American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, John D. Wilsey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.
Summary: Explores the history of American exceptionalism, distinguishing two kinds of exceptionalism and considers them under five theological themes.
Most discussions of American exceptionalism that I’ve seen either embrace this idea more or less uncritically, arguing that America is God’s “city on a hill,” or they utterly reject the idea as a form of egregious cultural imperialism and a Christian heresy. John D. Wilsey offers us a history of this idea, and suggests a more nuanced view that allows a place for a certain kind of American exceptionalism while rejecting other forms of it.
Specifically, Wilsey proposes that there are two kinds of American exceptionalism. In an interview with the publisher, he differentiated these as follows:
“As a civil religious concept, exceptionalism has historically been articulated in one of two ways: One form of exceptionalism is imperialistic, exclusivist and justified in theological terms. Another is informed by the liberal ideals of natural rights, individual freedom, and human dignity and equality. I call the former closed exceptionalism and the latter open exceptionalism. Open exceptionalism forms the basis for faithful and biblical citizenship.” (IVP Academic Press Kit)
In the first two chapters, Wilsey traces the history of American exceptionalism, beginning in the first chapter with our national origins and then in the second with our national expansion, including the challenge of slavery. We learn that the ideas came from our English antecedents and that the term was probably coined first by de Tocqueville. He considers what would be closed expressions of exceptionalism in the expansion of slavery and the idea of “manifest destiny” in contrasts with Lincoln’s emancipating vision of extending American ideals of equality and justice under the providence of God to all peoples, black and white.
The next five chapters consider five theological themes of “closed” exceptionalism:
- Chosen nation: That America has been divinely chosen or elected by God in a special way as a kind of new Israel (excluding Native peoples and Blacks) even though the scriptures speak of the kingdom of God as comprised of the inclusion of peoples of many nations with none preferred.
- Divine Commission: That America has been uniquely commissioned to “save the world.” Wilsey looks in detail at the tenure of John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and America’s role in saving the world from communism.
- Innocence: The articulation of America as a pure and upright nation. The chapter focuses on the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. This innocence ignores past and present injustices or takes an “America right or wrong approach.”
- Sacred Land: A Chosen Nation occupies a Promised Land. Wilsey surveys the history of this idea from the Puritans through America’s landscape artists, and the struggle between those who would conserve the nation’s resources and beauty and those believing it was given for dominion.
- Glory: The author examines this idea through the lens of the three most popular homeschooling history texts used over the last twenty years. All three emphasize Christian origins, downplay slavery, and portray America as divinely privileged vis à vis other nations. They argue contemporary America is in serious decline from these origins.
Wilsey would see these ideas as an appropriation of theological ideas into an idolatrous civil religion, often endorsed by wide segments of the American church.
Unlike some, he makes the case for an alternative, open form of exceptionalism that may serve as the basis of Christian civic engagement and he addresses this in his final chapter. He argues that America’s liberal ideals at their best are indeed worth cultivating, preserving, and commending: liberty, democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance. Open exceptionalism seeks these for all of our own people and believes they are worthy ideals for the world, cultural riches to be added to the riches of other nations. He commends two unusual models of engagement: Justin Martyr and W.E.B. DuBois.
What I appreciate in this treatment is the articulation of a form of patriotism that is appropriate to a person whose first loyalties are to the kingdom of God, as well as a clear repudiation as idolatry of closed forms of exceptionalism. It is not a claim to chosenness as a nation or hypocritical innocence that ignores the times we have failed to live up to our own ideals.Rather, open exceptionalism is a love of country that that faces and addresses injustices and seeks to preserve and freely include others in the cultural goods of liberty, justice, and democracy we have enjoyed. It lovingly cares for and carefully stewards our land, not as some special sacred ground, but as part of God’s global creation for us and our children’s children.
I do wrestle however with the embrace in any form of the term “exceptionalism,” other than to acknowledge the history of this idea in our national history. It is one thing to recognize some of the particular gifts that have been part of the American experience, and to want to include others in the goods we have enjoyed. But the very term “exceptional” may quickly morph into forms of national superiority that smack of arrogance and hubris, or may still be culturally imperialistic, even if not idolatrous or ill-intentioned. I’m not certain what to replace the term with except for some form of “generous care” for the institutions, the values, and even the place, that have defined us at our best. I think of the generous care that rebuilt much of Europe and Japan after World War II under the Marshall Plan that allowed for the establishing or re-establishing of democratic institutions. Rather than “exceptional” or “great,” I long for an America that is just and generous, both at home and abroad. That would be good enough.