Four-hundred years ago, the Mayflower Puritans made landfall near modern-day Plymouth, MA. Fleeing religious persecution from both church and state authorities, this small group wanted to establish their version of a Christian society where the church would be reformed and government would take its cues from Holy Scripture. Their colony would shine as a “city on a hill,” to use terminology from Matthew’s gospel (5:14) and demonstrate to others how such a society should function.
Obviously, reality came nowhere close to that, but the idea of an “exceptional” society was birthed in documents like the Mayflower Compact. Like the Old Testament nation of Israel, the Puritan settlers saw themselves as fulfilling a unique destiny and special purpose that God had given them.
A century later, this idea of a special destiny and purpose became secularized by the revolutionaries who replaced the British monarchy with a republican form of government and emphasis on individual liberty (at least for men of European descent). In other words, the United States was an “exceptional” nation with a unique destiny that set it apart from the monarchies of Europe, and its early history was a rejection of European notions of birthright, social class, and patronage. Integral to American exceptionalism was expansion from east to west, from Atlantic to Pacific, described by the mid-19th century phrase “manifest destiny.” Events like the Louisiana Purchase in 1811, the forced removal of most Cherokees from their homelands in Georgia and North Carolina in the 1830s, and Texas annexation in 1845 were viewed as fulfillment of divine national purpose.
A Two-edged Sword
“American exceptionalism” was born in the 18th century, survived the bloody Civil War of the 19th, and reached full flower at the turn of the 20th. It was embraced by white American Christians of all stripes (with notable exceptions) and reached fruition after the second world war. It had deeply religious overtones, and by mid-20th century most Caucasian American Christians had given the country significant theological meaning that identified national purposes with God’s mission and purpose. Many Americans became advocates of “civil religion,” a linking of God’s purposes with the fate of the United States. Moreover, nobody wanted to be excluded from the party. Despite their divorce from each other in the early 20th century, liberal and fundamentalist Protestants did not want to be seen as opposing American purposes and supported American patriotism. Roman Catholics went to great lengths to portray themselves as loyal Americans especially when John F. Kennedy was elected the 35th president.
American exceptionalism was the air we breathed at mid-20th century. Our nation-state had a divine purpose, and there was nothing we could not accomplish if we put our minds to it. That conservative Christians embraced this exceptionalism is seen in the sermons, speeches, and writings of evangelical stalwarts like Harold Ockenga, J. Howard Pew, Carl F.H. Henry, and Billy Graham. In my own doctoral research I discovered an apt example in a letter to the editor where the writer desired that “Christ and the liberty that made us free would reign supreme” at an upcoming denominational meeting. In other words, for most American Christians at mid-century (with some exceptions), Christianity was a two-edged sword that embraced both faith in God and loyalty to the United States, both of which guaranteed our individual freedom and prosperity.
Still, underneath all of the rhetoric were fundamental questions: Who qualified as an American? To whom did the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights refer? Did they refer in the 1830s to native Americans like the Cherokees who were forcibly displaced from their homeland? Did they apply in 1860 to the four million African Americans whose ancestors were brought to American shores forcibly to work in bondage to their so-called “masters?” Did they include those who resided here when the United States conquered and annexed 40% of Mexico in 1845? Did they mean that 22 million people could be denied education, housing, and economic freedom until 1954 when the Supreme Court decided that “separate but equal” policies actually discriminated against people based on the color of their skin?
These questions, and others like them, lie just below the surface of American political, social, and religious life–and they have been there ever since the American Revolution. They make us uncomfortable, because they challenge the very notion that the United States is different from all other places, even today. Is it possible that we are just like many other places and nation-states? Adolf Hitler once observed that he used how the United States treated African Americans through slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation as a framework for what became the Holocaust, the wanton slaughter of six-million Jewish people. Like so many white Americans who viewed native Americans, African Americans, and other ethnic peoples as “inferior” and undeserving of true American citizenship, Hitler simply argued that Jews were somehow sub-human and needed to be eliminated so that Germans could realize their Aryan destiny.
Good and Bad Exceptionalism
Despite the sordid underbelly of American history, I’m actually hopeful. Why? Because unlike most other nation-states in the world, the United States has a reformist spirit in our DNA. We have been on a 250-year journey to apply the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality to all who live here. We are not there yet, not by a long shot, and as the United States becomes more ethnically diverse over the next 30 years, we will have to face more uncomfortable matters. But confronting and addressing the sins of our past and present is American exceptionalism at its best.
But exceptionalism at its worst is once again on display. And, it is impacting American evangelicalism. Bad exceptionalism is now front-and-center through identification of Christian faith with a nationalistic agenda that views others with fear and suspicion. Bad exceptionalism was on full display two years ago when white nationalists marched through Charlottesville, VA with tiki-torches in a display that brought to mind Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Bad exceptionalism is found at the southern border when children are separated from their parents and people seeking political asylum in fear of their lives are treated as if their claims do not matter. Bad exceptionalism occurs when evangelicals replace the Christian gospel with trying to impose a religious establishment on our fellow citizens.
Of all Americans, evangelicals should be the ones we can look to when we want to see examples of good exceptionalism. After all, the essence of the Christian faith involves bringing the Kingdom of God to bear on our present existence. Men and women, boys and girls need to hear the good news of the Gospel. Christians need to be engaged not so much in the agendas of political parties, but in addressing the needs of our communities, things like poverty, affordable housing, racism, family life, and educating the next generation. We do those things because God’s goal for all humans is that we will flourish in relationship with him. We know that God’s kingdom will be fulfilled at the return of Christ. Yet, we follow Jesus Christ by being what the late George Eldon Ladd once described as “the presence of the future.”
In my view, it is time for American evangelicals to reject bad exceptionalism and recapture the reformist spirit that was part of evangelical DNA especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. How can we do that? Here is what I think. Not an exhaustive list, but some food for thought.
First, American evangelicals of all kinds should withdraw from the two major political parties and become political independents. We have become too closely identified with a particular political party and it is harming our gospel witness. Moreover, our relationship with both American political parties should be to call them to account for the massive corruption that they have fostered in our society during the past half-century.
Then, our focus must become more local. Lots of evangelical energy has been wasted on party politics at the expense of human need in our communities, cities, and states. In my city–Charlotte, North Carolina–we face significant local problems–poverty, upward mobility, affordable housing, transportation and evangelicals in my city are needed to address those matters so that our fellow citizens can flourish.
In addition, let’s turn off most television and cable news. Television is an entertainment medium and your favorite Cable TV news channel has one goal–to get you to watch so they can charge higher advertising rates. And to do that, they will do anything to get you upset. Watch a news summary (I usually watch the NBC Nightly News a couple of nights a week), and then turn the news off. Better yet, get your news by reading.
Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, the great British statesman, William Wilberforce was deeply influenced by the work of John and Charles Wesley. The Wesley’s passionately believed that the Christian faith was meant for the working-class and the poor of Great Britain. Sadly, the Anglican state church had become elitist and aristocratic. Wesley brought the gospel to coal mines and to places where common people could come. Christian faith deeply impacted Wilberforce’s work in Parliament and he advocated two great concerns: the abolition of slavery and the “reformation of manners.” Both were eventually accomplished after decades of work, and their impact on British society was deep.
We need a contemporary reformation of manners especially given the coarseness and vulgarity of contemporary American society. That reformation must start with us, our congregations, and how we interact with others. So how will American evangelicals respond. Will we repent and turn from worldly ways. Or will we degrade American culture even more?