I sometimes wonder why Facebook has emerged as that place in our culture where people feel the freedom to tell you exactly how they feel about politics. Most of my Facebook friends are professing Christians, primarily of the evangelical variety. Many of them love to talk politics. If I were to summarize the majority of their comments, links, comics, and memes on Facebook, it would go something like this: America is a Christian nation, we have lost our spiritual moorings, and political liberals are mostly to blame—but if we elect the right politically conservative (or perhaps libertarian) candidate, he or she (probably the former) will restore America’s greatness and perhaps usher in another Great Awakening.
John Wilsey is one of my Facebook friends, but he doesn’t sound like this when he talks politics. He knows better. Wilsey, assistant professor of history and Christian apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a scholar whose expertise is the intersection of faith, politics, and Christian interpretations of American history. His latest book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea, is in many ways a tract for the times. It’s historically perceptive, theologically responsible, and hits on a topic that matters to ordinary believers.
In American Exceptionalism, Wilsey examines the history of American exceptionalism and its intersection with the broader category of civil religion. He also offers a theological assessment of these interrelated concepts. His verdict: “a high view of American exceptionalism is, at significant points, at odds with the Christian gospel” (18).
However, Wilsey doesn’t reject all forms of exceptionalism as out of bounds for Christians. He suggests that “American exceptionalism” is a phrase that can be interpreted at least two different ways. A “closed” exceptionalism exalts America at the expense of historic Christianity—even when advocated by believers. An “open” exceptionalism eschews problematic theological baggage while still fostering patriotism. Wilsey commends the latter approach to contemporary Christians.
Wilsey begins his book with an introduction that lays out his thesis and provides background discussions of American exceptionalism and civil religion. Exceptionalism is simply the belief that America is special. It’s an elastic concept that can be understood in both benign and problematic ways. Wilsey defines civil religion as “a set of practices, symbols, and beliefs distinct from traditional religion, yet providing a universal values paradigm around which the citizenry can unite” (20). American exceptionalism is an aspect of civil religion, uniting citizens around a common sense of America’s special place in the world—and perhaps God’s sovereign plan.
Wilsey suggests that civil religion is not inherently bad, but should never be conflated with revealed religion, lest it be used to deify the nation. Closed exceptionalism, which ascribes spiritual purpose to America, is an expression of the wrong sort of civil religion. Open exceptionalism, which is critical yet loyal, coincides with a more generic civil religion that promotes the best of American values while pushing back against problems in our history, culture, and national agenda.
In chapters two and three, Wilsey looks at the origins and early development of both forms of American exceptionalism. The Puritans provided the seed for a closed exceptionalism when they explicitly imported theological categories into their colonization efforts. Puritan concepts then intersected with more secular forms of exceptionalism that arose out of the Enlightenment, resulting in a generically (Protestant) Christian republicanism. The result was a closed exceptionalism that suggested America was a Christian nation specially blessed by God, but also gave rise to problematic concepts such as Manifest Destiny and biblical justifications for chattel slavery. Politicians, preachers, and even historians drank deeply from this well prior to the Civil War, until the latter introduced a more open form of exceptionalism that wasn’t afraid to raise hard questions about American morality and even religiosity. Abraham Lincoln exemplified the emerging open exceptionalism.
In the next five chapters, Wilsey recounts the historical development of five key theological presuppositions associated with closed exceptionalism, offering theological critiques of each. Closed exceptionalism assumes an elect people, commissioned to spread American values to the world, who are innocent of any significant wrongdoing (at least relative to her neighbors), who have been given a land to use however they see fit, and who embody what it means to be a Christian nation. This closed exceptionalism inappropriately ascribes biblical categories to America, which is interpreted as a new Israel. While closed exceptionalism has fostered a generically Christian sense of patriotism, at least until recently, it has also contributed to such national ills as racism, Manifest Destiny, and ecological recklessness. It has also contributed directly to how politicians and diplomats contrasted America with the Soviets during the Cold War and how many political conservatives continue to contrast themselves with liberals in the culture wars.
In his final chapter, Wilsey commends open exceptionalism as an appropriate form of patriotism that rejoices in America’s strengths, recognizes her shortcomings, and does not conflict with Christian orthodoxy by ascribing a salvific role to the nation. He finds roots for an open exceptionalism in Justin Martyr’s posture toward the Roman Empire. In America, W. E. B. Dubois stands out as an exemplar of open exceptionalism.