American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea
By John D. Wilsey
Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015
263 pp. | $22.00.
John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion explores a very important set of questions for Christians living in America, including, “Does America occupy a special place in human history?,” and “To what extent has God chosen America to play a special role in the world?,” and “How should Christians balance patriotism to our country and loyalty to God alone?” Wilsey explores these issues with the eye of a historian, the heart of a pastor, and the hand of a writer who can deftly weave together story and substance.
American exceptionalism is the notion that America is special among the nations. This notion has deep theological roots, tracing at least as a far back as John Withrop’s famous “A Model of Christian Charity” sermon in 1630 during which he cast a vision for his fellow Massachusetts Bay colonists to embrace their role in establishing a “city upon a hill” – an image taken directly from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14).
As a patriotic device, exceptionalism can be inspire citizens to strive to create a nation that others would want to imitate and that we would want them to imitate. But it can also serve much less noble intents, such as stoking a sense of superiority, justifying our national interests to the detriment of others, or shielding us of blame in regards to societal ills such as racism, slavery and greed. At its worst, exceptionalism becomes a kind of civil religion that crosses the border to idolatry.
Wilsey examines the thick thread of exceptionalism running through some of America’s best and most tragic chapters by exploring key persons, some of whom we know and others who are less familiar. These include figures such as Frederick Douglas, Ronald Reagan, John Foster Dulles, and John L. O’Sullivan. While some of his forays into forgotten or faded moments in American history can be taxing for the non-historian, for the most part he knows how to tell a good story and (eventually) connects it to the larger issue in a meaningful way.
In more everyday expressions, closed exceptionalism leads many Christians to assume that God chose America to be His special people to do His work in the world, therefore any work (including war) is cast in biblical terms as godly and just.
So what is the larger issue? Wilsey’s historian’s eye distinguishes two types of exceptionalism that have shown up throughout American history. The first is what he terms “closed exceptionalism,” which is imperialistic, exclusivist and justified in theological terms. Closed exceptionalism takes secular ideals like federal democracy, individual freedom, equality, natural rights and government by consent and spiritualizes them, so they become normative and binding for all people at all times regardless of contingent factors. Closed exceptionalism “breeds injustice.” (220)
In more everyday expressions, closed exceptionalism leads many Christians to assume that God chose America to be His special people to do His work in the world, therefore any work (including war) is cast in biblical terms as godly and just. This leads many to uncritically accept patriotic expressions as part of church worship services and to assign Christian spirituality to American patriotism:
“For many Christian people, patriotism equals spirituality because their assumption is that America is God’s country. Anyone who stands with America is, therefore, holy, good, and just. Anyone who stands against America is scandalous, immoral – perhaps even demonic.” (220)
The second expression of American exceptionalism is an open exceptionalism, which is informed by the liberal ideas of natural rights, individual freedom, and human dignity and equality. Open exceptionalism does not spiritualize love of country and can cast both a loving and a critical eye toward America. Wilsey contends that only open exceptionalism can form the basis for faithful and biblical citizenship.
Open exceptionalism accounts for flaws and imperfections in America, both historically and in our current experience. And it bears no conflict with Christianity because it does not confuse devotion with spirituality. In open exceptionalism, love and respect for country are not based on God’s favoritism or a misreading of the Bible that places America as the new Israel or on the moral high ground. Values such as personal freedom, political democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance are part of the fabric of the American nation, and holding them together with a sense of exceptionalism is a good thing; it becomes a bad thing when we mistake national values for religious or theological doctrine.
Open exceptionalism does not spiritualize love of country and can cast both a loving and a critical eye toward America. Wilsey contends that only open exceptionalism can form the basis for faithful and biblical citizenship.
Wilsey goes beyond simply noticing exceptionalism and labeling its two expressions; he also provides a theological assessment of the concept. This evaluation of America’s role in the world, of what it means to be a faithful and patriotic citizen of any nation, and of the civil religion that is so popular among American Christians is greatly needed.
Right now the upcoming presidential election has us re-considering what are America’s values, how should America stand alongside and as an example to other nations, and what are legitimate loyalties to both nation and God. These kinds of issues lead to questions we should consistently be asking and addressing as Christian Americans, and we are best served when we do so first and foremost theologically. Otherwise, we can slip into the quasi-historian and quack theology of people like David Barton and Glenn Beck who unquestioningly assume that America can choose to be God’s chosen nation.
While Wilsey rejects spiritualized patriotism, his open exceptionalism leaves plenty of room for patriotism; he calls himself a patriot who loves America and is thankful for the sacrifice of those who fought and died so that he can enjoy the blessings of America. Some readers, especially those of a strong Anabaptist persuasion, might contend that Wilsey’s love for country taints his project, preventing him from going far enough in providing a theological criticism of American civil religion. Perhaps he could have gone even further or been clearer in undercutting notions that America brings sanity, safety, and salvation to the world – conditions that only the gospel of Jesus can legitimately promise or provide. And perhaps he has too much confidence in our collective ability to draw the line between legitimate love of country and idolatry.
Wilsey may be criticized for missing the mark by two opposing camps: those whose theological convictions make no room for patriotism and those whose zealous love of country leads them to wrap the cross in red, white and blue. I’d contend that the zealous patriots are the more dangerous and heretical of the two camps, but both camps need the sober and sensible voice of Wilsey on this exceptionally important topic.
American Exceptionalism (as a book and a topic) is not just for the historian or Christian ethics professor, it’s a topic for every pastor and every Christian who calls America home. Readers will find ample examples of sound Christian citizenship – examples that can and should be shared among church members. Readers will also find examples that should make them cringe and will challenge any conflation of God and country they may have. And, most importantly, readers will find themselves reexamining their loyalties to Christ and his kingdom in light of other loyalties.