Exceptionalism Symposium: The elusive American mission

The idea of a “divine mission” excites adherents and worries skeptics, and, like any religious belief, becomes more controversial the more people understand it to be other than a mere private conviction. In the recent inaugural issue of the journal American Political Thought, James Ceaser examines a uniquely American species of political thought which is, if not explicitly religious in all its manifestations, is at least tinctured with religious excitement. The idea of “American exceptionalism” has agitated American political discourse on the left and right–but unlike other American ideals, it appeared only recently and is very difficult to define.

One way to describe American exceptionalism is to observe the many ways in which the United States differs from other nations in its origins, institutions, and national character. It is, arguably, unique  among liberal democracies in that it was actually self-consciously founded as a new political entity where none had existed before, at least on the national level. Most revolutions change regimes but retain old geographies and ethnic identities; America assumed its geography and national identity gradually and subsequent to its founding. America is both more liberal and more conservative than other Western nations. Its institutions more perfectly reflect a purely liberal republican structure, retaining no vestigial monarchy, hereditary ranks, or established church. At the same time it is among the most religious of Western republics and the most suspicious of socialism. Capitalism finds the fewest restraints in the United States–although we also have the world’s highest corporate income tax. These are only a few of the objective measures by which America is an exception among world powers.

However as the intelligent reader has already noticed, the nation’s exceptionality is not precisely what people are talking about when they either praise or condemn “American exceptionalism.” Ceaser suggests that the element which makes this an “-ism” is the accompanying idea of a mission of some sort. This mission, though, has undergone various permutations throughout American history. To summarize:

  1. The Puritan “Errand in the Wilderness” had no immediate political component. It was a religious errand, although its proponents did end up founding commonwealths.
  2. Ideals of liberty and rational government directed the American founding. The young republic was seen by many as an example of a new, unprecedented kind of enlightened political order.
  3. As the new nation expanded westward, it conceived “Manifest Destiny:” the idea of an entire continent in which liberty might flourish for all, drawing all “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
  4. Imperialism. From the Spanish-American War through the Cold War and beyond, America used her economic and military power to promote liberal ideals and political freedom throughout the world.

Each iteration, though, carries the force, if not the religious content, of the original Puritan mission. There is a sense of responsibility, of a program for action, of a duty to expand the influence of–whatever it is that makes America exceptional, in particular its democratic institutions.

Ceaser’s descriptive and definitive exercise leaves little to complain about. An academic history of the idea might explore further how exactly each stage morphed into the next, but this ground has been covered by other academics, and anyone familiar with popular politics knows how surprising and uncontrollable are the movements which arise through the free play of ideas and the associative powers of the national mind. What Ceaser seems to be most concerned about is whether exceptionalism–the idea of a national “mission”–necessarily carries within it a religious element, which must for that reason exist in tension with politics, or whether it can be adopted as a simply political idea. In the end, he resists “separatism,” the idea that religion and politics should be completely separate, and wonders whether America will end up being the global protector, not only of democracy, but of Christianity itself. I hope that I have not put that too strongly, because Ceaser does hedge around it quite a bit; but it does seem as if an explicitly Christian politics is not beyond the reach of his imagination, since he uses the term “biblical faith” thrice in his concluding paragraph.

It is possible, I suppose, that America might be used of God to further the cause of Christianity. It would certainly not be exceptional in this regard, as many nations and empires have also promoted the Christian faith in their time. But as far as this goes, China might turn out to be the chosen nation of a new millennium–only time will tell. Whether America has a special mission will, I fear, always be a futile and self-defeating question.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

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