Category Archives: Puritans

Obama is Definitely an American Exceptionalist


President Obama’s views on American exceptionalism are famously nuanced. In almost all of his statements on exceptionalism, he stresses America’s need for partnerships with other nations as well as America’s past failures to live up to its stated ideals. Nevertheless, Obama insists that he believes in American exceptionalism.

Since visiting Selma last March, many have commented on Obama’s articulation of exceptionalism. Articles have appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Hill, National Journal—and even one by an obscure writer over at Then and Nowanalyzing Obama’s unique strain of exceptionalism that is inclusive, impatient with hypocrisy, calls America back to its original vision, and animated by an objective articulation of justice.

Many on the right become frustrated with Obama’s views on exceptionalism because he does not leave room for American innocence—which I argue in my forthcoming book is a facet of an exclusionary and imperialistic brand of exceptionalism which hijacks Christian theological affirmations (closed exceptionalism), and has been articulated throughout American history. Perhaps one reason why Obama comes under such criticism from conservatives is because we became accustomed to Ronald Reagan’s version of exceptionalism. Reagan sincerely believed that America was morally regenerate. To point to one example among many, he said in his 1984 presidential nomination speech at the RNC in Dallas, “America is the most peaceful, least warlike nation in modern history. We are not the cause of all the ills in the world. We’re a patient and generous people.”

But Obama’s reflective version of American exceptionalism is not an innovation. The Puritans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries gave us a patriotic tradition of what George McKenna called “anxious introspection.” This anxious introspection appeared in their jeremiads, their particular genre of sermon that called their communities to repent from their sins and return to what they believed was their covenantal relationship to God. In his excellent book, The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism, McKenna argues that the Puritan tradition of anxious introspection has been handed down to every generation of Americans since the colonial period, and has been a distinguishable mark of American patriotism for centuries.

Today, Mr. Obama took to the podium to talk about the progress of the fight against ISIS. He made a salient statement in his remarks—“Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they are defeated by better ideas and more attractive and more compelling vision.” Doubtless, many conservatives are sure to pounce on those words as being weak. But in making that statement, Obama again firmly situated himself in an American exceptionalist tradition. The idea that America’s real strength is moral, spiritual, and philosophical rather than military is one that was articulated by two luminaries of American exceptionalism: John Foster Dulles and Ronald Reagan.

Dulles served as President Eisenhower’s secretary of state from 1953 to his death in 1959. No one has more consistently and strenuously articulated an image of America’s divine commission in the world than Dulles. He cast America’s confrontation with Soviet Communism in the early Cold War in cosmic terms of an eternal battle between good and evil. But he was confident in America’s final victory over Communism, because America was on the side of right. Furthermore, America would finally prevail over the Soviets, not because of superior arms, but by using the weapons of ideas. He said in his 1952 speech titled “A Policy of Instant Retaliation,” “Non-material forces are more powerful than those that are merely material. . . . We should use ideas as weapons; and these ideas should conform us to moral principles.”

Reagan saw the Cold War in similar terms. In his famous speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in March 1983—the same speech in which he said that the Soviet Union was “the focus of evil in the modern world”—he stressed that the way to fight the ideology of Communism was with the ideology of freedom and democracy. He said, “While America’s military strength is important, let me add here that I’ve always maintained that the struggle now going on for the world will never be decided by bombs or rockets, by armies or military might. The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.”

Obama’s insistence that he believes in American exceptionalism is undeniable. His brand of exceptionalism is more nuanced than Giuliani’s, and even Reagan’s, to be sure. But even when Obama is not making any overt references to exceptionalism in his rhetoric, he shows himself to be squarely within the historical tradition of open American exceptionalism. This open exceptionalism is a Lincolnian articulation that appeals to the “better angels of our nature” in order that we may more consistently uphold the vision of the Founders and renew our faith in the justice of that vision as we face any and every trial.


“Fellow Citizens, We Cannot Escape History”


An attack on a Puritan settlement, King Philip’s War (1675-78). Seventeenth century New England Puritans interpreted such events as God’s chastisement for sin.

These were among the closing words of Lincoln’s December 1, 1862 Annual Message to Congress. In that message, Lincoln proposed a thirteenth amendment to the Constitution that would provide for a gradual and compensated abolition of slavery by January 1, 1900. Furthermore, Lincoln proposed that Congress would encourage colonization efforts to locate former slaves in Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

This address was one of many issues we covered and discussed last night at Phil Sinitiere’s religious history course at the College of Biblical Studies (see here). The students were interested, engaged, and curious about the development of American exceptionalism between the 1600s and the 1800s. They were particularly interested in how to apply providence to the interpretation of events–this question came up when I was going over the Puritan use of the jeremiad during the late 1600s, particularly around the time of King Philip’s War (1675-1678).

This question comes up a lot in my own classes at Southwestern Seminary, and it comes up even more when I speak in churches. It is a question having to do more with theology and philosophy of religion than it is a historical question. The very best explanations I have seen on the question of providential interpretation of history are in Mark Noll’s Civil War as a Theological Crisis, John Fea’s Why Study History, and Robert Tracy McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving. The short answer is that, absent special revelation concerning God’s mind on any particular event, any word we could ever give on God’s providence in history is pure speculation. Because speculating on things residing in the mind of the Creator is so intellectually and morally problematic–and dangerous–it’s best not to give in to that temptation. McKenzie gives Christians a good word when he says that trying to find God’s purposes in particular events actually “reflects a low view of Scripture” (McKenzie, 177). When we resort to providentialism, we are neglecting Scripture as divinely inspired and trusting in our own ability to discern with certainty God’s purposes absent His revealed word. No biblical prophet or apostle dared anything approaching presumption of this sort. If they didn’t, we shouldn’t.

Phil started off the class with a fascinating lecture on the history of Islam and Hinduism in the United States–he played a recording of the Islamic call to prayer and included a transliteration so that we could follow along. He also played an 1893 recording of a speech given by Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. You can listen to it here, and find a transcript of the speech here.

After the break, I started my lecture. I began by discussing the English origins of American patriotism, exceptionalism in particular. We began with a recording of the closing of the Proms in London (see here), which set the table for the rest of the evening’s lecture and discussion. We talked about the theological, political, exegetical, and historiographical roots of American exceptionalism before discussing the assigned primary readings from John L. O’Sullivan’s “Great Nation of Futurity” and Lincoln’s Annual Message.

It was a great evening, and a thrilling opportunity for me to get to join in on what Phil is doing at CBS. Thanks again, Phil. I look forward to this fall when you will come and teach on race and religion for my Issues in American Culture course at the Darrington prison!

Bloody Mary, Puritans, and God’s Chosen Nation


Mary Tudor: Meaner than a striped snake

Queen Mary of England (1516–1558; r. 1553–1558), the only surviving child from the union of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, inherited the throne after the death of her half-brother, Edward VI in 1553. From childhood to early adulthood, she suffered the misfortune of being the only daughter of the king’s rejected wife. When Catherine did not provide Henry with a surviving male heir, he sent her away and married Anne Boleyn. Mary was stripped of her princess’s title, declared illegitimate, and separated from her mother whom she dearly loved, at the age of fifteen. When Henry died in 1547, his ten year old son Edward succeeded him as king. Edward reigned only until he was fifteen, when in July 1553, he died after an illness in which he is reported to have “coughed and spat blood, his legs swelled painfully, eruptions broke out over his body, his hair fell out, then his nails.”[i] Edward had tried to keep Mary from succeeding him because she was Roman Catholic. He wanted to ensure that his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, ascended the throne. When Edward died, Jane was acclaimed as queen. But after a mere ten days, Mary raised an army, deposed Jane, and rode into London triumphantly as queen in August, 1553.

Despite her royal lineage, Mary had lived a troubled life. And despite the fact that the throne was finally hers, her troubles had only just begun. In her zeal for the Catholic faith, she married Philip II of Spain (1527–1598)[ii] and incurred the wrath of many of her people, both Catholic and Protestant, who feared that England would become subservient to Spain. She barely survived an attempted coup, but once she did, she became deeply suspicious of plots against her as well as Protestant threats against her beloved Catholic church.

In 1555, Mary initiated a brutal policy of persecution against Protestants. Many Protestants had already fled to the continent, hoping to wait Mary out and try to place Elizabeth, her half-sister, on the throne when the time was right. But between 1555 and 1558, more Protestants fled England to escape the awful torment of being burned at the stake. About 300 persons were burned during the reign of “Bloody Mary.” Victims were bound to the stake surrounded by a great pile of dried brush swathed in pitch and tar. For mercy’s sake, many of the condemned were strangled before they were burned. Others were secured to the stake with bags of gunpowder hung around their necks which were supposed to explode, and thus dispatch them quickly. To others, no mercy was offered and it took some victims up to an hour to die. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer—he who had annulled Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and wrote the Book of Common Prayer to replace the Mass—was among those to perish in flame on the pyre.

Several of those Protestants fleeing England sojourned in German and Swiss cities during the persecution. While in Europe, they grew rooted in Reformed theology and the writings of William Tyndale,[iii] the English reformer who translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into English. Tyndale was deeply impressed with the national covenant theology expressed in the Old Testament, and believed that God continued to work in human history through national covenants. Protestant sojourners adopted Tyndale’s high view of national election during the Marian persecution and believed that England existed in covenant with God as his chosen people. And they believed that it was their duty to restore England to right relationship with God in order to stave off his wrath that was sure to consume the nation because of Catholic Mary’s reign. These Protestant exiles, who returned to England after Mary died in 1558, were the vanguards of the Puritan movement. Richard Hughes wrote that “Tyndale’s vision of covenant . . . was the soil in which the notion of chosenness would slowly germinate until, finally it would spring full-blown in the United States.”[iv] So it was the Puritan tradition, informed by Tyndale, arising from the Marian persecution that advanced the English vision of the chosen nation, first in England and then in the colonies of New England.

[i] Will Durant, The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin: 1300–1564, vol. 6, The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 586. I love Durant’s style as a tremendously descriptive storyteller. His eleven-volume Story of Civilization is a beautifully readable, thorough, and integrative survey for the general reader of western civilization from prehistory to the fall of Napoleon.

[ii] Philip II (r. 1554–1598) was the son of Emperor Charles V. Philip ruled Spain when that kingdom was at the pinnacle of its world power. Spain’s possessions included a vast empire in the Americas, the Philippine Islands (which were named for Philip) as well as numerous territories in Europe. While married to Mary, he claimed the title of King of England. And it was Philip that launched the ill-fated Spanish Armada against Elizabeth I’s English fleet to secure the English Channel for a planned invasion of England in 1588.

[iii] Tyndale was burned at the stake after being strangled in 1536.

[iv] Richard Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 23.

Is American Exceptionalism a Christian Idea?

Battle of Veracruz. Image from Wikipedia

Oliver Thomas has a column in USA Today on the topic. The title of piece is “A Christian View of American Exceptionalism.”

I am working on a paper and a book proposal on the topic of American exceptionalism. My intent is to write a historical and theological analysis of American exceptionalism, and argue that it is not an idea in alignment with Christianity. This column caught my attention.

Thomas begins his piece by saying,

Even before we could get off the ship, Massachusetts’ first governor, John Winthrop, explained it to us. We were to be a city on a hill, a light to the nations, the new Israel. Iconic politicians from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan have invoked this famous biblical imagery to explain America’s role in the world.

Winthrop was the governor of Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630, not the same thing as the state of Massachusetts. He could not have envisioned that what he described as a “city on a hill” would move beyond the shady boundaries of what he could see in 1630. We can also question whether or not his metaphor of “city on a hill” is rightly applied to America’s adventures over the centuries. And while Winthrop intended Massachusetts Bay to be a Puritan commonwealth, and thus a “Christian nation,” that is not what the framers of the Constitution produced, but a nation with full religious freedom. Furthermore, the descriptions of “city on a hill” and “light to the nations” are used in Scripture to apply respectively to the followers of Christ (Matt 5) and to Christ Himself (Isa 49, 60).

America’s self-understanding as a shining “city on a hill” helps explain both our westward expansion and our paternalistic foreign policy. From Cuba and Central America to the Philippines, Vietnam and Iraq, Americans have been willing to impose their will on others. Some will argue it was because we wanted their land or oil. Perhaps. But it was also because we thought we knew what was best.

Thomas is right in his last sentence of this quote. But what nation acts in a particular way thinking they didn’t know what was best? This doesn’t mean they are right all, or even most, of the time. America has been right a great deal in its history as it has acted in its interests. But not all the time.

But probe the biblical metaphor that forms the foundation of the American psyche and you find that exceptionalism is always for service — never for favor. The prophets of Israel emphasized this point. Even the ancient book of Genesis establishes this baseline principle when God speaks to the patriarch Abraham: “By your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”

This first sentence is problematic. One need only to look to the Mexican War of 1846-48, which was primarily a war of conquest. Also, does Thomas truly mean to suggest that Gen 12.3 ought to be applied directly to the United States of America? Certainly if America has replaced Israel as God’s chosen nation, it must. But to reach this conclusion, one must ignore everything the Bible says about God’s plan for Israel and the church.

If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, it is for service, not domination. Parse Winthrop’s words, and you’ll find a similar message. The American experiment was to serve as an example of right living and right governance. “A model of Christian charity,” as he put it. It was never intended as American entitlement.

Again, Winthrop did not envision himself starting “an American experiment.” He saw himself establishing a covenant community in a strange and distant wilderness, an “errand in the wilderness.” He saw himself doing God’s work, but did not see this work in the same nationalistic way that we ascribe to him. This is an anachronistic way of interpreting Winthrop’s sermon.

That’s ironic given the extraordinary generosity of individual Americans. We tend to be good neighbors. When the roof caves in, Americans pile in with blankets, hot coffee and all the rest. From the Salvation Army to Boys and Girls Clubs to Habitat for Humanity to the Gates Foundation, the generosity and creative problem-solving ability of Americans is legendary. But a blessing to the world and a light to other nations? Only on occasion.

No argument here.

I’m thinking of America’s stand against Nazism and Japanese imperialism; her willingness to help rebuild post-World War II Europe; and, more recently, her stunning response to the 2004 tsunami. America also boasts the world’s oldest Constitution, an extraordinary system of governmental checks and balances, almost two-thirds of the world’s top universities and the collective talent to do anything we set our minds to. Ironically, we cannot rely upon our politicians to get us there. They can’t even get to a balanced budget! If America is to live up to the dream of her Founders, it will be because of us. We the people.

No urgent argument here, except to ask what exactly is the dream of America’s “Founders”? The “Founders” were not one thing. They all had dreams for the country, and many of them deviated sharply from one another. Read some of the debates over the proposed Constitution in the states before it was ratified, and you’ll see that the “dream” was not as simple and obvious as it is often sentimentally described.

The path forward is surprisingly simple yet exceedingly hard. We will have to begin acting more like our parents and grandparents. They put duty first, not self-actualization or the titillation of their nerve endings. No wonder they were able to accomplish all they did. And they never whined — not about gas rationing or individual tax rates that soared to as high as 90% in the 1950s. They seemed to live by one simple code: We will leave the world a better place than we found it.
The path to greatness is never well-trod. It is, though, well-marked. Discipline, courage and self-sacrifice are what get you there, not fidelity to narrow partisan agendas. Can America live up to her lofty dream as a shining city on a hill? You decide.
I agree with this also, but we must be careful when we consider the generations that have gone before us. They were just as flawed as we are. Our grandparents’ generation, the same one that won World War II, had the same proclivities to complaining, grandstanding, and power-mongering that we have in our day. They were not demigods. Read some of the political speeches of the candidates during the 1930s-1950s.
Thomas is exactly right, however, to draw a contrast between that generation and this. There was a greater willingness to sacrifice, to accept adversity, to look out for others, to deny selfish desires, to strive for common goals. Americans are special, without a doubt, because of its history, its traditions, its sincere desire to bring individual freedom to every nation, and its willingness to “bear any burden” to relieve the suffering and oppression of others.
Still, we must be careful not to import biblical imagery that was directed in one direction and forcefully point it elsewhere for patriotic self-service. America should certainly be marked by self-sacrifice, duty to others, commitment to justice, and rule of law. These commitments should stem from the fact that they are rooted in the truth, even biblical truth. But to advocate for these things on a shaky theological and historical basis that America is God’s New Israel? That’s bad history, bad interpretation, bad theology, and wishful thinking that can only lead us to impossible “dreams” and disillusionment.


In Prayer

The Valley of Vision, edited by Arthur Bennett, is a collection of Puritan prayers that touch on an enormous variety of seasons and circumstances that everyone faces. Here is a selection from the book, a prayer entitled simply, “In Prayer”–

O Lord, in prayer I launch far out into the eternal world, and on that broad ocean my soul triumphs over all evils on the shores of mortality. Time, with its gay amusements and cruel disappointments never appears so inconsiderate as then. 

In prayer I see myself as nothing; I find my heart going after Thee with intensity, and long with vehement thirst to live to Thee. Blessed be the strong gales of the Spirit that speed me on my way to the New Jerusalem. 

In prayer all things here below vanish, and nothing seems important but holiness of heart and the salvation of others. 

In prayer all my worldly cares, fears, anxieties disappear, and are of as little significance as a puff of wind. 

In prayer my soul inwardly exults with lively thoughts at what Thou art doing for Thy church, and I long that Thou shouldest get Thyself a great name from sinners returning to Zion. 

In prayer I am lifted above the frowns and flatteries of life, and taste heavenly joys; entering into the eternal world I can give myself to Thee with all my heart, to be Thine for ever. 

In prayer I can place all my concerns in Thy hands, to be entirely at Thy disposal, having no will or interest of my own. 

In prayer I can intercede for my friends, ministers, sinners, the church, Thy kingdom to come, with greatest freedom, ardent hopes, as a son to his father, as a lover to the beloved. 

Help me to be all prayer and never to cease praying.