one of the brilliant characteristics of American republicanism is the division of power in the national government, in order to check the willfulness of any one person or group of people in power. The Congress is to be a check on the President  because it is human nature to become enamored with power for power’s sake while cloaking irresponsible uses of power in the rhetoric of innocence, good intentions, and patriotism.

I was reminded of this feud between Fulbright and Johnson after reading the transcript of Hillary Clinton’s remarks on August 31 before the national convention of the American Legion. Her statements on American exceptionalism were surprising to many. Most of us are used to Republicans giving harangues on exceptionalism. But here we had the Democratic presidential nominee criticizing her Republican opponent for not believing in American exceptionalism! I’m looking around now to see if any pigs have taken flight. Haven’t seen any yet, but Election Day is still many weeks away.

Clinton (I am not on a first-name basis with the lady, so I’ll confine myself to the more formal use of her last name here) claimed that her belief in American exceptionalism was her “one core belief that has guided and inspired [her] every step of the way” in her political career. Her exceptionalism is based on American ideals, determination, and grit. Diversity is central to her articulation of exceptionalism too, but Fulbright’s emphasis on unity arising from diversity is conspicuously absent from Clinton’s version. She noted what a blessing it is to be an American, and correctly observed that the reason so many people around the world clamor to get here is because they also recognize what a blessing being an American is. But the flip side of this blessed state is the responsibility that attends it.

This is where Clinton’s exceptionalism is so much like Johnson’s as he articulated it at Princeton in May 1966. She called America “the indispensable nation” with a “unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress.” Similar to Johnson, Clinton maintained, “our power comes with a responsibility to lead humbly, thoughtfully, and with a fierce commitment to our values.” And what if America were to withdraw its hand? Clinton said, “when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum” that other nations—whose motives are presumably not as righteous as America’s—will inevitably fill.

Clinton’s exceptionalism, at least as she articulated it to the American Legion the other day, is Johnsonian. There is little moral reflection in her understanding of the proper uses of American power aside from flowery rhetoric about peace and progress. Ironically, she seems to have scant appreciation for the limits of American power despite her many experiences with those limits since her political career began in the United States Senate in 2001. Furthermore, her brand of exceptionalism is defined by American innocence, just as Johnson’s was. This is perhaps the strangest part, because when she first began talking about exceptionalism, she cast it in terms set forth by Lincoln, Reagan, and Robert Kennedy. Reagan did see America as an innocent nation, but by no means did Lincoln or Kennedy. Clinton’s calling on these figures was great for the emotional appeal, but for historical, philosophical, and civil religious reasons, their articulations of exceptionalism do not belong in the same category.

So far, I’ve left Trump out of this analysis. Part of this is because Trump has distanced himself from the term “American exceptionalism” as Clinton rightly noted. But he still deserves mention. After all, his campaign slogan (in case you didn’t know) is “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s exceptionalism seems to be birthed out of a desire to recover a golden age long gone. This feature of exceptionalism is also prominent historically, along with innocence and responsibility.

All this goes to show at least one important truth that I have spent a great deal of energy trying to argue over the years: American exceptionalism is a complex and ambiguous concept. When the term is used in political discourse, it seems that everyone assumes that we are all talking about the same thing. And over the years, I have seen a lot of ink expended on the thesis that American exceptionalism is irrelevant, nobody takes it seriously anymore, and that millennials in particular see it as a dead issue.

But American exceptionalism is clearly not dead. Historically, it has taken various forms. Moreover, whatever form it has taken in whatever historical context, exceptionalism has always been multi-faceted. And when exceptionalism is called forth in today’s political discourse, its meaning depends on both the person using the term as well as its contextualization.

For example, many have accused President Obama of being ambivalent about exceptionalism. Such people usually refer to comments he made early in his presidency about Americans, Brits, and Greeks all believing in their exceptionalism. But those people have either misunderstood him, not listened to him, or are mischaracterizing him for political purposes. Obama has referenced exceptionalism quite frequently during his presidency. One of the most notable references was in his speech celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march in March 2015. In the context of Bloody Sunday, he said, “What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?” Self examination is central thread in Obama’s exceptionalism, but he is hardly the first American to recognize its importance. The American tradition of patriotic self examination goes back to the Puritans of the 17th century.

Obama certainly has embraced American exceptionalism during his presidency. It just isn’t Lyndon Johnson’s brand (or Clinton’s, at least as she articulated it in front of the American Legion). But it is consistent with an open, inclusive, idealistic exceptionalism espoused by Abraham Lincoln, who was perhaps the first American president to put  patriotism on a higher moral plane than a narrowly defined, temporal set of national interests.

American exceptionalism is not one “thing.” But it isn’t in the eye of the beholder either. Its parameters are definable, despite its complexity as a historical and contemporary national identity paradigm. While it has not always been called “exceptionalism,” the idea is alive and well. Always has been. Probably always will be.


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


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.


An American Exceptionalism Bibliography


Below is a list of selected sources on American exceptionalism that I have found useful over the past several months. The topic is quite broad—my book is a treatment of exceptionalism in terms of historical theology, intellectual history, and American religious history. But exceptionalism can also be studied as political theory, sociology, economics, and even geography. So this bibliography is nowhere near exhaustive.

Still, I found each of these books helpful as I considered American exceptionalism. If you are interested in the topic, I hope you may find this bibliography useful. I’ve divided up the books by the following categories:

1. General Titles
2. Political Theory
3. Nationalism/American Nationalism
4. Puritans
5. Colonial Period
6. Revolutionary War
7. Early Republic/Antebellum America
8. Mexican American War
9. Territorial Expansion
10. Manifest Destiny
11. Slavery
12. Civil War
13. Abraham Lincoln
14. Theodore Roosevelt
15. Woodrow Wilson/World War I
16. World War II
17. Cold War
18. Ronald Reagan
19. War on Terror
20. American Exceptionalism/Civil Religion
21. Historical Thinking
22. Christian America
23. American Religion
24. Millennialism
25. Chosenness
26. Land
27. Civic Engagement
28. Church and State
29. Race

This bibliography is a work in progress, so if you see something I’ve missed, please do not hesitate to let me know!

General Titles

Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1932.

Stark, Rodney. America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton, 2012.

Peterson, Houston, ed. A Treasury of the World’s Great Speeches. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954.

Augustine. Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans. Translated by Henry Bettenson. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Mead, Walter Russell. God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. New York: Knopf, 2007.

Kazin, Michael. American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. New York: Vintage, 2011.

Bancroft, George. History of the United States, From the Discovery of the American Continent. 8 volumes. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1860.

Durant, Will and Ariel. The Story of Civilization. Vol. 7, The Age of Reason Begins: A History of European Civilization in the Period of Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne, Rembrandt, Galileo, and Descartes: 1558–1648. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.

________. The Story of Civilization. Vol. 6, The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300–1564. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.

Beard, Charles. The Rise of American Civilization. New York: Macmillan, 1930.

Commager, Henry Steele. The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment. New York: Anchor, 1978.

Political Theory

Hacker, Louis and Helene S. Zahler, eds. The Shaping of the American Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1947.

Locke, John. Second Treatise on Civil Government. Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, edited by Raymond Geuss and Quentin Skinner. 1960. Reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1955.

Sandoz, Ellis. A Government of Laws: Political Theory, Religion, and the American Founding. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Social Contract. The Great Books of the Western World, edited by Robert Maynard Hutchins, no. 38. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952.

Lerner, Max. America as a Civilization: Life and Thought in the United States Today. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.

De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. With an introduction by Alan Ryan. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Nationalism/American Nationalism

Kedourie, Elie. Nationalism. 4th exp. ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1993.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans: The National Experience. With a foreword by Sean Wilentz. Francis Parkman Prize edition. New York: History Book Club, 2002.

Swomley, John M. American Empire: The Political Ethics of Twentieth-Century Conquest. London: Macmillan, 1961.

Baldwin, Leland D. The American Quest for the City of God. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1981.

Fousek, John. To Lead the Free World: American Nationalism and the Cultural Roots of the Cold War. Chapel Hill, N.C., 2000.

McKnight, Scot and Joseph B. Modica, eds. Jesus Is Lord; Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. With a foreword by Andy Crouch. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013.

Nichols, Christopher McKnight. Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age. 2011; repr, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Ninkovich, Frank. Global Dawn: The Cultural Foundation of American Internationalism, 1865-1890. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

________. The Global Republic: America’s Inadvertent Rise to World Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

________. The United States and Imperialism. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.

Kohn, Hans. American Nationalism: An Interpretive Essay. New York: Macmillan, 1957.

Baritz, Loren. City on a Hill: A History of Ideas and Myths in America. New York: Wiley and Sons, 1964.

De Riencourt, Amaury. The American Empire. New York: Dell, 1968.

Ferguson, Niall. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Hart, Justin. Empire of Ideas: The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of US Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hartman, Andrew. A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.


Bercovitch, Sacvan The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975.

________., ed. The American Puritan Imagination: Essays in Revaluation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

________. The American Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

Bremer, Francis J and Lynn A. Botelho, eds. The World of John Winthrop: Essays on England and New England, 1588-1649. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2005.

McKenna, George. The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Miller, Perry and Thomas H. Johnson, eds. The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings. Vol. 1. 1963. Reprint, Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001.

Miller, Perry, ed. The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1956.

________. The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1956.

________.. Errand Into The Wilderness. Cambridge: Belknap, 1956.

________.. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954.

________.. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954.

Perry, Ralph Barton. Puritanism and Democracy. New York: Vanguard, 1944.

Colonial Period

Phillips, Kevin. The Cousin’s Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America. New York: Basic, 1999.

Revolutionary War

Wood, Gordon .The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Albanese, Catherine L. Sons of the Fathers: The Civil Religion of the American Revolution. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976.

Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Enlarged edition. Cambridge: Belknap, 1992.

Bonomi, Patricia U. “Religious Dissent and the Case for American Exceptionalism.” In Religion in a Revolutionary Age, Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, eds. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Byrd, James P. Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Colbourn, Trevor. The Lamp of Experienced: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution. 2nd edition. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998.

De Crèvecoeur, J. Hector St. John. Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth Century America. Edited with an introduction by Albert E. Stone. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Gaines, James R. For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions. New York: Norton, 2007.

Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Smith, Page, ed. Religious Origins of the American Revolution. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1976.

Early Republic/Antebellum America

Cheathem, Mark R. Andrew Jackson: Southerner. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013.

Ellis, Joseph J. American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Oxford History of the United States, edited by David M. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Beeman, Richard. Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. New York: Random House, 2009.

Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Meacham, Jon. American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. New York: Random House, 2006.

Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848–1861. Completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher. 1976. Reprint, New York: Harper Perennial, 2011.

Reynolds, David S. Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Shalev, Eran. American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Wood, Gordon S. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin, 2006.

________. The Creation of the American Republic: 1776 –1787. 2d ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

________. The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. New York: Penguin, 2011.

Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. New York: Norton, 2005.

Mexican American War

Clary, David A. Eagles and Empire: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle for a Continent. New York: Bantam, 2009.

Pinheiro, John C. Missionaries of Republicanism: A Religious History of the Mexican-American War. New York: Oxford, 2014.

Territorial Expansion

Billington, Ray Allen. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1960.

Drinnon, Richard. Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building. 1980. Reprint, Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Etulan, Richard W., ed. Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional? Historians at Work, edited by Edward Countryman. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.

Goetzmann, William H. Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West. Francis Parkman Prize edition. New York: History Book Club, 2006.

Kluger, Richard. Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea. New York: Knopf, 2007.

Kukla, Jon. A Wilderness so Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Morgan, Ted. A Shovel of Stars: The Making of the American West—1800 to the Present. New York: Touchstone, 1995.

________. Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Manifest Destiny

Gomez, Adam. “Deus Vult!: John L. O’Sullivan, Manifest Destiny, and American Democratic Messianism.” American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture 1.2 (Fall 2012): 236–262.

Hawk, L. Daniel. Joshua in 3-D: A Commentary on Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny. Eugene: Cascade, 2010.

Heidler, David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler. Manifest Destiny. Greenwood Guides to Historic Events, 1500-1900, Linda S. Frey and Marsha L. Frey, eds. London: Greenwood, 2003.

Hietala, Thomas R. Manifest Design: American Exceptionalism and Empire. Revised edition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Hofstadter, Richard “Manifest Destiny and the Philippines.” In Daniel Aaron, ed. America in Crisis: Fourteen Crucial Episodes in American History. New York, 1952.

Merk, Frederick. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History. With a foreword by John Mack Faragher. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.


Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic, 2014.

Blassingame, John W.. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. 1972. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. 1853.

Civil War

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Moorhead, James H. American Apocalypse: Yankee Protestants and the Civil War, 1860-1869. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

Noll, Mark. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Abraham Lincoln

Diggins, John Patrick. On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Wolf, William J. The Almost Chosen People: A Study of the Religion of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Doubleday, 1959.

Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln, Redeemer President. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Lincoln, Abraham. Selected Speeches and Writings. With an introduction by Gore Vidal. New York: Library of America Paperback Classics, 2009.

McPherson, James M., ed. “We Cannot Escape History”: Lincoln and the Last Best Hope of Earth. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Mead, Sidney E. “Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Last, Best Hope of Earth’: The American Dream of Destiny and Democracy,” Church History 23:1 (March 1954): 3–16.

White, Ronald C. The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words. New York: Random House, 2005.

Theodore Roosevelt

Beale, Howard K. Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power. The Albert Shaw Lectures on Diplomatic History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1956.

Burton, David H. Theodore Roosevelt: Confident Imperialist. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968.

Dalton, Kathleen. Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life. New York: Knopf, 2002.

DiNunzio, Mario, ed. Theodore Roosevelt: An American Mind, Selected Writings. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Roosevelt, Theodore. The Winning of the West. 4 volumes. Introduction by John Milton Cooper, Jr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

________. Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography. 1913. Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1985.

Woodrow Wilson/World War I

Babik, Milan. Statecraft and Salvation: Wilsonian Liberal Internationalism as Secularized Eschatology. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2013.

Gamble, Richard. The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003.

MacMillan, Margaret. Paris, 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. With a foreword by Richard Holbrooke. New York: Random House, 2001.

Ninkovich, Frank. The Wilsonian Century: U. S. Foreign Policy Since 1900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Wilson, Woodrow. A History of the American People. Five Volumes. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1908.

World War II

Borgwardt, Elizabeth. A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Kaye, Harvey. The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Cold War

Inboden, William. Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945–1960. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Kinzer, Stephen. The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War. New York: Henry Holt, 2013.

Niebuhr, Richard. The Irony of American History. New York: Scribner’s 1952.

Offner, Arnold A. Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945–1953. Stanford Nuclear Age Series. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).

Preston, Andrew. Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith. New York: Anchor, 2012.

Van Dusen, Henry P., ed. The Spiritual Legacy of John Foster Dulles: Selections from His Articles and Addresses. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.

Freeman, Joshua B. American Empire: The Rise of a Global Power, the Democratic Revolution at Home, 1945–2000. The Penguin History of the United States. New York: Viking, 2012.

Ronald Reagan

Harrison, Maureen and Steve Gilbert, eds. The Speeches of Ronald Reagan. 2004. Reprint, Excellent Books, 2014.

Reagan, Ronald. Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

________. The Reagan Diaries. Edited by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

Skinner, Kiron K., Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, eds. Reagan, In His Own Hand. New York: Touchstone, 2001.

War on Terror

Bacevich, Andrew J. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. New York: Metropolitan, 2008.

Woodward, Bob. Bush At War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

American Exceptionalism/Civil Religion

Ceasar, James W. “The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism.” American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture 1.1 (Spring 2012): 3-28.

Cherry, Conrad, ed.. God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny. Revised Edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Bellah, Robert N. and Phillip E. Hammond. Varieties of Civil Religion. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980.

________. Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

________. The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. New York: Seabury, 1975.

Cobbs Hoffman, Elizabeth. American Umpire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Chesterton, G. K. What I Saw in America. Civium Press, 2012.

Deneen, Patrick J. “Cities of Man on a Hill.” American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture 1.1 (Spring 2012): 29-52.

Dunn, Charles, ed. American Exceptionalism: The Origins, History, and Future of Our Nation’s Greatest Strength. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2013.

Edwards, Jason A. and David Weiss. The Rhetoric of American Exceptionalism: Critical Essays. London: McFarland, 2011.

Fischer, Claude S. Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Gamble, Richard M. In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. New York: Continuum, 2012.

Gardella, Peter. American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Gelernter, David. Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. New York: Doubleday, 2007.

Gingrich, Newt and Vince Haley. A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. Washington: Regnery, 2011.

Glaser, Elizabeth and Hermann Wellenreuther, eds. Bridging the Atlantic: The Question of American Exceptionalism in Perspective. Publications of the German Historical Institute. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Greene, Jack P. The Intellectual Construction of America: Exceptionalism and Identity from 1492 to 1800. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Guètin, Nicole. Religious Ideology in American Politics: A History. London: McFarland, 2009.

Guyatt, Nicholas. Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1876. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Haberski, Raymond. God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945. London: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Hodgson, Godfrey. The Myth of American Exceptionalism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Hughes, Richard T. Myths America Lives By. With a foreword by Robert N. Bellah. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Kagan, Robert. The World America Made. New York: Knopf, 2012.

Leithart, Peter J. Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. Theopolitical Visions, Thomas Heilke, D. Stephen Long, and C. C. Pecknold, eds. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012.

Lieven, Anatol. America, Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

________. The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective. London: Transaction, 2003.

Lockhard, Charles. The Roots of American Exceptionalism: Institutions, Culture, and Policies. New York: MacMillan, 2003.

Madsen, Deborah L. American Exceptionalism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

Mead, Sidney E. “Nation With the Soul of a Church,” Church History 36:3 (September 1967): 262–83.

Onuf, Peter S. “American Exceptionalism and National Identity.” American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture 1.1 (Spring 2012): 77-100.

Pease, Donald E. The New American Exceptionalism. Critical American Studies Series, George Lipsitz, ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Pierard, Richard V. and Robert D. Linder. Civil Religion and the Presidency. Grand Rapids: Academie, 1988.

Pullen, John J. Patriotism in America: A Study of Changing Devotions, 1770-1970. New York: American Heritage Press, 1971.

Remillard, Arthur. Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

Restad, Hilde. American Exceptionalism: An Idea That Made a Nation and Remade the World. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Robbins, James S. Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity. New York: Encounter, 2013.

Schuck, Peter H. and James Q. Wilson, eds. Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008.

Shafer, Byron E., ed. Is America Different?: A New Look at American Exceptionalism. Oxford, 1991.

Strong, Josiah. Our Country. Jurgen Herbst, ed. Cambridge: Belknap, 1963.

Historical Thinking

Boyd, Jonathan. “This Holy Hieroglyph: Providence and Historical Consciousness in George Bancroft’s Historiography.” PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2001.

Cheng, Eileen Ka-May. The Plain and Noble Garb of Truth: Nationalism and Impartiality in American Historical Writing, 1784-1860. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

Clark, Gordon H. Historiography, Secular and Religious. 1971. Reprint Jefferson, MD: Trinity, 1994.

Fea, John, Jay Green, and Eric Miller, eds. Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.

Fea, John. Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013.

Keillor, Stephen J. God’s Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith. With a foreword by Mark A. Noll. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2007.

Le Goff, Jacques. History and Memory. Translated by Steven Rendall and Elizabeth Claman. European Perspectives, Lawrence D. Kritzman and Richard Wolin, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

McKenzie, Robert Tracy. The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013.

Molho, Anthony and Gordon S. Wood, eds. Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret the Past. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Momigliano, Arnaldo. The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography. With a foreword by Riccardo di Donato. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Nash, Ronald H. The Meaning of History. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1998.

Noble, David W. Historians Against History: The Frontier Thesis and the National Covenant in American Historical Writing Since 1830. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1965.

Wood, Gordon. The Purpose of the Past: Reflections of the Uses of History. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Christian America

Fea, John. Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.

Hughes, Richard T. Christian America and the Kingdom of God. With a foreword by Brian McLaren. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Kruse, Kevin. One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. New York: Basic, 2015.

Noll, Mark A., Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden. The Search for Christian America. Colorado Springs: Helmers and Howard, 1989.

Throckmorton, Warren and Michael Coulter. Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President. Grove City: Salem Grove, 2012.

Wilsey, John D. One Nation Under God?: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011.

American Religion

Gaustad, Edwin S. and Mark A. Noll, eds. A Documentary History of Religion in America Since 1877. Third ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

Gaustad, Edwin S. Faith of the Founders: Religion and the New Nation, 1776-1826. Second edition. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2004.

________.. A Religious History of America. Revised edition. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1990.

Heimert, Alan. Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution. With a foreword by Andrew Delbanco. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1966.

Herberg, Will. Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. New York: Doubleday, 1955.

Hoffer, Peter Charles, ed. The Marrow of American Divinity: Selected Articles on Colonial Religion. New York: Garland, 1988.

Hoffman, Ronald and Peter J. Albert, eds. Religion in a Revolutionary Age. Perspectives on the American Revolution, Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, eds. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994.

Holmes, David L. The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Kidd, Thomas S. God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. New York: Basic, 2010.

Lambert, Frank. The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

________. Religion and American Culture. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.

________. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

________. Christians in the American Revolution. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003.

Humphrey, Edward Frank. Nationalism and Religion in America: 1774-1789. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965.

Sandoz, Ellis, ed. Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991.

Stout, Harry S. The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture iln Colonial New England. 25th Anniversary ed. With a foreword by Mark A. Noll. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

West, John G., Jr. The Politics of Revelation and Reason: Religion and Civic Life in the New Nation. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

Witham, Larry. A City on a Hill: How Sermons Changed the Course of American History. New York: HarperOne, 2007.


Bloch, Ruth Heidi. “Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in America Ideology, 1756-1800.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1980.

Tuveson, Ernest Lee. Millennium and Utopia: A Study in the Background of the Idea of Progress. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949.

________. Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

National Election

Anderson, Braden P. Chosen Nation: Scripture, Theopolitics, and the Project of National Identity. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012.

Smith, Anthony D. Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.


Brinkley, Douglas. The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America. New York: Harper, 2009.

Burge, Gary M. Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to ‘Holy Land’ Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010.

Burrow, John. A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances, and Inquiries from Herodotus to Thucydides to the Twentieth Century. New York: Knopf, 2008.

Fiege, Mark. The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.

Glave, Dianne D. and Mark Stoll, eds. “To Love the Wind and the Rain”: African Americans and Environmental History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.

Glave, Dianne D. Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2010.

Hersey, Mark D. My Work is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

Kennedy, Roger G. Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Muir, John. The Eight Wilderness Discovery Books. London: Diadem, 1992.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

Smith, Kimberly K. African American Environmental Thought: Foundations. American Political Thought, Wilson Carey McWilliams and Lance Banning, eds. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.

McClay, Wilfred and Ted V. McAllister, eds. Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America. New York: New Atlantis, 2014.

Righter, Robert W. The Battle Over Hetch-Hetchy: America’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism. New York: Oxford, 2006.

Stoll, Mark. Inherit the Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism. New York: Oxford, 2015.

Civic Engagement

Forsythe, Clarke D. Politics for the Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009.

Guiness, Os. A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2012.

Hauerwas, Stanley. After Christendom? How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas. Nashville: Abingdon, 1991.

Koyzis, David T. Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003.

Lasch, Christopher. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.

Noll, Mark. One Nation Under God? Christian Faith and Political Action in America. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

Noll, Mark, ed. Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the 1980s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Noll, Mark A. and Luke E. Harlow, eds. Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present. 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Schlossberg, Herbert. Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture. With a preface by Robert H. Bork and a foreword by Charles Colson. Wheaton: Crossway, 1990.

Church and State

Driesbach, Daniel L. and Mark David Hall, eds. The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2009.

Kemeny, P. C., ed. Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007.

Wilson, John F. and Donald L. Drakeman, eds. Church and State in American History: The Burden of Religious Pluralism. Second ed. Boston: Beacon, 1987.


Blum, Edward J. W. E. B. Du Bois: American Prophet. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

________. Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2005.

De Beaumont, Gustave. Marie or, Slavery in the United States. Translated by Barbara Chapman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Du Bois, W. E. B. Writings. Edited by Nathan Huggins. New York: Library of America, 1986.

Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Marable, Manning and Garrett Felber. The Portable Malcolm X Reader. New York: Penguin, 2013.

Washington, James Melvin, ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: HarperOne, 1986.

Cover Art and Blurbs for American Exceptionalism Book Have Arrived

American Exceptionalism 6

I am really excited about the cover for the exceptionalism book. I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying cover than this. The folks at IVP know what they’re doing.

John Fea wrote a wonderful foreword to the book–he was the first person to encourage me to write this book and I am truly grateful for him.

Here are the endorsements–

“John Wilsey has delivered a provocative and much-needed account of the promise and perils of American ‘exceptionalism.’ Few other writers possess the combination of historical and theological insight required to produce a book of this kind.”
Thomas S. Kidd
Author of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father
Professor of History, Baylor University

“Nations are what we make them. Inherently, they are neither godly, nor wicked. Most are both. In American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, John D. Wilsey demonstrates this and much more. Deeply thought and engagingly written, this book delves into religious claims about American exceptionalism with passion and compassion. Through the twists and turns, Wilsey offers entirely new ways to be faithfully Christian while participating in the life of the nation.”
Edward J. Blum
Author of W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet
Professor of History, San Diego State University

“This unsparing recitation of manifest destiny, Indian removal, slavery, Cold War dualism, and pervasive jingoism should give all American Christians pause. John Wilsey, in offering an alternative model for Christian engagement with the state, moves the conversation toward a higher ideal of global and kingdom citizenship.”
David R. Swartz
Author of Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism
Assistant Professor of History, Asbury Theological Seminary

“Distinguished by rich historical details and astute theoretical insights, John Wilsey liberates academic discussions of American exceptionalism and civil religion from their ivory tower confines, and presents them anew to a broad audience. Positioning himself as both an unapologetic American citizen and Christian, Wilsey skillfully describes, defines, and critiques these interlocking categories. This book will be of great interest not only to scholars, but also to all people of good will who cherish American diversity alongside the worthy pursuit of establishing a broad and inclusive consensus.”
Arthur Remillard
Author of Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era
Associate Professor of Religious Studies, St. Francis University

“Wilsey provides the most up-to-date history of the concept of American exceptionalism available and shows an astute understanding of its relationship to civil religion. He argues for the adaptation of a pluralistic exceptionalism based on the nation’s continuing struggle for and commitment to equality, freedom and justice, rejecting the frequently invoked model that frames America as an innocent nation chosen and commissioned by God.”
Anne Blankenship
Assistant Professor of History, Philosophy & Religious Studies, North Dakota State University

“In an age that appears as confused as ever about the connections between the kingdom of Christ and American identity, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion is vital reading. John Wilsey has charted the complex course of an historical idea, American exceptionalism, in a way that is fair and nuanced, yet honest and timely. Combining far reaching interaction with the most current scholarship and careful theological reflection, Wilsey tells this story in a way that will be accessible to a broad audience. I am delighted to recommend it widely and enthusiastically!”
Matthew J. Hall
Vice President for Academic Services, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Obama’s Selma Speech: Self Examination as American Exceptionalism


This post appeared at Then and Now on March 11, 2015.

This past Saturday, March 7, 2015, President Obama spoke in Selma, Alabama, marking the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”–the assault by Alabama state troopers on marchers from Selma to Montgomery for equal voting rights for African Americans.

His speech is remarkable for many reasons, but one of the things I find really remarkable is that it ranks as a singular example of presidential exceptionalist rhetoric.

There’s nothing new in all that. We’ve come to expect our presidents to use exceptionalist rhetoric in their speeches. Ronald Reagan was particularly skilled at portraying America in exceptionalist terms, being fond of quoting Thomas Paine, who famously said of Americans that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again” in Common Sense. He also liked to use Abraham Lincoln’s descriptor of America as the “last, best hope of earth,” although Reagan often substituted “earth” for “mankind” in his use of the phrase.

But President Obama is considered by many to lack love for his country. Early in his presidency, at a press conference in Cherbourg, France on April 4, 2009, Obama himself watered down American exceptionalism by saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” But Obama’s views on exceptionalism have evolved over the course of his presidency. In September 2013, in his address to the nation regarding a possible US military intervention in Syria, President Obama embraced exceptionalism by saying, “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. . . . That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.” And speaking at West Point’s commencement in 2014, the President said, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”

Unlike Reagan, Obama’s view of exceptionalism subtracts the idea of American innocence. Central to Obama’s patriotism is the notion that true love of country entails national self-examination in order to more sincerely pursue the highest ideals of the American liberal tradition. This notion comes through in most, if not all, of President Obama’s articulations of American exceptionalism.

His Selma speech is, at least to me, his most eloquent expression of this form of exceptionalism. Consider these lines from his speech–

And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?

What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people – the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many – coming together to shape their country’s course?

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:

“We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny. For founders like Franklin and Jefferson, for leaders like Lincoln and FDR, the success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all our citizens in this work. That’s what we celebrate here in Selma. That’s what this movement was all about, one leg in our long journey toward freedom.

American exceptionalism is a controversial idea because two political groups at odds with one another claim it–conservatives and liberals. What adds to the controversy is that both of these groups often seem to see their contention as going far beyond a simple political disagreement. They often seem to be at war with one another, with the complete destruction of the other as the shared goal between them. The question of what constitutes a true American? is thus a fundamental, existential question in today’s political and cultural discourse.

For many, a true American is specially favored of God, carrying out a divine mandate to spread the American way of life around the globe, situated on a sacred land, heir to a glorious heritage–and defined by an innate righteousness, no matter by what agency he uses in America’s name. For many, these are the aspects that define American exceptionalism.

But Obama’s conception of exceptionalism is the right one, both historically and practically. It is historically right because it is this vision of exceptionalism that has carried Americans ever closer to their stated ideals of individual rights, democracy, human equality based on innate dignity, and peace since the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. It is practically right because it fosters unity by eliminating the false dichotomy of the “Chosen” and the “Other,” a dichotomy borne out of racial, religious, ethnic, and class prejudices.

Read the transcript of the speech. Obama’s articulation of American exceptionalism is expansive, inclusive, and consistent with the canon of American civil religion: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, to name a few texts in that canon. But most importantly, it is marked by self examination. Without self-examination, Americans cannot live up to their ideals. Without self-examination, America implodes.

Furman and Mount St Mary’s Bound

PaladinsLogo.svgI’ve been looking forward to traveling back to Furman University, my dear old alma mater, for another Tocqueville Lecture. Last year, I had the opportunity to listen to Wilfred McClay’s lecture on the “Tocquevillian Moment.” This year, I get to listen to Robert George of Princteon University and Cornel West–formerly of Princeton, but now of Union Theological Seminary. The two will discuss “Christianity and American Politics.” I’ve been looking forward to attending this lecture–and to having the chance to meet both of them–for months now. I simply cannot wait until next Thursday.

Not only do I get to attend this lecture, but I am going to be bringing two good friends along with me to show Furman off and enjoy the lecture–Trey Dimsdale and Rob Collingsworth. Trey is a PhD student at Southwestern studying ethics and we both serve as associate directors of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement. Rob recently finished his MDiv at Southwestern, and serves the Land Center as a paid intern. He will be starting PhD work soon, also in ethics.

The week after next, I travel to Mount St. Mary’s University to attend the Ciceronian Society Meeting. I’ll be presenting a paper entitled, “Civil Religion, Exceptionalism, and Patriotism: A Consideration in Propriety.” In the paper, I’ll be pitching the thesis of my exceptionalism book, which is coming out this fall.

I built in some extra time to drive over to Antietam and possibly also to Gettysburg, two of my favorite battlefield sites. Looking forward to a good trip, complete with rich conversations with good friends, meeting some new friends, and maybe a little hero worship, too.

Interview with Peter Gardella, Author of American Civil Religion


Peter Gardella, author of American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred, is Professor of World Religions at Manhattanville College, and is the author of three other books on American religion. His thesis is that American civil religion, unified by the values of freedom, democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance, is one of the most influential religions in the world. He supports his thesis by considering thirty-two texts, monuments, symbols, and ideas that bear civil religious significance–like the MLK Memorial on the Washington Mall, as pictured on the book’s cover.

Gardella was gracious enough to sit for a phone interview with me this week. His book is persuasive, thorough, and well-argued.

Q: How did you get interested in American civil religion?

A: In my childhood, my oldest brother who is 17 years older than I am, went to the Naval Academy in 1952 and I grew up thinking I should go to the Naval Academy. Civil religion always mattered to me a great deal; my father always flew the flag on all kinds of occasions in front of the house and so I’ve grown up with it.

Q: And haven’t we all?

A: We said the pledge every morning in public school right after the Lord’s Prayer in my case until 1963. But, there’s no question—it’s amazing that people don’t know the phrase. Only 2 weeks ago I had a letter published in the New York Times, and the editor wanted to eliminate the phrase “civil religion” from the letter because, she said, “I don’t know what it is.” I asked one of my colleagues here and he didn’t know either.

It’s a phrase in common use, but it’s amazing how well informed people you run into have never heard the phrase before. In fact, we haven’t educated the public to even the existence of American civil religion, but I think it’s one of the most powerful religions in the world.

Q: This book represents a ten-year project for you, researching American civil religion. As you wrote the book, what struck you to be the tangible elements making American civil religion recognizable?

A: My original sub-title for 10 years was American Civil Religion: Monuments, Texts, and Images. My idea was, here we talk about this thing and nobody has written a book describing what the basic elements of civil religion are. What are the sacred places, sacred texts, symbols in America, and what is their history? When I would teach civil religion, I would use Conrad Cherry’s God’s New Israel—not that it’s not a good book, but it is inadequate to present the kind of thing I wanted to show people.

The president of Oxford University Press intervened with my editor and said, “the sub-title has to be What Americans Hold Sacred.” It makes things a bit vague, but it’s reasonable because most people still don’t know what American civil religion is.

Q: How does civil religion relate to the concept of American exceptionalism?

A: American exceptionalism is an extraordinarily developed civil religion. We have a desperate need for civil religion because we are exceptional in our lack of natural culture. What is our natural culture? We have a borrowed language, a land we took from the Native Americans, no native cuisine, no native perspective on history. Even the other nations in the Americas, like Mexico possess more of a native culture than we do.

Take the Mexican flag—the native symbols of the eagle with the serpent are depicted. The Mexican capital still sits on the old site of the Aztec capital. Mexicans are much more deeply rooted in their place than we are.

We are very unusual in that we have this great void—my family, for example, consists of Italians and Poles who came here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many emigrated after 1965 when we changed the immigration laws. We have no native culture to hold us together, but we do have civil religion. We pledge allegiance, affirm our values, etc. and we need civil religion very much to fill the void in our culture. The strength of our civil religion in effect becomes our exceptionalism.

Our assimilative power is something else that makes America exceptional. We could move to Japan and our third generation descendants wouldn’t be Japanese. But people come to America, their kids become American, they become American. And these things go together.

Another example: what other nation has anything close to a House Un-American Activities Committee? What would the Italian parliament have, an Un-Italian Activities Committee? Italians can be fascists or communists and still be Italian. What makes them Italian is their language and their culture. You can’t be anti-Italian by your activities like you can be anti-American.

I don’t like to follow exceptionalism to these assertions that people make as Jodi Ernst did in her response to Obama [in his State of the Union], that America is the greatest nation in the history of the world. That rubs me the wrong way. But our exceptionalism is an article of faith, that there is something special about America. That goes along with the notion that it is possible to betray the special things about America. If you become a torturer, or a blatant imperialist, denying other people their freedom—these things are anti-American.

Q: How did you arrive at the four values you delineate as central to American civil religion: freedom, democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance?

A: I came up with those four values because I gave a talk on civil religion at a synagogue in 2007. I was in the midst of compiling material for the book, and I had to give my talk some focus. I thought, what does civil religion really affirm? Those four struck me as things that enjoy consensus across the political spectrum. The rabbi’s response to those four was so positive, he immediately bought the idea and it stayed with me. Also, four is a magic number!

Q: How does the coherence of the four values bring credibility to civil religion as a real religion?

A: I am sometimes thrilled thinking of this, honestly I really love it. I’m kind of an evangelist for civil religion. I’ve spent days in Arlington Cemetery—they’ve had their problems recently, but the place has amazing power. And other people have felt that power—it’s more popular to be buried there now than ever. The veterans from these latest wars really want to be buried there.

The monuments we’re adding are really special. I can’t wait to see the Museum of African American History and Culture that’s going up. Everything I’ve read about it has been so positive. It’s extraordinary. Washington is one of the best places to live in the country. But it’s not the only civil religious place. One of the things that didn’t get into the book was Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. That’s developed so extraordinarily from its beginnings with Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but recently ending up with Arthur Ashe. It’s wonderful!

It’s a real religion, there’s no question about it. It has everything a real religion needs. Obviously in terms of ultimate things, I don’t count on civil religion for salvation. The Romans didn’t see their civil religion like that either, they were obviously open to Christianity and Isis and lots of other religions when it came to fulfilling spiritual needs. American civil religion is not a religion of salvation. But it is a real religion and one that is doing real good in the world.

People often want to deny civil religion is a real religion because its track record has not always been positive. To those I say, well, think about Christianity. If you’re going to say American civil religion is a terrible thing, what about the Crusades and the Inquisition? Christianity is not invalidated as a religion just because it has had failings; neither is American civil religion.

Q: Let’s talk about the racial diversity in civil religion. Native American influence figures prominently in civil religious symbols. Could you speak to the significance of this influence?

A: I was raised in a tradition that paid no attention to Native Americans at all. My mentor was Sidney Ahlstrom, a very great writer but that monumental book has nothing to say about Native Americans. I came out of my doctoral program knowing nothing about Native American religious history. But I was lucky enough to have an anthropologist colleague who is a Columbia PhD at Manhattanville, who came to me and said, “Why don’t we teach Native American religions together?” I then gradually came to know some things about Native American religion and history through teaching the course five or six times.

When you go to Washington, and if you look at the capital, there’s Native American influence all over the place. In fact, “Potomac” means “great meeting place.” In some ways we are like the Mexicans, although we are not as conscious of it as they are, we have a capital that is located near where the Powhatan had their capital.

[Carl] Jung had some interesting things to say about this: he said the longer we live on this land, the more possessed we are going to become by the spirit of the Native Americans. The longer Europeans live on this land, the more Native American they are going to become.

Q: Does the influence of Native American religion on American civil religion have any significance to the land itself? If so, what are the ramifications to environmental justice?

A: There is a second volume to be written that integrates the land into this. I had to decide not to do natural features in the book because it was getting too large. So I decided to focus on cultural features.

For many people, the land is the heart of American civil religion. We do have a leadership role to play in environmentalism. We are the ones who are talking to the Chinese now, trying to influence them to stop polluting. President Obama was elected in large respect because of that speech when he pledged that this was the point the earth was going to cool, etc. He called on us to make that true. Maybe it will be.

We invented the United Nations—this year is the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. It’s time for us to own the responsibility of leadership, and environmental problems can only be dealt with globally.

We have an extraordinarily blessed continent in terms of river navigation. We have more miles of navigable rivers—three times as much navigable river mileage in the United States as in the whole rest of the world combined.

This kind of thing really does make you think about providence!

There are a lot of people who throb with religious awe at places like the Grand Canyon, at the Mississippi River, the Chesapeake Bay. New York Harbor: what a setting for what Pope John Paul II called the capital of the world!

Q: You have a chapter on King’s speeches—are there any other African American sources of American civil religion you would want to identify?

A: Well, of course, we have the President. He is such a fascinating leader—you couldn’t make a name like his. His name, as I wrote in the book, can be translated as “the blessed messianic leader who prays,” which is so significant in terms of civil religion.

W. E. B. Du Bois is a monumental figure, an amazing thinker. Frederick Douglass is another towering figure. The new passports, as I pointed out in the book, feature a quote from Anna Julia Cooper, the fourth African American woman to earn a doctorate.

I’m writing about Oprah Winfrey now, writing a 30th anniversary edition of my earlier book, Innocent Ecstasy. She’s a religious leader of sorts, one who has had a tremendous amount of spiritual influence and we likely wouldn’t have had President Obama without her.

Q: Dr. Gardella, thank you so much for your time. What’s your next project?

A: I’m working on a book on birds with my anthropologist colleague. It’s a book on birds and the world’s religions.

We’ll all look forward to seeing it! Thank you again.