Exceptionalism Symposium: Religion holds a central place

James Ceaser tries to flex some historical muscle in “The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism.” Like most modern scholars, he goes about as an intellectual iconoclast, assailing the solely religious roots of American exceptionalism. Only a shrewd or sarcastic mind can write, “A few in the realist camp lament this result, regarding it as a loss for America and for the world, but many applaud it, although usually concealing their glee beneath a veil of detached analysis. Realism is a cover for ‘triumphalist declinism’: blessed is the nation that is declining, it shall disinherit the earth.”  Nevertheless, I still think he is wrong when he tries to downplay the study of religion in the exceptionalism debate (despite his many qualifiers). I grant that Hegel, Darwin, Descartes, Bacon, and Schleiermacher have all had their day in court, providing the European seeds to yield the fruits of Bancroft, Strong, Paine, Jefferson, and the Social Gospel in American soil. As a conservative and orthodox Christian, I rather like how he delineates traditional Christianity from the religious movements that encouraged American exceptionalism (especially since the former existed a good 1600 years before the latter). I agree that nonreligious elements contributed to the formation of the concept in question.

Ceaser does have vision. He foresees the question of exceptionalism as an expansive field of inquiry. I think the rate of articles addressing the subject will increase in the coming days as historians, theorists, and political thinkers wrestle over American identity and its meaning for policy. I agree with him that students of the past must explore all avenues, not simply religion, when researching exceptionalism. Nevertheless, I think the issue finds roots in matters theological, not simply scientific, historical, and philosophical.

Ceasar tries to discredit anti-exceptionalists when he states, “Included are works by students of Puritanism, many of whom have developed the peculiar habit of claiming Puritan thought to be the key to understanding the unfolding of American history.” (In some circles, this would actually make the exceptionalist position quite appealing, but for the majority of academia, Puritanism is a thing of scorn). Nevertheless, his message is clear: lay off the religious stuff. There’s a mutual feed going on in the American story.

Whether Ceaser likes it or not, ever since the Puritans, Americans have tended to think along religious lines. When Europe produces the dynamic and violence-loving Nietzsche to cast down Christendom, America produces a moderate James who seeks to politely allow Christianity to remain as uniting cultural force (even if it wasn’t literally true). Today, Rawls and Rorty basically resort to the inner guiding light of Emerson, himself an apostate of Calvinism. Yes, America functions along religious terms and finds itself haunted by those early Puritan settlers. Even “our auntient dominion of Virginia” and her Anglican sister colonies fell to the spell with the Great Awakenings. The frontier likewise found itself stalked by circuit riders and tent meetings. When looking to the idea of special calling and exceptionally purposed communities, we have to go back to Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech.

Ceaser is trying to dislodge the purely religious approach to addressing the phenomena. For this he is to be commended. Unfortunately, he then returns to espousing the high importance of religion in giving a nation mission and purpose. He has to decide what he is arguing for; there is a point at which nuance becomes contradiction. Since he is sarcastic and since he pulls a self-defeat like this, I deem him puerile. As for me and my house, religion is the anchor line upon which exceptionalism and many other American concepts develop over the years. The study of God and government is as deep as it is old. It’s not an exclusivist position that I espouse here, but an understanding that a majority of resources and time should be spent in this arena for the coming years ahead.

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