“This is a Christian nation!” is the familiar cry of many evangelicals today as they seek to enshrine a form of Christian supremacy into the laws of the United States. Early Baptist leaders in America like Roger Williams and John Leland, not to mention the framers of the Constitution, must be turning in their graves. A hyper-nationalism has infected large swaths of American Christianity, effectively elevating the flag above the cross. The sociologist Robert Bellah coined the phrase “civil religion” to describe the nation itself as a religion, with its scriptures, hymns, liturgies and festivals.
“Is there a way to retain the moral idealism of American exceptionalism without succumbing to its shadow side?”
One of civil religion’s popular articles of faith is “American exceptionalism.” The concept is being hotly discussed in these days of global pandemic as some cling to American superiority, others see unveiled the terrible injustice in our land, and much of the rest of the world wonders about the ways America’s leaders have handled, or mishandled, the COVID-19 crisis. For the past 40 years I have seen the term used as a game of political one-upmanship , with some accusing others of not believing in American exceptionalism , or not believing in it enough.
At its best, American exceptionalism encourages the moral idealism of the nation, whether referring to the light of democracy we shine on the world or to our willingness to come to the aid of other nations in peril.
At its worst, it believes that our nation is morally superior to other nations, that this country is made from a different cut of cloth. It maintains that America has an almost divine right to shape other peoples in our image. It says that we are smarter and better than other nations and so are largely immune to the dangers that other nations face.
Thus, the doctrine of American exceptionalism is fraught with peril.
The debate has been going on since this country’s beginnings. In the heady language of its early years, the United States was called “The New Adam,” “The New Israel” and “God’s Chosen Nation.”
“We have it in our power to begin the world all over again,” wrote Thomas Paine, the famous Enlightenment deist.
But John Adams, who would become our second president, warned against American exceptionalism, writing that there was “no providence for Americans, and their nature is the same with that of others.” The Constitution was written with the sober awareness in mind of both human strength and human weakness. One result of this awareness was an extensive system of checks and balances built into the government.
Abraham Lincoln, aware of both the promise and peril of American exceptionalism, called America, in his beautifully nuanced phrase, God’s “almost chosen people.”
We have observed the shadow side of American exceptionalism in many forms through the years, including “Manifest Destiny” in the 19th century and the centuries of political policies of racial inequity that have harmed and continue to harm people of color. A white supremacy has been woven deeply into our nation’s laws and into our religious practices.
“May the crisis of this devastating pandemic help us see with clearer eyes and cleaner hearts the difference between American civil religion and the religion of Jesus.”
Is there a way to retain the moral idealism of American exceptionalism without succumbing to its shadow side? I believe this is an important task for people of faith today.
America has been a shining light to the nations in its grand experiment in democracy and in its willingness to come to the aid of other nations. But the pandemic is revealing cracks in the foundation of what John Winthrop, newly elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called “The City on a Hill.” Winthrop’s image has been cited numerous times by presidents and politicians. President Ronald Reagan loved to use the phrase to summon pride in our nation.
Winthrop wrote, “For we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” The Puritan leader was using the words of Isaiah, “I shall give you as a light to the nations” (49:6), combined with Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14).
But few people who quote Winthrop call attention to what he wrote just before that famous sentence: “Now the only way to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of the prophet Micah: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).
Nor do many of today’s political and religious leaders who describe the United States, at least in its origins, as a “Christian nation” note what Winthrop wrote just after the “city upon a hill” sentence – words of warning to the new nation if it fell away from the ways of God:
“So if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken … we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world: we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God’s sake: we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants.”
Has an overweening pride in American exceptionalism led to the shaking of the foundations of our “City on a Hill?” If we are to rebuild the foundations, we must work with all people of good will, those of all religions, races and economic class, to follow the counsel of Micah to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. And, perhaps it would be good to start with the last phrase in the prophet’s admonition: to walk humbly with God, acknowledging anew the limitations of human power, wisdom and goodness, recognizing our need of one another, and calling upon a power greater than ourselves.
As for the church in America, may the crisis of this devastating pandemic help us see with clearer eyes and cleaner hearts the difference between American civil religion and the religion of Jesus.