American Exceptionalism, Civil Religion, and South Carolina

This weekend I read John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. Within the broad context of Civil Religion, John examines the various components that contribute to a belief that America is a unique expression within world history. This gets tied up in notions of exodus stories, of moral founders, and of freedom and democracy as high ideals.

American ExceptionalismHowever, the roots of exceptionalism (which he traces as political, theological, exegetical, and historiographical) wind up in two very different expressions. On one hand, we get the Manifest Destiny that Wilsey characterizes as Closed Exceptionalism. On the other, we get the Open Exceptionalism of Abraham Lincoln.

The former holds a near-literal view of Promised Land, City on a Hill, Dominion over Land scriptural references. It not only allows certain historical injustices but almost insists on them as signs of progress in America’s quest for its divine calling. Open Exceptionalism holds a high view of Providence but is more aware and conversant in the ways in which we as a nation have fallen short of our stated ideals.

From a theological standpoint, he argues, there is great value in Open Exceptionalism. It can create space for thankfulness for one’s county and blessings without adopting jingoistic or ethnocentric positions and policies.

By linking the American nation with God in the ways we have seen in this book, closed American exceptionalism produces harmful assumptions leading to a form of civic engagement that divides people into groups, namely the Chosen and the Inferior Other….Closed exceptionalism breeds injustice.

Open exceptionalism is an intellectual framework that situates American ideals in history and experience. It accounts for flaws and imperfections in the American nation. Open exceptionalism does not envision a nation divided into groups, but one united around commonly held ideals applied to all and places enjoyed by all (220).

The current presidential campaign illustrates John’s thesis extremely well. Consider the three front-runners on the Republican side. When Marco Rubio repeats and repeats that “Barack Obama is trying to fundamentally change this country“, that’s Closed Exceptionalism. There is an America “We” believe in and Obama and his supporters don’t. (By the way, for the life of me I can’t figure out the strategy of using that line in 2016. In 2012 you could argue that he must be stopped but I don’t understand it now unless Marco is one of those conspiracy theorists who thinks that Obama will call off the election to make himself dictator.)

When Ted Cruz says that he wants to mobilize 50 million evangelicals who will vote in a block come election day, he’s working from a form of Closed Exceptionalism that characterized some of the extreme elements of Plymouth colony. Never mind that mobilizing evangelicals requires them to agree on a direction and to collaborate across theological lines, something they aren’t particularly good at. Even at that, the rhetorical claim is that America is for those of us who think the right way and the rest of you just have to adjust.

Trump knows how to talk the talk of American Exceptionalism although it’s hard to know what he means. His slogan “Make America Great Again” says we aren’t currently great. In fact, we’re losers. But if we elect Trump, we’ll all be winners (as America is supposed to be). Those other stupid countries will fear us and give us things because of our winning. (Seriously, I think Trump primarily believes in Trumpian Exceptionalism.)

This isn’t just about the Republicans. Bernie Sanders’ call for economic fairness seems to be a reflection of Open Exceptionalism. His view of an America where hard work and opportunity are shared values is certainly consistent with this. But his focus on finding villains on Wall Street runs counter to a shared narrative.

Hillary Clinton and John Kasich appeal far less to images of Exceptionalism. The centerpiece of their respective campaigns in common-sense pragmatism. That’s why they have a harder time building a highly emotional following. They aren’t tapping into deeper national sentiments but simply arguing that they “can get stuff done“.

John’s book was of particular interest to me because it’s the Durkheim section in my sociological theory class. Friday we dealt with Durkheim’s thesis on the Division of Labor which argues that in modern society we depend upon the interdependence of groups to hold society together. This is in contrast to earlier societies based on sameness. Tomorrow we deal with the implications for religion. In the earlier form, based in mechanical solidarity, religious expression is about the celebration of core social values. In later forms, based in organic solidarity, there is a more general approach to religion . Robert Bellah talked of this as Civil Religion.

It dawned on me that as societies based on organic solidarity advance in their embrace of diversity, they will reach a point where Civil Religion goes through the same kinds of privatization and balkanization that has characterized traditional religion.

John’s book helped me think more about that prospect. If all we have available to us is Closed Exceptionalism, then people will be tempted to reject that without replacing it with a more robust form of national identity. Think of this as equivalent to millennial separation from politicized evangelicalism. If that’s the game we’re expected to play, we’ll pass.

Somehow, we need to discover the shared narratives that allow us to transcend group boundaries. Solutions to issues of free discourse on college campuses, academic freedom in Christian universities, and managing religious freedoms without legitimizing discrimination will only be found through a more robust understanding of our shared perspective as members of American society.


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