American Exceptionalism as Civil Religion

Two Peters are debating the current health of American conservatism. Peter Beinart and Peter Berkowitz are assessing the hold that American exceptionalism has on Americans and who is to blame for this understanding’s decline.

I am less concerned about the merits of American exceptionalism or who is responsible for tarnishing the nation’s image than I am by the handy definition that of exceptionalism that both Peters use. Berkowitz summarizes:

Beinart is largely correct that elements of American exceptionalism that conservatives cherish —”our belief in organized religion, our belief that America has a special mission to spread freedom in the world, and our belief that we are a classless society where, through the free market, anyone can get ahead”— have eroded. But even where he is correct about the data, what he makes of it is fanciful and tendentious. His essay might look like an empirically driven analysis of the political impact of conservative ideas and policies, but it’s actually an ideologically driven interpretation of the facts.

That is an odd assortment of beliefs and one that I could imagine Canadians, Brits, and Europeans find a tad presumptuous. Christians might even take exception since a “belief in organized religion” is not exactly what the Lord would seem to require. It is almost as vague as Dwight Eisenhower’s line, “And this is how they [the Founding Fathers in 1776] explained those: ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator…’ not by the accident of their birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but ‘all men are endowed by their Creator.’ In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.” (Even in its fuller expression, what on earth was Eisenhower thinking when he said “the Judeo-Christian concept”? Of what? Of the concept that includes Jewish and Christian stories where God chooses one set of people for salvation out of the rest of the human race?)

I wonder if one of the reasons for discontent with the 2k outlook is a lingering American exceptionalism among theonomists, transformationalists, and neo-Calvinists. The idea that religion makes for a healthy nation and that a nation that promotes religion or religious freedom around the world — whatever religion it is — runs on the sort of melding of the civil and the spiritual realms that afflicts those Protestants hot in pursuit of Christ’s Lordship over all walks of life. In (all about) my estimate, what makes 2k attractive is that it is suspicious of civil religion; 2kers generally can’t be snookered by presidential god-talk. And one of 2k’s critics’ greatest faults is that they relate the spiritual and the temporal in ways that make the world safe for civil religion.


28 thoughts on “American Exceptionalism as Civil Religion

  1. The nation that prays together stays together?

    I don’t think our founding fathers would relate to the above definition. They had a much more limited and humble view of what they were about and not even convinced they could pull that off. Their expectations, it would seem, were less about exceptionalism and more about the daunting task of how to foster liberty in a new nation made up of a mankind that reflexively drifts toward the opposite: ruling over others.


  2. I wonder to what degree a kind of “American exceptionalism” has infected the church to produce “Christian exceptionalism.” Those Christians who believe they can “live the gospel”… live as Jesus did… overcoming their sin and becoming less and less of a sinner and more and more of a righteous person in their thoughts, words, and deeds, i.e. sanctified through their better and better obedience.


  3. DGH: That is an odd assortment of beliefs and one that I could imagine Canadians, Brits, and Europeans find a tad presumptuous.

    Yeah…. a tad….


  4. Jack, maybe what animates the prosperity gospel is that which also animates American exceptionalism (and theonomy,etc., etc.).


  5. Back in the 90’s, I attended a gigantic Christian conference for students from China. One of the plenary speakers kept saying in his messages, “China needs Christianity. Believe the gospel and share it for the good of our nation.” He then proceeded to discuss how the gospel could change politics, etc. He was well meaning, I am sure. Yet he clearly blended the 2 kingdoms and distorted the gospel message as a result.

    One of the students we took grew up amid the cultural revolution, etc. She was upset by the speaker’s messages and then with tears, she thanked our ministry for NOT mixing the gospel with politics… for not talking about politics at all. She simply wanted the gospel… and to know God. She saw the disastrous effects of mixing the gospel with politics even though she grew up in a very rough time.

    Your post made me think of that conference and my friend’s comments.

    I too long to live in a well behaved society… and would love for everyone to bow to Christ. And I am grieved at the rapid decline of character and restraint even in my own lifetime. Yet, we cannot give into the temptation of trying to bring in the kingdom through politics… or by using the gospel for an end other than the glory of God and the salvation of His people.


  6. If you are not theonomic, if you deny the sanctification of society as a result of common obedience to the law, then you are all gnostic, against creation, against nature, against law, against laws for Christians and nonChristians alike– Amish….

    tonight, during the ice storm

    God’s special covenant for Israel also brought blessing to the pagans when they obeyed that covenant, and that unchanging gospel covenant shows that God now has a special covenant with the American Empire with positive sanctions for others who get in line in the right direction…


  7. Only at Old Life is a post questioning American exceptionalism the safest place to loiter; it’s like going back into the womb, relatively speaking. Anyway, I just got an email:

    Dear Pastor,
    You and your congregation are invited to participate in Washington – A Man of Prayer 2014 via Daystar Television Network and a national webcast on May 7, 2014, celebrating 225 years of the American Experiment and the exceptional man of faith who embodied that dream – President George Washington.
    This historic landmark program – sanctioned by Congress and Speaker of the House John Boehner – will originate in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. It will feature members of Congress, Christian clergy and leaders including:

    Governor Mike Huckabee

    Representative Michele Bachmann

    Senator Ted Cruz

    Dr. Jim Garlow

    Bishop Harry Jackson

    and many other inspiring speakers

    Join with churches across America as we offer prayers on behalf of the nation, our President and his Cabinet, the Supreme Court and its Justices, and members of Congress. Host the event at your church’s midweek service via the national webcast.


  8. That list of speakers makes me wonder if the landlord of this tacky little pub called Old Life ever gets speaking invitations simply on the strength of being a historian and a Hillsdaler. Wouldn’t they be in for a surprise if they invited the “wrong” guy.


  9. Fair question, DGH, LOL, LOL!

    Er, but actually it begins “Dear Pastor.” Well, I’m not a pastor but I was the primary church contact when we were between pastors. So it’s an interesting question as to who gave them my address or how they took it.


  10. I for one have always wondered where it is in Scripture that reveals that ‘America has a special mission to spread freedom in the world’, since who other than God could have sent America on such a mission. Other than themselves, that is…

    We Anglophone foreigners do indeed find the heresy of Americanism more than a tad presumptious.


  11. Will S. I for one have always wondered where it is in Scripture that reveals that ‘America has a special mission to spread freedom in the world’, since who other than God could have sent America on such a mission. Other than themselves, that is…

    It’s the eagle in Revelation.

    You see, you have to read that book LITERALLY, except for the parts where it clearly meant to describe the USA, the Soviet Union, the Beatles, an AH-64 Apache, and Apple computers.


  12. “What does it mean to “believe” in America? Why do we always speak of our country as having a mission or purpose that is higher than other nations?

    “Modern liberals have invested a great deal in the notion that America was founded as a secular state, with religion relegated to the private sphere. David Gelernter argues that America is not secular at all, but a powerful religious idea—indeed, a religion in its own right.

    “Gelernter argues that what we have come to call “Americanism” is in fact a secular version of Zionism. Not the Zionism of the ancient Hebrews, but that of the Puritan founders who saw themselves as the new children of Israel, creating a new Jerusalem in a new world. Their faith-based ideals of liberty, equality, and democratic governance had a greater influence on the nation’s founders than the Enlightenment.

    “Gelernter traces the development of the American religion from its roots in the Puritan Zionism of seventeenth-century New England to the idealistic fighting faith it has become, a militant creed dedicated to spreading freedom around the world. The central figures in this process were Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, who presided over the secularization of the American Zionist idea into the form we now know as Americanism.

    “If America is a religion, it is a religion without a god, and it is a global religion. People who believe in America live all over the world. Its adherents have included oppressed and freedom-loving peoples everywhere—from the patriots of the Greek and Hungarian revolutions to the martyred Chinese dissidents of Tiananmen Square.

    “Gelernter also shows that anti-Americanism, particularly the virulent kind that is found today in Europe, is a reaction against this religious conception of America on the part of those who adhere to a rival religion of pacifism and appeasement.

    “A startlingly original argument about the religious meaning of America and why it is loved—and hated—with so much passion at home and abroad.”


  13. Jingoistic neo-con flag-waving BS.

    The sort of thing that causes its adherents to frequently confuse the two kingdoms, giving rise to the sort of mindset these pictures encapsulate:

    And the ludicrous idea that foreigners around the world who desire freedom are adherents of the same ideology, when nothing could be further from the truth.


  14. “The idea that religion makes for a healthy nation and that a nation that promotes religion or religious freedom around the world…”

    That sounds like every third Gospel Coalition post I’ve ever read.


  15. “The idea that religion makes for a healthy nation…”

    Mississippi, most religious state in America –

    2013 Mississippi data – highest rate of obesity (35.3% of total population), highest rate of child poverty (31.9%), highest rate of infant mortality (1.01%), lowest median household income ($35,078), highest teen birth rate (71.9 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19) and highest overall rate of STDs.



  16. Generic religion is kind of like a multivitamin: You’re not sure if it’s really doing anything for you, but you just feel better about yourself taking the pill.


    Hilarious Revelation comment.


  17. Caleb – That sounds like every third Gospel Coalition post I’ve ever read.

    Erik – I’m liking Caleb more and more. Note to self: Add Caleb to the Old Life inner circle and send him the secret handshake.


  18. Dr. Hart, I take “American Exceptionalism” as an argument for Christian exceptionalism, for if there is any Christian nation left on earth, it’s America.

    Although there is no Christian nation left on earth, which is your “2 kingdoms” theology. Which is OK.

    I have come to agree. It’s Obama’s world now. But we were the only ones who killed each other, brother vs. brother, over the proposition that all men were created equal.

    That was exceptional.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s