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April 13, 2012 - 

Some time ago President Obama was accused of not believing in “American exceptionalism.” No matter what a president says or does, someone, somewhere, is bound to criticize; most of us learn to take the endless sniping with a grain of salt.

But this time my ears perked up. Exceptionalism. I had never heard that term before. What did it mean? Where did it come from?

A little research revealed various definitions, all of which amounted to something like this: American exceptionalism is the belief that our nation is extraordinary and has a special role in history.

Where did this belief come from?

As I read about the origins of exceptionalism, I found three main strands: religious, political and cultural, and geographical.


From America’s earliest times there was a sense of a special mission as a pure people of God.

From America’s earliest times there was a sense of a special mission as a pure people of God.

The religious strand stems from the formative influence of the Pilgrims, who took the risk of sailing to America because they wanted greater freedom to worship and serve God according to their conscience. Here in the New World they would be free from the regulations of the Church of England, free to let the gospel shape a flourishing Christian community. Here they could be a glowing example for the whole world. Early Pilgrim leaders used Jesus’ image of “a city set on a hill” giving light to the world to foster a sense of a special mission as people of God.

A second strand in the development of American exceptionalism is political and cultural. When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, they left behind the rigid class distinctions of Europe. That spirit of equality is captured in the Declaration of Independence’s phrase all men are created equal.

In 1831 an observant Frenchman wrote about his visit to the United States. Alexis deToqueville was especially impressed with the absence of class distinctions, the respect for all citizens, and the democratic impulse of the American people. Contrasting America with Europe, he wrote, “The position of the Americans is quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”

A third strand that fueled the notion of American exceptionalism is geographical. Europe had long ago staked out and used up every corner of their land. But the vast continent of North America was brimming with virgin land and possibilities.

Throw in good old Yankee ingenuity and inventiveness, and by the 1800s a potent religious-patriotic mix, which came to be called manifest destiny—the belief that it was America’s destiny to expand American territory and American freedoms across the continent—characterized American exceptionalism.

The idea has been around in some form for a long time. But I wondered what it might look like from God’s point of view. What might be a biblical perspective on American exceptionalism? Is America really extraordinary? I wondered. Does it stand out from others?

Well, sort of.

  • America certainly is extraordinary when it comes to military power. Right now the U.S. is a Goliath—the undisputed superpower of the world. You may blush at this, but it’s true that we spend more on our military than the next six nations spend.
  • America is a leader in technology and has the largest economy in the world.
  • America is notable for its population. China has about 1.3 billion people; India, 1.2 billion; the U.S., 311 million people.

Considering all of these things together, the U.S. is extraordinary. But we aren’t the only nation to stand out. Others stand out in different ways: China for its population—more than triple ours; Japan for its cohesive society and microscopic crime rate; Italy in being home to the Vatican. You could go on and on.

Further, from a birds-eye view of history, there have been many extraordinary nations: the golden culture of Greece, which resulted in the New Testament being written in Greek. The power and peace of Rome, under whose empire Jesus was born. The breakthrough for democracy in Great Britain and the Magna Carta. Switzerland’s long-standing posture of peace and neutrality.

Clearly America isn’t the only country to be exceptional in one way or another. President Obama seemed to recognize this when asked about the criticism. He said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

So here’s a second question: Do extraordinary resources and influence give America exceptional responsibility?

Absolutely yes.

In Jesus’ own words, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).

Should America take a leading role in the United Nations to help nations work together and pursue diplomacy rather than war? Yes.

Should we take a role promoting the dignity of human life and individual rights? Yes. Should we take a leading role in providing food to starving people? Yes. Should we take a leading role in battling diseases around the globe? Yes. Given our exceptional resources we should take exceptional responsibility.

Here’s a final question we need to ask in trying to come up with a biblical perspective on American exceptionalism. Do extraordinary American resources and responsibility make America morally superior? Are Americans less prone to sin and its corruption? No. Absolutely not.

Here’s the great danger: Americans who talk about exceptionalism sometimes imply that America and Americans are better than other people, are somehow morally superior to other nations.

Presidents routinely refer to the American people as being great and good and generous, as if sin hasn’t tainted our nature like the rest of the world. We know that is false—the notion of American moral superiority is just another case of being puffed up.

Jesus makes that clear in his encounter with a rich young man. If anyone was cut out of superior cloth, it was this man. He had led a moral lifestyle. He was concerned with keeping God’s law, and his question about eternal life indicated that he was spiritually minded. Respectfully he asked Jesus for guidance.

But right out of the gate Jesus punctures any inflated self-image: “no one is good—except God alone.” No one is 100 percent good—not even this man who claimed he had kept God’s law since he was a boy. The apostle Paul echoed this truth in Romans 3: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That includes Americans.

The doctrine of total depravity knows no boundaries.

Some people talk as if American exceptionalism means we shouldn’t admit wrongs. As if we shouldn’t apologize; we shouldn’t be humble.

That’s worldly baloney. It’s just another form of false pride.

God stands against the proud. As the Song of Mary affirms, God will scatter those who are proud in their innermost thoughts, but God will lift up the humble.

So should God’s people believe in American exceptionalism?

If you mean extraordinary resources and blessings—in many ways, yes.

If you mean extraordinary responsibility—absolutely, yes.

If you mean morally superior—God forbid.

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