What Is American Exceptionalism?

As I have noted here before, I am looking forward to the release of John Wilsey’s book American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. Wilsey, a professor of history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes from the perspective of his own Christian faith, but I think his arguments will resonate with just about anyone interested in making sense of this topic.

If you want a taste of what you can expect from the book, check out Wilsey’s latest post at his blog, “To Breathe Your Free Air” (a quote from James Madison, I might add).

Wilsey’s post was timely for me.  Tonight I am teaching the Puritans in my Gilder-Lehrman online graduate course and the students are reading Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity.”  I hope to reference the way Winthrop’s phrase “a city on a hill” has been used by Reagan and other politicians over the years.

Here is a taste of Wilsey’s post:

On September 25, columnist David Brooks penned a piece explaining the meaning of American exceptionalism—and how some of the idea’s staunchest defenders are managing to betray it altogether.
First, what is American exceptionalism? James W. Ceaser, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, divides the concept into a distinction between America as “different” and “special.” Ceaser’s distinction can be summarized in a statement George H. W. Bush made in his 1988 GOP nomination acceptance speech. Bush was making a dig at his Democratic opponent, then-Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts when he said, “He sees America as another pleasant country on the UN roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. I see America as the leader—a unique nation with a special role in the world.”
Ronald Reagan, the oft-referenced patron saint of today’s GOP, saw America this way. He was fond of adapting Lincoln’s 1862 description of America, calling it“the last best hope of mankind.” He also used a version of John Winthrop’s descriptor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, saying that America was “a shining city on a hill.” American exceptionalism is a potent patriotic concept and both Republicans and Democrats have been consistently employing it, especially since 9/11.
Which is why Brooks is confounded by the fact that GOP figures like Donald Trump, Ann Coulter, and Ben Carson seem to be betraying exceptionalism with their recent exclusionary statements aimed at immigrants and Muslims.

5 thoughts on “What Is American Exceptionalism?

  1. You state nothing but your opinion. Your opinion does not stand. All you are doing is echoing racist political rhetoric, Tom.

    If you do not like your name being used, change it.

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  2. No, Tom, the right wing attacks all immigrants with their racist rants. Inserting the word illegal in the sentence is just a way to try to acquire support for the racism.

    Please don't address me personally, Jimmy, address the arguments. Thank you. My arguments here are formal. I believe you know what “formal” means here.

    1) Unfair. The problem is illegal immigrants. To elide “illegal” is to begin with a false premise.

    2) American exceptionalism is foremost that it's a country founded not on ethnicity but on shared ideals. When the only “shared ideal” is unshared diversity, then the whole thread on American exceptionalism has been lost.

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/17/angela-merkel-german-multiculturalism-failed

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/why-the-survey-of-british-muslim-attitudes-is-so-profoundly-disconcerting-10070358.html

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  3. The first generation of every immigrant bunch has a hard time assimilating whether they are legal or illegal. This is true of Americans going to other countries as well. The diversity in the US is great. It is shared as well. The problem is that some people seem to think they are not going to change and the reality is they will. They just don't like the fact that the American culture is derived from a shared diversity. Whites may have resisted it for a long time by trying to create a white supremacist society, but that attempt failed.

    Immigration involves cultural diffusion on all levels which means the immigrants change as does the culture they have immigrated into.

    No, Tom, the right wing attacks all immigrants with their racist rants. Inserting the word illegal in the sentence is just a way to try to acquire support for the racism.

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  4. Which is why Brooks is confounded by the fact that GOP figures like Donald Trump, Ann Coulter, and Ben Carson seem to be betraying exceptionalism with their recent exclusionary statements aimed at immigrants and Muslims.

    Unfair. The problem is illegal immigrants. To elide “illegal” is to begin with a false premise.

    As for Muslims, one look at Europe suggests that even Barack Obama's bland “everybody's exceptional” definition

    “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

    comes under question when there is no desire to assimilate.

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/17/angela-merkel-german-multiculturalism-failed

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/why-the-survey-of-british-muslim-attitudes-is-so-profoundly-disconcerting-10070358.html

    American exceptionalism is foremost that it's a country founded not on ethnicity but on shared ideals. When the only “shared ideal” is unshared diversity, then the whole thread on American exceptionalism has been lost.

    Like

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