Heading into the thick of the 2016 presidential campaign season, we’ve heard plenty from the candidates about the meaning and purpose of America. Donald Trump, to take an especially colorful example, is fond of issuing forceful, if somewhat vague, promises to “make America great again.”
Which implies, of course, that America has been great in the past—and that, by one reckoning or another, it ought to be great once more. But even that leaves many questions unanswered. What does it mean for a nation to be great? And is national greatness—even if we could agree on a consensus definition—really something to be prized?
It won’t surprise anyone familiar with our campaign-season squabbles—much less our fractious, rambunctious national history—that the answers to these questions are anything but settled and uncontroversial. As a guide through this tangle of issues, we’re fortunate to have John D. Wilsey, author of an excellent new study called American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. Wilsey, who teaches history and apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, asks how faithful Christians can think through the claims—popular throughout our history—that America is an “exceptional” nation, blessed by God and given a unique role in to play in world affairs.
God and America
At least one conclusion is clear: most citizens affirm some kind of relationship between God and America. Polling numbers show that even today, in a nation wracked by the forces of globalism, big banks, terror plots, gun violence, and racial tensions—not to mention the effects of seemingly irreversible climate change—roughly 80 percent of Americans agree that our nation possesses a “unique character” that makes it “the greatest country in the world.”
Meanwhile, academic historians have fulminated for decades over what appears to them as grossly simplistic and largely unwarranted praise. What about slavery, racial injustice, genocide against Native Americans, imperial adventuring, and other atrocities? Consider how antebellum American Christians could so easily endorse not only the “manifest destiny” of national expansion, but also the rapid spread of slavery, all while they memorized the Sermon on the Mount.
Even in a nation renowned for its patriotism, stinging critiques can pay dividends on the campaign trail. Democrat Bernie Sanders memorably calls for breaking up Wall Street’s “casino culture.” Even Trump, presumably on the right, is deeply critical of America’s standing in the world. (Recall that in a recent Republican debate, he blasted the architects of the Iraq War for leaving the Middle East a “total and complete mess.”) Whatever their differing styles and emphases, Sanders and Trump pose roughly the same questions: How can any sane citizen consider this the greatest nation when a significant minority of our citizens is mired in economic uncertainty? When the middle class is continually slammed by the fraudulent practices of bankers, pharmaceutical companies, and Pentagon powerbrokers?
Open and Closed
Debates about the moral and spiritual meaning of America go back to the founding period, of course. They also permeated 19th-century American culture, during which expansion, conquest, and human enslavement could all be framed and undertaken as a “Christian” enterprise, with a straight face. And they eventually spilled over into the killing fields of the Civil War. Some observers, before and since, have believed these debates would eventually dissipate, as our nation got older and wiser. But if anything, they have intensified since at least the 1960s, when thinkers like the late Robert Bellah began wondering what beliefs, symbols, and rituals could bind a fracturing society together.
As a professor of American literature and culture who often writes about history, I find myself pulled in different directions. On the one hand, I dislike any arrogant insistence on America’s “special” role, and I am deeply familiar with how such ideas have been abused—too often, with the church’s blessing, if not its active involvement. On the other hand, I’m proud of many of America’s great accomplishments and of our good standing in parts of the world. In particular, as an English teacher, I love some of the central documents of our nation and what they have meant in world history: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the so-called “American creed” that consists of such works as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Often, it seems my conservative church friends need to take a closer look at the historic realities of American greed and empire. But my liberal friends on campus could stand to better appreciate the singular accomplishments of the American experiment, especially its founding creed.
For Christian readers wishing to engage these issues, among the most helpful recent resources are Richard Hughes’s Christian America and the Kingdom of God (2009) and John Fea’s outstanding Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (2011). Hughes gives voice to some of the fear and trembling about America’s legacy that inspires leftist critique, within and beyond the church. In some respects, Fea strikes an important balance to this more critical and disapproving account. His study is well-balanced, well-documented, and impressive in its willingness to give both sides a hearing.
American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion builds effectively on these previous works. Wilsey admits up front that he is a “patriotic American,” declaring that “I love my country and am thankful to God that America is my home.” One of the book’s strengths is the way it steers delicately between unrestrained praise and patriotism on one side, and deep loathing and embarrassment on the other. As his book title suggests, Wilsey makes a lengthy foray into the historical meanings and roots of “American exceptionalism” (another term bandied about, with varying degrees of thoughtfulness, in recent political discourse). The core of this concept, he argues, is woven together from five “theological themes imported from Protestant Christian theology and applied to America”: the belief that our nation is chosen by God, that it has a divine mission, that its actions are morally pure, that its land is sacred, and that its destiny is glorious. Most interestingly, Wilsey also helpfully distinguishes between what he calls “open American exceptionalism” and the “closed” version. Closed accounts of America have called for a God-ordained empire, which has often led to idolatry and injustice. Meanwhile, the “open” form treats America as a sort of moral and civic example to which we can aspire. By associating this form with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Wilsey presents it as a model for admitting past errors while still invoking American promise and hope.
Wilsey is fluent in the key historical sources and shows a wonderful grasp of pivotal figures and events. He has a flair for compelling illustrations and biographical sketches: for instance, of John Foster Dulles, the former secretary of state and committed Cold Warrior; or of mid-19th-century landscape painters like Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt, who saw God in the natural beauties of the American landscape. Sometimes, though, the portraits seem a bit thin, as in his clearly adulatory account of Ronald Reagan, or in his glancing look at Theodore Roosevelt, who did much to advance a “closed” exceptionalism marked by damaging abuses and arrogance.
MLK and Malcolm X
Personally, I come away from American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion emboldened, yet also humbled. I can embrace aspects of the “open exceptionalism” that are deeply rooted in our national history—especially our dedication to the civil rights spelled out in our founding documents, however inconsistent that dedication has been over the years. But Americans, including too many Christians, still fail to wrestle with the dark aftereffects of having pursued, much too often, a “closed” vision of exceptionalism. Wilsey’s book is a helpful reminder of America’s complicated historical legacy, of how we inherit a past at once brilliant, boisterous, inspiring, and highly destructive.
Perhaps, as Wilsey argues, Americans today are like Americans of the 1960s, in that we need strong doses of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as we seek to understand the meaning and purpose of our land. We need, in other words, both a strong appeal to our national ideals and a strong reminder of our past failures.
Campaign seasons have a way of exposing national fault lines. They reveal how we’re still trying to figure out what this thing called America is all about—and just how “exceptional” it really is, or has been, or should be in the future. Wilsey’s book is a terrific resource for readers seeking clarity, theological perspective, and historical context as they participate in that grand American tradition of defining—and debating—who we are.
Harold K. Bush teaches English at Saint Louis University.