Read this if…
- You’re interested in the relationship between American history and religion.
- You are concerned about civil rights.
- You’re studying patriotism.
Ever since John Winthrop told his fellow colonists in 1630 that they were about to establish a City upon a Hill, the idea of having a special place in history has captured the American imagination. Through centuries of crises and opportunities, many have taken up this theme to inspire the nation. But others have criticized the notion because it implies a sense of superiority which can fuel racism, warmongering and even idolatry. In this remarkable book, John Wilsey traces the historical development of exceptionalism, including its theological meaning and implications for civil religion. From seventeenth-century Puritans to twentieth-century industrialists, from politicians to educators, exceptionalism does not appear as a monolithic concept to be either totally rejected or devotedly embraced. While it can lead to abuses, it can also point to constructive civil engagement and human flourishing. This book considers historically and theologically what makes the difference. Neither the term nor the idea of American exceptionalism is going away. John Wilsey’s careful history and analysis will therefore prove an important touchstone for discussions of American identity in the decades to come.
Review by Kevin Lorow @kevkevlor
American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion is a helpful addition to the libraries of American Christians. Author John Wilsey attempts a difficult feat in his exploration of American history: discussing the special nature of the American nation, while still pointing out her errors and grievances. Wilsey aims to determine whether being patriotic about a flawed nation is in line with a Christian worldview.
Patriotism (while not necessarily in and of itself) has long been an ideology that can lead to trying to justify or explain away atrocities in the name of national achievement or love. Exceptionalism states that America is a nation unlike any other. While Open Exceptionalism holds that America’s speciality only reaches as far as she does the right thing, Closed Exceptionalism states that America is special by nature. Closed Exceptionalism traces its roots back to the pattern of many 18th century colonists as they believed themselves to be fulfilling millennial prophecies as God’s chosen nation. Perhaps the most dangerous part of all of this is that many Americans began to view God not as the God of the Bible, but as the God of America. Americans mutated their belief in a Christian God into a belief in an American God.
In a manner that is both careful and precise, yet not shy, Wilsey intelligently and accurately highlights the flaws in closed Exceptionalism; the idea that America is accomplishing God’s will. This long-standing ideology has for centuries been promoted by civilians and politicians alike. The “manifest destiny” of a nation led her people to gloss over or ignore her mistakes of the past, while Native Americans were displaced, African Americans enslaved, and civil rights movements denied.
John Wilsey’s exploration of a non-idolatrous patriotism is a crucial reminder especially considering the current political landscape. It seems elementary to notice two camps in American politics. The first camp contains an unapologetic view of America as God’s beacon of hope on earth, the keeper of God’s will one earth. The second, a more recent and growing camp, finds themselves being apologetic to the point of shame that pushes them away from a love or even acceptance of America’s accomplishments or their own nationality. Wilsey offers a healthy description of another camp, one that openly and publicly accepts the wrongs of their flawed nation, yet is proud of her goals.
I greatly appreciated American Exceptionalism and Wilsey’s account of America’s story. While maintaining accuracy, he gave educated, critical overviews of America in the Revolution Era, Slavery Era, the World Wars, and the Civil Rights movement. He was also sure to highlight leading individuals and schools of thoughts that carried the banner for both open and closed Exceptionalism. His factual and historical process was relatively simple and easy to follow – not leaving his reader with questions about stated occurrences, or his point. His simplicity makes American Exceptionalism understandable to those both politically and non-politically minded.
While Wilsey does an extraordinary job providing a way of correcting faulty ideology, he left a lot of room to practically take steps toward rectifying American culture in light of those thoughts. While that may be a task that Americans should figure out in their own time, one of my few critiques of American Exceptionalism would be that Wilsey could have done more in guiding the reader to practically take steps to avoid the ideological and civil rights pitfalls that America has fallen into.
American Exceptionalism absolutely comes with my recommendation to broaden the understanding of the Christian’s role in their nation.