As I teach a course entitled “American Religious History” this semester, I am deeply enjoying the process of engaging once again with my doctoral field of study. Since we are early in the term, we’ve only gotten to colonial America at this time. Requisite, therefore, was a reading from the Puritan John Winthrop, who compared the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as something like a “City on a Hill.”
This image–a reference to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount–reverberates powerfully, and has come to be identified in a very real sense with the idea of “American exceptionalism.” Taken to mean that America is distinct from the rest of the world and–not uncommonly–that it is better in some very real ways, the theory is (as you might imagine) somewhat controversial.
It is a potent idea to analyze historically and dispassionately by asking what this idea meant in the lives of citizens over the course of our nation’s development. It is also, of course, a relevant question to consider in terms of contemporary politics and personal outlook. What we think today about America’s exceptionalism or lack thereof has some definite implications for not only our self-image, but the way(s) we act in the larger world.
A lot of ink has been spilled on this topic. Probably enough to address it from every possible angle. If you are interested, I commend much of this material to you. For my part, I’ll simply say this: historically speaking, it is difficult to deny that parts of America’s history have been the exception to the rule. Unique settlement. The ability for Old Worlders to start over. Diverse religious groups that led to disestablishment and de facto and eventually de jure religious toleration. An early experiment in democracy that continues to have staying power. A multinational and multiethnic composition that defies easy categorization.
If by “exceptional” we mean different, then in all of these things and more, America was certainly the exception to the rule of the Old World. If we take the phrase to mean “better,” then, of course, we get into some sticky territory. The dangers of national chauvinism and being blind to our own faults can ever be wrapped up in this idea. It makes me nervous to say much in this direction but I will offer this: I do think that the United States has been better in certain areas. Think of the persistence of the rule of law. The functioning of our democracy. Our value of the freedoms we often take for granted. Throughout the history of humanity and even today, these things are what sets America apart from so many. Not from everyone and not at all times…but they have nevertheless been there.
As an historian, though, I realize all of these distinctives and positive “exceptions” are borne on the back of a lot of darkness as well. The subjugation of native peoples. Deep-seated racial strife and intolerance of many kinds. A history of slavery. A sometimes national chauvinism with international implications. Economic inequities and the persistence of poverty. The list could go on. It is possible to be exceptional for good and bad, it would seem.
Morever, even many of America’s benefits are more from historical happenstance or the hand of Providence than any effort on our part. What if the continent had been much smaller? Denuded of natural resources? Had been populated by a much more technologically advanced set of natives? What if it was discovered at a different period in human history? If a few developments in our history had simply gone another way? So much contributed to the development of America over time, and not all of that can be assigned to the efforts of America itself. The connotations of “exceptional” changes a bit when one remembers that other lands not so similarly blessed could have tried all of the things we did and ended up with some very different results.
So while I would agree that America is and has been exceptional in a number of ways, I would be very hesitant to say this without deep qualifications or the understanding that it is an unmitigated grace rather than a necessary consequence. Exceptional means primarily difference and only secondarily better. In no case does it mean that it will necessarily continue into the future or that we always deserve this. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t other exceptional nations out there. Good, bad, and ugly, the world is full of them. It also doesn’t mean that others have not prefigured our exceptions and met or surpassed them today.
Further, if we are really to embrace John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” as a model for this outlook, we would be wise to hear all of us his words, reminding us that great power is often met with a call to great responsibility and not unquestioning pride:
Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God’s sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing.
Admittedly, these have been some very quick thoughts as I dash off to class. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this important topic.