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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 superiori 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.


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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 superiori 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.

30 review for American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea

  1. 4 out of 5

    Paul D. Miller

    I wanted to give this book five stars because it is, for most of its length, superlative. I recommend Wilsey's discussion of open vs. closed exceptionalism to anyone. This is exactly the antidote to the siren song of Christian nationalism we need. Why not five stars? Wilsey covers so much ground that in a few places he gets beyond his areas of expertise. In one area, he wandered into mine: foreign policy and diplomatic history. In his discussion of America's "mission" he chooses John Foster Dulle I wanted to give this book five stars because it is, for most of its length, superlative. I recommend Wilsey's discussion of open vs. closed exceptionalism to anyone. This is exactly the antidote to the siren song of Christian nationalism we need. Why not five stars? Wilsey covers so much ground that in a few places he gets beyond his areas of expertise. In one area, he wandered into mine: foreign policy and diplomatic history. In his discussion of America's "mission" he chooses John Foster Dulles as his example of closed exceptionalism for critique. Then, he says Dulles' vision "animated American foreign policy, in various degrees of similarity, for the rest of the Cold War." This is simply false. There were numerous influences on US foreign policy during the Cold War. Dulles' vision was only one. Wilsey implies that any expansive vision of America's role in the world must be a closed-exceptionalist view like Dulles. This is intellectually lazy and painting with far too broad a brush. There are open exceptionalist grounds for agreeing with the broad thrust of US Cold War foreign policy (using American power responsibly to organize collective self defense among fellow democracies, for example), though not always the details. Wilsey cites Andrew Bacevich in his notes. This is not the first time I've found Bacevich in the background when Christians try to write about foreign policy (Leithart does the same in "Between Babel and Beast.") I wish someone would point Christians to better diplomatic historians, like John Lewis Gaddis or Hal Brands. Apparently Bacevich is the name that pops up when Christians start Googling to find authors who have written moral critiques of US foreign policy. This is regrettable. Pick up some Reinhold Niebuhr, at least.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Paul Kurtz

    Overall, I thought this was an excellent book. I thought the author's distinction between open and closed views of American exceptionalism was very good. Basically, closed exceptionalism thinks America can do no wrong and is based in some very bad theology that confuses being Christian with being American. Open exceptionalism still has high regard for America and patriotism, but is willing to be more honest about our shortcomings. I think the biggest shortcoming of the book is what I saw as a ref Overall, I thought this was an excellent book. I thought the author's distinction between open and closed views of American exceptionalism was very good. Basically, closed exceptionalism thinks America can do no wrong and is based in some very bad theology that confuses being Christian with being American. Open exceptionalism still has high regard for America and patriotism, but is willing to be more honest about our shortcomings. I think the biggest shortcoming of the book is what I saw as a refusal to see the true evil in some of nation's historical enemies such as the Soviet Union and radical Islam. It seemed that any political leader who spoke out against the evil in those enemies was unfairly labelled as a closed exceptionalist.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Todd Miles

    I found this to be a very helpful book in thinking through the church's relationship with the American state. I found this to be a very helpful book in thinking through the church's relationship with the American state.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    Summary: Explores the history of American exceptionalism, distinguishing two kinds of exceptionalism and considers them under five theological themes. Most discussions of American exceptionalism that I've seen either embrace this idea more or less uncritically, arguing that America is God's "city on a hill," or they utterly reject the idea as a form of egregious cultural imperialism and a Christian heresy. John D. Wilsey offers us a history of this idea, and suggests a more nuanced view that allo Summary: Explores the history of American exceptionalism, distinguishing two kinds of exceptionalism and considers them under five theological themes. Most discussions of American exceptionalism that I've seen either embrace this idea more or less uncritically, arguing that America is God's "city on a hill," or they utterly reject the idea as a form of egregious cultural imperialism and a Christian heresy. John D. Wilsey offers us a history of this idea, and suggests a more nuanced view that allows a place for a certain kind of American exceptionalism while rejecting other forms of it. Specifically, Wilsey proposes that there are two kinds of American exceptionalism. In an interview with the publisher, he differentiated these as follows: "As a civil religious concept, exceptionalism has historically been articulated in one of two ways: One form of exceptionalism is imperialistic, exclusivist and justified in theological terms. Another is informed by the liberal ideals of natural rights, individual freedom, and human dignity and equality. I call the former closed exceptionalism and the latter open exceptionalism. Open exceptionalism forms the basis for faithful and biblical citizenship." (IVP Academic Press Kit) In the first two chapters, Wilsey traces the history of American exceptionalism, beginning in the first chapter with our national origins and then in the second with our national expansion, including the challenge of slavery. We learn that the ideas came from our English antecedents and that the term was probably coined first by de Tocqueville. He considers what would be closed expressions of exceptionalism in the expansion of slavery and the idea of "manifest destiny" in contrasts with Lincoln's emancipating vision of extending American ideals of equality and justice under the providence of God to all peoples, black and white. The next five chapters consider five theological themes of "closed" exceptionalism: 1. Chosen nation: That America has been divinely chosen or elected by God in a special way as a kind of new Israel (excluding Native peoples and Blacks) even though the scriptures speak of the kingdom of God as comprised of the inclusion of peoples of many nations with none preferred. 2. Divine Commission: That America has been uniquely commissioned to "save the world." Wilsey looks in detail at the tenure of John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and America's role in saving the world from communism. 3. Innocence: The articulation of America as a pure and upright nation. The chapter focuses on the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. This innocence ignores past and present injustices or takes an "America right or wrong approach." 4. Sacred Land: A Chosen Nation occupies a Promised Land. Wilsey surveys the history of this idea from the Puritans through America's landscape artists, and the struggle between those who would conserve the nation's resources and beauty and those believing it was given for dominion. 5. Glory: The author examines this idea through the lens of the three most popular homeschooling history texts used over the last twenty years. All three emphasize Christian origins, downplay slavery, and portray America as divinely privileged vis à vis other nations. They argue contemporary America is in serious decline from these origins. Wilsey would see these ideas as an appropriation of theological ideas into an idolatrous civil religion, often endorsed by wide segments of the American church. Unlike some, he makes the case for an alternative, open form of exceptionalism that may serve as the basis of Christian civic engagement and he addresses this in his final chapter. He argues that America's liberal ideals at their best are indeed worth cultivating, preserving, and commending: liberty, democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance. Open exceptionalism seeks these for all of our own people and believes they are worthy ideals for the world, cultural riches to be added to the riches of other nations. He commends two unusual models of engagement: Justin Martyr and W.E.B. DuBois. What I appreciate in this treatment is the articulation of a form of patriotism that is appropriate to a person whose first loyalties are to the kingdom of God, as well as a clear repudiation as idolatry of closed forms of exceptionalism. It is not a claim to chosenness as a nation or hypocritical innocence that ignores the times we have failed to live up to our own ideals.Rather, open exceptionalism is a love of country that that faces and addresses injustices and seeks to preserve and freely include others in the cultural goods of liberty, justice, and democracy we have enjoyed. It lovingly cares for and carefully stewards our land, not as some special sacred ground, but as part of God's global creation for us and our children's children. I do wrestle however with the embrace in any form of the term "exceptionalism," other than to acknowledge the history of this idea in our national history. It is one thing to recognize some of the particular gifts that have been part of the American experience, and to want to include others in the goods we have enjoyed. But the very term "exceptional" may quickly morph into forms of national superiority that smack of arrogance and hubris, or may still be culturally imperialistic, even if not idolatrous or ill-intentioned. I'm not certain what to replace the term with except for some form of "generous care" for the institutions, the values, and even the place, that have defined us at our best. I think of the generous care that rebuilt much of Europe and Japan after World War II under the Marshall Plan that allowed for the establishing or re-establishing of democratic institutions. Rather than "exceptional" or "great," I long for an America that is just and generous, both at home and abroad. That would be good enough.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Braley Chambers

    At times, Christian theology has been used in awesome ways throughout American political history. At other times, Christian theology has been hijacked to serve ends antithetical to the faith. This is a really helpful book surveying this reality. One of the best features of this book is how balanced Wilsey usually is. You can tell he loves his country and is truly patriotic. The key word there is truly. He loves America enough to praise it when it has been exceptional, and critique it when it has At times, Christian theology has been used in awesome ways throughout American political history. At other times, Christian theology has been hijacked to serve ends antithetical to the faith. This is a really helpful book surveying this reality. One of the best features of this book is how balanced Wilsey usually is. You can tell he loves his country and is truly patriotic. The key word there is truly. He loves America enough to praise it when it has been exceptional, and critique it when it has acted in ways that are evil; he does not whitewash anything. Is America exceptional? In a word, yes. The ideals found in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, for example, are worthy of striving after. Sadly, much of American history consists in contradictions, asserting one thing on paper but practicing another in reality. This book would be most helpful for American Christians who think that America is God’s new Israel, His chosen nation that is a city on a hill that can do no wrong. Wilsey shows that many American Christians attribute to the state what should be attributed to the church. Additionally, he shows why this is often so destructive to both.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Roger

    There are several lines of thought within this book that converge around the central organizing theme of what the author calls closed exceptionalism and open exceptionalism. The book is not a critique of civil religion but, rather, a critique of American exceptionalism as it has been used as a fundamental doctrine within that religion. Whether or not civil religion is something profitable comes down to which of these two visions of exceptionalism lie beneath that civil religion. Roughly speaking There are several lines of thought within this book that converge around the central organizing theme of what the author calls closed exceptionalism and open exceptionalism. The book is not a critique of civil religion but, rather, a critique of American exceptionalism as it has been used as a fundamental doctrine within that religion. Whether or not civil religion is something profitable comes down to which of these two visions of exceptionalism lie beneath that civil religion. Roughly speaking, closed exceptionalism conflates the United States with certain core biblical themes while open exceptionalism seeks a civil religion that is consistent with Christian ethics while preserving pluralism. The overall purpose being to move towards identifying the proper relationship between things like church and state, faith and patriotism, and political ideals and religious doctrine. This is an important book in thinking about American Christian political theory, especially given the times we find ourselves in 2020.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    Normally I would not read a book on this topic but accidentally purchased it and decided to read it. I have to say that this book has forced me to think about many issues concerning my American identity and views that I hadn't questioned before. Wilsey is not afraid to touch any "sacred cow" among Christian conservatives including President Reagan and Christian homeschooling materials. I'm so thankful that there is someone out there like Wilsey who is willing to look critically at the view of Am Normally I would not read a book on this topic but accidentally purchased it and decided to read it. I have to say that this book has forced me to think about many issues concerning my American identity and views that I hadn't questioned before. Wilsey is not afraid to touch any "sacred cow" among Christian conservatives including President Reagan and Christian homeschooling materials. I'm so thankful that there is someone out there like Wilsey who is willing to look critically at the view of America as the "chosen nation." I dare say that reading this book has had a great impact on my world view and for that I am thankful. I believe that the Christian church in America ought to take a close look at the issues he brings up and rethink what it means to be a "city on a hill." We need to "differentiate the church from the nation while situating the church within the national community." (p. 222)

  8. 5 out of 5

    Bryan Bridges

    This was great. I read this alongside John Fea’s “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation”, and found that the two paired well together, kind of like a maduro and a good stout. The term “exceptionalism” is thrown around flippantly these days without any thought toward the religious and sometimes idolatrous presumptions that go along with it.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Ethan

    A historical investigation into the convergence of American ideology and Christianity from the beginnings of the United States until the present. The author explores American history in terms of its perceived Christian heritage. His primary thesis involves a contrast between "open exceptionalism" and "closed exceptionalism": in all cases, America is seen as blessed by God, maintaining great ideals, and a significant and progressive development in the history of nations. The author seeks to chasti A historical investigation into the convergence of American ideology and Christianity from the beginnings of the United States until the present. The author explores American history in terms of its perceived Christian heritage. His primary thesis involves a contrast between "open exceptionalism" and "closed exceptionalism": in all cases, America is seen as blessed by God, maintaining great ideals, and a significant and progressive development in the history of nations. The author seeks to chastise what is deemed "closed exceptionalism," the fervently patriotic "Christian Americanism," uncritically believing that America is always a force for good and whatever America does must be right and good and God loves America and Americans more than everyone else and any critique of America is not only unpatriotic but theologically questionable. The author sees examples of "closed exceptionalism" among many of the more fervent advocates of manifest destiny all the way through many in the modern "religious right," going so far as to critique a series of homeschool-based history textbooks and demonstrating how they display such closed exceptionalist views. The author nevertheless continues to maintain a high view of America and commends such in terms of what he calls "open exceptionalism," a patriotic "American Christianity," in which Christians are thankful for the blessings of America but recognize its failures and limitations. He lifts up W.E.B. DuBois (and, strangely, Ronald Reagan) as examples of this "open exceptionalism": willing to critique America for its failings but appreciating where it has been in the right. The author commends this "open exceptionalism" as the way forward for how Christians should participate in American "civil religion," and relies fairly heavily on a particular reading of Justin Martyr and his Apology in order to commend it religiously. In terms of history and American culture the author's analysis has much worthy of commendation, although I must wonder how much his affection for Reagan has perhaps clouded his judgment about how Reagan saw America, or, if nothing else, how Reagan allowed others to think he saw America. It is helpful to provide the nuance of "open" vs. "closed" exceptionalism to consider the different trajectories of how Christianity has been used to advance American prerogative vs. when many who professed Jesus sharply critiqued American prerogatives in Jesus' name. In terms of Christianity, however, whereas it is good to see the author recognize there is no redemption for the nation-state, he still seems quite eager to find a way to commend patriotism via this "open exceptionalist" view. Open exceptionalism still is exceptionalist, and still comes with a bevy of assumptions and ideas that have come out of American views of itself rather than anything Jesus said. Yes, it is true that Justin Martyr spoke of Christians as the best citizens, but he did not mean that because of any love of Rome, but because Christians are commanded to live quietly, pay taxes, and keep focused on their real citizenship. The author's argument is very wide open to critique from what Rousseau saw clearly, that in the eyes of the nation-state Christians are the worst citizens, since their purposes have nothing to do with the advancement of the nation-state, and would just as easily serve under any other government. This is true even in America; those who dared maintain pacifistic views during the Civil War and World War I were at best seen as suspect, and at worst as a fifth column for the enemy, since they would not involve themselves in the affairs of the nation-state. The author saw well that the reason that many have fallen for the "closed exceptionalist" trap is the ever closer association of Christianity with American ideals; that trap does not only exist for "closed exceptionalism," but anyone who would want to find a way of being a good American while serving the Lord Jesus. Therefore, whereas the work provides a helpful lens for seeing the relationship of Christian religion to America throughout the latter's history, its value as a framework for Christians attempting to make sense of their standing in American society is more suspect. **--book galley received as part of early review program

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jimmy Reagan

    Have you ever read about a subject that you have known for a long time that you needed to have deeply thought about, but had not? That is the experience I have had in this unique volume. I am a Christian and consider myself first and foremost a follower of Jesus Christ. At the same time, I am one of those old-fashioned patriotic types who can get a lump in my throat in a whole variety of patriotic settings. Mr. Wilsey forced me to reconcile some things where I had never done so before. He clearly Have you ever read about a subject that you have known for a long time that you needed to have deeply thought about, but had not? That is the experience I have had in this unique volume. I am a Christian and consider myself first and foremost a follower of Jesus Christ. At the same time, I am one of those old-fashioned patriotic types who can get a lump in my throat in a whole variety of patriotic settings. Mr. Wilsey forced me to reconcile some things where I had never done so before. He clearly had a Bible first and patriotism second attitude of which I agree. I even saw the traces of that same patriotic background in his life. I could show you several sentences and paragraphs in this volume, and even some historical assessments where I could not agree, but he gave me the tools to evaluate this issue. My final conclusions were not far from his when I finished. He distinguishes throughout the book a helpful “open exceptionalism” and a “closed exceptionalism” that conflicts with Christianity. His categories may not always divide as neatly as they do in his mind, but his point is well made. I intend to use what I learned in this volume going forward. It’s scholarly and helpful throughout, I know of no other book quite like it and I highly recommend it. I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Joel Wentz

    I'm deeply torn on my final feelings towards this book.... On one hand, Wilsey does a really fantastic job critiquing the pervasive theme of 'exceptionalism' throughout American history. I particularly appreciated how he approached this critique from several angles: our attitude towards our own innocence, chosenness, the land, etc. He poses a way forward through identifying "open" exceptionalism and "closed" exceptionalism, the former of which is more focused on the virtues (justice, freedom, etc I'm deeply torn on my final feelings towards this book.... On one hand, Wilsey does a really fantastic job critiquing the pervasive theme of 'exceptionalism' throughout American history. I particularly appreciated how he approached this critique from several angles: our attitude towards our own innocence, chosenness, the land, etc. He poses a way forward through identifying "open" exceptionalism and "closed" exceptionalism, the former of which is more focused on the virtues (justice, freedom, etc.) that America was founded on, while the latter is built upon exclusivist and racist notions of American superiority. I found this generally helpful. On the other hand, there is a glaring weakness in this book, and I don't think Wilsey goes nearly far enough. This weakness is America's racialized history, in general, and specifically our attitude towards native populations, which is nearly absent. Wilsey does speak candidly about slavery, but especially in the chapter about "the land" there was a surprising lack of discussion regarding the native tribes. This is a good book, and I will likely recommend it to friends. Wilsey manages to weave theology and history throughout the discussion every effectively. I just wish he had been more upfront about our shameful approach towards race in the building of our culture.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Brian Jensen

    In American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, John Wilsey provides an historical look at a controversial subject that can be highly polarizing. As someone who is familiar with the rhetoric that accompanies David Barton-style perspectives of the country and its founding, I have found myself drifting towards a more insouciant attitude toward the country and patriotism in recent years. One surprise that I had with the book was how Wilsey navigates between these two extremes with what he describes In American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, John Wilsey provides an historical look at a controversial subject that can be highly polarizing. As someone who is familiar with the rhetoric that accompanies David Barton-style perspectives of the country and its founding, I have found myself drifting towards a more insouciant attitude toward the country and patriotism in recent years. One surprise that I had with the book was how Wilsey navigates between these two extremes with what he describes as "open exceptionalism." Patriotism, rightly held, does not have to give way to the kind of "closed exceptionalism" that is part and parcel to our common way of thinking about America. Loyalty—even sacrificial loyalty—is not inherently incompatible with Christianity. There are many thoughtful criticisms of "closed exceptionalism" that the typical southern evangelical would do well to consider. The most persuasive and piercing arguments are found in his chapter on "The Chosen Nation," where the author shows how the language and ideology of chosenness militates against the gospel of Jesus Christ. Wilsey's volume is, well, exceptional. Highly recommended..

  13. 4 out of 5

    The American Conservative

    "Given Americans’ habitual confusion between the things of God and the things of Caesar, Wilsey has set out on a difficult task. Anyone who has tried to work out how to live amid the complex and shifting antitheses and commonalities of faith and politics in modern America will appreciate Wilsey’s search for a solution. Clear thinking about all this involves high stakes, especially at a time when exceptionalism has come to mean not just being different from Europe but being superior—and endowing "Given Americans’ habitual confusion between the things of God and the things of Caesar, Wilsey has set out on a difficult task. Anyone who has tried to work out how to live amid the complex and shifting antitheses and commonalities of faith and politics in modern America will appreciate Wilsey’s search for a solution. Clear thinking about all this involves high stakes, especially at a time when exceptionalism has come to mean not just being different from Europe but being superior—and endowing America with a divine mandate to impose that superiority on others. Our capacity for self-deception has never been higher." Richard Gamble's review: http://www.theamericanconservative.co...

  14. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin Sauers

    I read this based on a recommendation from John Fea. (Who also wrote the forward to the book) I found the authors treatment of the subject to be adequate but not fully satisfying. It was evident throughout the book that I do not find agreement with many of the authors theological viewpoints. That being said, I found his treatment of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion to be fair and balanced. I would recommend it to anyone interested in Christian engagement in the political realm.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Danmcgohan

    The book made think how I looked at American Exceptionalism. I do believe the author looked at the subject through myopic lens. He discusses the difference between closed and open exceptionalism. He brings up many points I never considered, maybe I should. But I still Believe in American Exceptionalism.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Megan Luke

  17. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Moore

  18. 4 out of 5

    Matt

  19. 5 out of 5

    Tyson Bohlinger

  20. 5 out of 5

    Melanye Coursey

  21. 5 out of 5

    Philip

  22. 4 out of 5

    Max Diener

  23. 5 out of 5

    Anna Walker

  24. 4 out of 5

    Persis

  25. 5 out of 5

    David

  26. 5 out of 5

    Brendan

  27. 5 out of 5

    Becky

  28. 5 out of 5

    Matt Galyon | readsandcoffee

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jada Johnson

  30. 5 out of 5

    Bryan Axtman

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