The idea of American exceptionalism, that God has singled out the country for a special role in human history, goes back to the earliest English settlements on what is now American soil. While still onboard their ship the Arbella in 1630, John Winthrop delivered his well-known sermon to the Massachusetts Bay colonists, describing colonial destiny with biblical metaphor:
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God…. For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.
In his famous Second Inaugural Address following the Civil War in which both sides claimed divine favor, Abraham Lincoln struggled to reconcile American exceptionalism with the legacy of slavery and the bloody facts on the ground. And modern presidents as diverse as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan have hearkened back to Winthrop’s biblical imagery.
But the idea of a special, even divine, role for America can be fairly slippery. At its best, it has inspired Americans to hold themselves to a high moral standard, serving as exemplar to other nations. At its worst, it becomes a license for rationalizing away morality itself. The former demands humility and responsibility and ties us to the moral human community, making our exceptionalism dependent upon how we treat not only our fellow citizens but our enemies. The latter breaks the bonds of moral solidarity, and turns exceptionalism into a political tool–a kind of divine hall pass that can be conveniently wielded for strategic advantage.
So how do Americans currently think about American exceptionalism? The general idea is alive and well in the American public. In our recent American Values Survey, Public Religion Research Institute found that nearly 6-in-10 (58%) Americans agree “God has granted America a special role in human history.” Less than 4-in-10 (38%) disagree with this statement.
But there is evidence that the latter, divine-hall-pass version of American exceptionalism is holding sway in post-9/11 America, especially among white Americans. Among white Americans who say God has granted the U.S. a special role in history, a majority (52%) say the best way to ensure peace is through military strength rather than through diplomacy, a rate twice as high as among white Americans who do not affirm American exceptionalism. Similarly, a majority (55%) of white Americans who affirm American exceptionalism say torture can be justified in at least some cases, compared to 42% of white Americans who disagree that God has granted the U.S. a special role in human history.
The fact that the idea of American exceptionalism is alive and well among the general public is not so surprising given its longstanding presence in American cultural DNA. But the current dominance of the exceptionalism-as-divine-hall-pass should concern those who hold in high esteem Winthrop’s conception, which made divine exceptionalism dependent upon the moral behavior of the nation rather than the other way around.