Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Reviewing John Wilsey’s “American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion”

January 7th, 2016 | 7 min read

By Miles Smith

I’m pleased to publish this guest review today by Hillsdale College visiting professor Dr. Miles Smith. You can learn more about Dr. Smith from his bio below this post. You can also follow him on Twitter @IVMiles

A book exploring the idea of American exceptionalism is especially timely in a year when the political realm has been captured, or at least invaded, by a man promising to Make America Great again. For many Americans, especially American Evangelicals, the notion that America is great is synonymous with the notion that America is exceptional. Few American Evangelicals, after all, believe that the United States is exceptionally bad. John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion is written for the educated Evangelical layman and proves to be earnest attempt to reevaluate the idea of American exceptionalism from a Christian perspective.

Wilsey’s work is arranged thematically. He argues that American exceptionalism played and plays a pivotal role in the maintenance of American civil religion. He explores the Puritan roots of exceptionalism, paying special attention to the particular conceptions of seventeenth century English Calvinism. Coventantalism, Millenialism, and a specific Biblical typology provided the intellectual provenance for the robust American exceptionalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  

In the nineteenth century, according to Wilsey, Americans embraced the ideal of Manifest Destiny. Originally articulated by John O’Sullivan, Manifest Destiny supposed the divinely appointed mission of America, and particularly Anglo-Americans, to conquer the North American continent and build a democratic Christian commonwealth. Wilsey calls Manifest Destiny Closed Exceptionalism, meaning that American Exceptionalism was open only to white Americans. Wilsey also affirms slavery’s status as a chief actuator of westward expansion.

O’Sullivan’s Closed Exceptionalism is contrasted negatively with the Open Exceptionalism of Abraham Lincoln. Wilsey correctly argues that Lincoln and O’Sullivan both saw liberal democracy as the culmination of human political development. And both praised American cultural development. They departed, said Wilsey, over conceptions of justice, equality, human rights, slavery, the workings of divine providence, and other issues. This is a massive and largely inaccurate overstatement. A more substantive disagreement between Lincoln and O’Sullivan’s antebellum Democratic Party was Lincoln’s attachment to en masse capitalism.

Allen Guelzo’s Redeemer President documents Lincoln’s ferocious commitment to American capitalism and modernity. His commitment to capitalist wage labor formed the core of his anti-slavery predilections. Lincoln disliked localism, agrarianism, and what he believed was a backward commitment to small farms. His own experience working for his unmotivated father convinced him that America could only be exceptional if it advanced out of its reliance of agrarian localist kinship and religious networks. Lincoln’s tragic relationship with his father shaped his view of American exceptionalism. The nation might indeed be exceptional, so long as it wasn’t provincial or agrarian. The progressive Evangelical dislike of capitalism but love of Lincoln doesn’t square with historical truth. Lincoln liked liberty—and he liked capitalism.

Americans believed that their nation was exceptionally chosen during the nineteenth century. Particularly, argues Wilsey, Americans believed that God chose Anglo-Americans to fulfill a divinely ordained national destiny. Mexicans, Native Americans, and enslaved southern blacks were in the way. Wilsey asserts that the Christian conception of objective justice in a universal and theistic framework is essential to his critique of Closed Exceptionalism. Wilsey unfortunately leaves the Christian conception of justice rather loosely defined.

More importantly, Wilsey misconstrues contemporary articulations of his own subject. Some southerners, especially those from the Deep South and Trans-Appalachian West, believed they shared an exceptional national identity with the North. Recent histories written by David Goldfield and Jackson Lears assert that far from there being two American exceptionalisms, the nineteenth century experience illustrated only one: that of a white, Protestant, capitalistic, militarized national order.

In the 1850s, the majority of diehard Americans nationalists identified slavery as an obstacle to America’s exceptional identity. The 1860 Republican Platform affirmed American exceptionalism and proposed the destruction of what contemporary Republicans called Twin Pillars of Barbarism—southern chattel slavery and Mormon polygamy—in order to fulfill America’s mission as a divinely chosen people. After the Civil War, southerners attempted to replicate even more exactly northern-built but now nationally accepted American national exceptionalism. When Henry Grady gave his New South Speech in New York he declared: The South of “slavery and secession—that South is dead.” The New South would be American and participate in the exceptional life of a united American nation.

But of course many southerners, especially those from the older states along the Atlantic, never saw themselves as sharing in the life of an exceptional nation. These southern conservatives detested the Puritans and became increasingly vocal in their rejection of Puritan-inspired American exceptionalism. Jefferson Davis accused northerners of being the fanatical and malevolent offspring of Cromwell’s wicked Roundheads. New Englanders, Davis sneered, “persecuted Catholics in England, and they hung witches and Quakers in America.” Frederick Law Olmstead noted southern rejections of American ideals and notions of exceptionalism in 1853, when he said that southern views on economics, religion, and civic life were “identical” to the views of the “aristocratic party of the Old World.”

Like the Old South, the place of Native Americans seems ambiguous in Wilsey’s assessment of exceptionalism. Wilsey posits that Lincoln (and one assumes the Republican Party) promoted Open Exceptionalism whereby African Americans and Native Americans might participate in the life of the exceptional American nation.

But this Open Exceptionalism proved to be open only on its own terms, and thereby proving not to be very open at all. Republican congresses and Republican presidents eradicated Native Americans in the nineteenth century to make way for the increasingly industrial modernity upheld by the Republican Party. The vestiges of American capitalism—railroads, ecological exploitation of natural resources, and factories—all swept aside Native Americans’ long existence in the American West. Modern Evangelicals quick to claim the mantel of Lincolnian anti-racism have yet to reconcile the post-Appomattox experience of the American West with their idealization of the Reconstruction of the American South.

The twentieth century saw the exceptional American people as divinely commissioned to fight Soviet imperialism. Wilsey traces the re-Christianization of American exceptionalism to John Foster Dulles who built American Cold War policy during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. Dulles’ major contribution was the Christianizing of the Russo-American binary that Wilsey terms twentieth century Manichaeism. Ronald Reagan, Wilsey says, expanded the Cold War paradigm by affirming a exceptionally moral and innocent nation.

The handling of antebellum America and the chosen people idea betrays the central, and in many ways debilitating, weakness of Wilsey’s work. Wilsey has not actually reevaluated or reassessed the ideas or intellectual viability of American exceptionalism. In his attempt to criticize American exceptionalism, Wilsey has presupposed the idea of a white bourgeoisie nation, and has presupposed Fukuyama’s liberal democratic end of history.

More importantly, Wilsey’s criticisms amount to little more than an attempt to sanitize American exceptionalism for twenty-first century Evangelicals. Evangelical progressives hope for an exceptional American nation, one wherein racial justice and economic equality are realities. While his criticisms of American nationalism are earnest, helpful, and necessary, he offers no real alternative. His attempt to create a new paradigm for Christian patriotism is in fact the same old conflation of Evangelicalism with the idea of an exceptional Christian nation, but the new exceptionalism is shorn of the facets progressive Evangelicals find unpalatable.

In short he has tried to formulate a new way for American Evangelicals to interact with the nation. Yet he never engages the massive corpus of historical Christian civil and political thought. Wilsey and Evangelicals might be better served if they discarded their nationalist framework altogether. The nation they put their hopes in still murders millions of unborn children annually and exports the worst excesses of disembodied gnostic modernity.

The reclamation of Christian orthodoxy must be the foundation of any application of Christian civil justice. Until then, a reliance on the framework of the exceptional nation is a reliance on a definition of Christianity’s place in civil society that is less than 200 years old. But how then can a Christian living in the early 21st Century United States begin to replace the paradigm of nation?

For starters, Christians should take the idea of citizenship more seriously, and not rely solely on telemedia. We live in a federated Union with a remarkably written fundamental law that guarantees government at local levels, yet most Americans don’t even take the time to vote in local elections. If they treated their towns, cities, counties, and congressional districts with the same emotive furor drummed up on TV for presidential elections, laws might be more just from real citizens and less empty ideological platitudes fashioned by corporate executives in league with modern telemedia.

Christians might also consider reading about the historic relationship between Christians and the state. Where to start? Benedict of Nursia—no, not Rod Dreher, but the man himself. The Investiture Controversy, John of Salisbury’s Policraticus, Magna Carta, the Fourth Lateran Council, and the Summa Contra Gentiles by Thomas Aquinas would all be worthy places to begin. They might also consider Protestant works such as Calvin’s Institutes, or the writings of Francis Turretin, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Bavinck.

Christians with knowledge and wisdom received from orthodox Christian thinkers might just be better equipped to build a society that gives justice for real communities, rather than the empty rhetoric of justice for an idealized exceptional nation. For what are kingdoms without justice? asked St. Augustine. Answer: “They’re just gangs of bandits.”

Miles Smith IV is a visiting assistant professor at Hillsdale College and a historian of the Old South and Atlantic World. He took his BA from the College of Charleston and holds a PhD in History from Texas Christian University. He is a native of Salisbury, North Carolina.

Miles Smith

Dr. Miles Smith IV is a historian of the American South and native Carolinian. Follow him on Twitter @ivmiles.