If you are planning to run for president, here’s a word of advice: you must assert regularly and with great conviction your belief in American Exceptionalism. This seems especially true if you are vying for the Republican nomination. The particular phrasing varies a bit, but the general message is the same: America is the greatest nation in history; America has done more good for the world than any other nation in history; we are the envy of the world because we are unique among nations. The flip side of these assertions is less often stated but present nonetheless: don’t question American goodness; support for America means supporting American foreign adventurism; criticism of the American way of life is unpatriotic.

First off, patriotism is a good thing. Love of one’s place is a natural affection that serves to bind communities together and induce concern for the common good. However, American Exceptionalism is not the equivalent of patriotism. If it were, then patriotic citizens of other nations would be expressing their own version of exceptionalism—Russian Exceptionalism, German Exceptionalism, Egyptian Exceptionalism, etc.—and while these nations might have some notion of exceptionalism, to suggest that this is equivalent to American Exceptionalism is to speak heresy, for American Exceptionalism is, well, exceptional.

When people speak of American Exceptionalism they are not simply claiming that America is unique. From a certain perspective virtually all nations are unique in some fashion. Rather, American Exceptionalism is the belief that America has a special status among nations. It is a nation that stands apart, qualitatively different from other nations and possessing a special destiny with global significance.

This sense that America is a chosen nation has roots extending deep into our colonial past. Some Puritan settlers saw themselves as re-enacting the Biblical story of the exodus as they fled the tyranny of European kings and settled in a new promised land. The role of “chosen people” fits naturally into the narrative. John Winthrop, in his 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” described his vision for a Christian settlement in the New World.

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Of course, the city on a hill metaphor is taken from the Sermon on the Mount where Christ tells his followers that “you are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” There is, however, a crucial difference between the church and the nation. What should we think, then, when the words of Christ, mediated by Winthrop, show up in the mouths of political leaders as they speak of America?

The sense of uniqueness and even a special historic role for America was expressed by Alexander Hamilton in the first of the Federalist Papers.

It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

In short, the American founding was a crucial moment, and the future of freedom itself hung in the balance. America was a nation founded on an idea, on a creed, and the world anxiously awaited the outcome of this audacious experiment. While Hamilton might have exaggerated a bit to suggest that the future of freedom itself turned on the success or failure of this enterprise, the founding moment does set America apart from other nations. We have a unique history, one we should learn, understand, and celebrate.

Yet when the theology of a chosen people is combined with a profound sense that American is a unique nation among the nations, the stage is set for bad theology as well as bad politics.

The idea that America has a divine destiny is a persistent theme in our history. The Manifest Destiny of the 19th century was followed by Wilson’s messianic nationalism that sought to reshape the world through the force of Wilson’s own rhetoric, the power of the American military, and the compelling nature of American ideals. President Kennedy invoked the city on a hill metaphor in a 1961 speech. But by then the idea no longer referred to a church or an intrepid religious community embarking on a new life in a new land. Rather, America, the nation, was the city on a hill and this nation, born in unique conditions, becomes the new church for the secular salvation of the world. Clearly, though, to conflate a nation with the church is heresy.

This messianic thrust is perhaps no more evident than in the speeches of Ronald Reagan, who made the shining city on a hill his trademark. And while it is undeniable that Reagan’s theology of America was inspiring, it also tended to perpetrate the myth that America is specially chosen by God (or Providence or History) to bring democracy, liberty, and prosperity to the world. A chosen people, after all, has a mission, a divine calling, and to shrink from such a calling would be an act of cowardice as well as grave negligence.

One problem with claiming that God has a special plan for any nation is the notorious difficulty of determining God’s will. Of course, we can with the prophet Micah affirm that what the Lord desires is that nations—as well as individuals—do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. But that is a far cry from the messianic nationalism implied by American Exceptionalism.

On a practical level, American Exceptionalism is rooted in hubris that results in blindness. If America is truly exceptional, then the rules that apply to other nations don’t apply to America. If America has an historic mission to be a light to the world, then our goodness overshadows any missteps as we live out our divine calling. But if American Exceptionalism is the product of an errant theology that has subtly confused America with the church and which has now become a secular dogma, then we shouldn’t be surprised if adherents of American Exceptionalism a) proudly insist that America is the light of the world, and b) become positively incensed if anyone questions the special status of America. The pride and the umbrage go hand-in-hand and make it necessary for politicians to fall over each other in asserting their fidelity to the creed of American Exceptionalism even as it makes criticism of the nation the equivalent of political heresy.

American Exceptionalism does not lend itself either to humility or gratitude. If, rather than an exceptional nation, America is a nation greatly and mysteriously blessed by God—and this despite her many imperfections, which for the Christian is a necessary admission—then Americans should be moved to a profound sense of gratitude. There is a world of difference between the person who with a brash swagger asserts that America is the greatest nation on earth and the patriot who lovingly cares for his particular place while uttering a prayer of thanksgiving for the manifold blessings he and his children enjoy. One fails to admit responsibility or to tread lightly and therefore invariably behaves poorly while remaining blind to the fact. The other recognizes that gratitude is inseparable from responsibility, for a gift rightly received must be tended with intelligence and care.

Perhaps it’s time to seek out (or carve out) another strand in our American tradition, a strand that acknowledges the many good things we have inherited and soberly embrace the responsibility to steward these things well. A more modest republic would, in light of our history, be an exceptional accomplishment.



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  1. The difficulty I have with being an American is that it’s too big to be a homeland. I don’t know what it’s like for a Chinese or an Indian, but I find it absurd to think about all of this enormous country being my home. I think that influences this matter, that it predisposes ones patriotism towards an abstraction, an idea rather than a reality. I can think of myself as a New Englander but more easily as a Southern New Englander and very easily as a Rhode Islander. That comes naturally. I don’t believe that patriotism for America is patriotism. It is something artificial.

  2. I have terribly mixed feelings on this subject. On the one hand I say Amen to everything you’ve said. On the other — I think there are somethings in the Providence of God America is doing that no other nation is capable of. When I think of our nation, its resources, its beauty, the regional diversity of peoples and natural environments, its tremendous ingenuity and initiative, I can’t help thinking — something different is going on here. Further — it is the sense of being exceptional that keeps us from traipsing down the primrose path to serfdom that we see in just about every other modern country. And in spite of its many absurdities and shortcomings the populist Christianity here is just about the only evidence of Christian vitality in the developed world. So, two cheers for American Exceptionalism, I suppose. It is better than any of the alternatives I see around.

  3. Great article. Thank you for writing this. The Puritan ideas are key. However, I question Hamilton’s idea of “consent” creating a nation. There are two approaches to community in the US: the dominant approach is according to consent and is embodied by Massachusetts Bay. There, residents volunteered to join an intentional covenant community. This contrasts with Jamestown, where some reckless adventurers found themselves in a wilderness and decided to continue with traditional English life, Anglicanism and all. It was a community by accident, continuation, and more amenable to the family (if you don’t believe me, look at the Halfway Covenant crisis in New England). It is no surprise that Southern thinkers in the 1800s began to look to Hooker instead of Locke, questioning the Enlightenment, contract-theory (which developed from Puritan covenant theory), and the “state of nature.”

  4. “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”—Alexis de Tocqueville

    As it turns out, Tocqueville didn’t say it.


    Still, the line was used by both Reagan and Clinton, and properly describes our self-image. Mr. Mitchell’s “person who with a brash swagger asserts that America is the greatest nation on earth” is a straw man.

    BTW, a fascinating passage from deist Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”:

    “Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one over the other, was never the design of Heaven. The time likewise at which the Continent was discovered, adds weight to the argument, and the manner in which it was peopled, encreases the force of it. The Reformation was preceded by the discovery of America: As if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety.”

    I do not think Paine believed for a moment that America was created by God as a refuge for Protestant dissent [or, expansively, “religious freedom”] but he certainly knew his audience.

  5. Well done! I have been railing in my puny corner of the world for years about the misappropriation and systematic misuse of the AE concept. I don’t take exception to the right of political candidates to declare the United States the [ insert superlative here ]-est country on Earth; I don’t agree, but I don’t take exception to it. Hey — it’s the campaign trail.

    But I deeply despise the (disproportionately Republican) tendency to equate “exceptionalism” with “infallibility.”

    All-too-often I read commenters in my local conservative rag or Young Republicans-oriented students solemnly invoke the mantra, “My country — right or wrong,” where “wrong” is defined as “also right.”

    And, every time I hear it, I remind them (or, more likely, inform them), that their pet phrase is only the first of three clauses in that famous sentence from Senator Carl Schurz, an naturalized citizen who indeed believed in American Exceptionalism: “My country right or wrong; if right, to be kept right, and if wrong to be set right.”

    American Exceptionalism admits of the possibility that we get things wrong — and, more importantly, acknowledges that when we get things wrong it is our obligation to make them right. It is that quality that put the “exceptional” in the -ism.

  6. Great piece! “American Gratefulness” , I like it, and so close to Thanksgiving!

    As a non academic wide-eyed innocent reader of Front Porch I do wonder if everyone, including the candidates, understands the same thing when they say “American Exceptionalism “. I went to a dinner where this was the topic of discussion, and everyone seemed to have a slightly different interpretation of what Exceptionalism meant. It seems to have many facets.

    Is it the convenient convergence of characteristics that I think Tocqueville meant ( I am no expert on him), and many feel about the United States, or Exceptionalism in the “moral exemplar” exclusionary sense, of the sort you seem to be talking about. Are they separate understandings?

    What do the candidates mean when they use the term?

  7. “American Gratefulness” , I like it. Indeed, this country not only owes a lot to ideas born outside its borders, it also was left to mature and grow with little outside pressure.

    Besides, any politician or pundit who mentions “American Exceptionalism” should be asked what he means by that. Tocqueville never used the term and his observations were made more than 200 years ago! The world (and the US) is a very different place today.

  8. I’ve never related to the dogma of American exceptionalism. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that patriotism, as it is practiced today, is for chumps.

    But I love my home: my family, my community, and the land around me. I suspect this would be the case if I had been raised in France, or China, or Brazil. I’m always surprised that more people can’t intuit that.

    In any case, American exceptionalism isn’t just infantile fantasy. It’s ugly. To assign some kind of divine destiny to this country is to close your eyes to the vast bulk of American history and see only those things that reinforce your prejudices.

    Joseph Campbell put it best:

    “Totem, tribal, racial, and aggressively missionizing cults represent only partial solutions of the psychological problem of subduing hate by love; they only partially initiate. Ego is not annihilated in them; rather, it is enlarged; instead of thinking only of himself, the individual becomes dedicated to the whole of his society. The rest of the world meanwhile (that is to say, by far the greater portion of mankind) is left outside the sphere of his sympathy and protection because outside the sphere of the protection of his god. And there takes place, then, that dramatic divorce of the two principles of love and hate which the pages of history so bountifully illustrate. Instead of clearing his own heart the zealot tries to clear the world. The laws of the City of God are applied only to his in-group (tribe, church, nation, class, or whatnot) while the fire of a perpetual holy war is hurled (with good conscience, and indeed a sense of pious service) against whatever uncircumcised, barbarian, heathen, ‘native,’ or alien people happens to occupy the position of neighbor.”

  9. Tom Van Dyke–

    You said, “Mr. Mitchell’s ‘person who with a brash swagger asserts that America is the greatest nation on earth’ is a straw man.”

    I could not disagree more. I teach at one America’s service academies, and I run into these “straw men” (and “straw women”) every single day, and they will be running our military in 15 years. Many (not all) of them are at the academy because they believe deeply that America is the greatest nation in the history of the world; it is VERY difficult to get them to question this notion. They write history papers arguing that the Allies won WWII because “God was on our side.”

    This American Exceptionalism is an obviously theological belief that is dangerously aligned with American nationalism. Dangerous for America. Dangerous for theology. There is no Christianity that can really claim the name and believe anything remotely similar to American Exceptionalism. The USA has accomplished many things in the way of the possible accomplishments of the modern nation-state, but from the perspective of theology, it must be no more than one of the nations that rage and the peoples who plot in vain.

  10. We could get away with this kind of braggadocio when the USA, despite its wonderfully checkered history, actually did produce exceptional people and things at a consistent clip. People did not have to trumpet the exceptional declaration as a defiant bit of fear in the face of declining expectations.

    The nation remains remarkable in many ways but the hubris that has been droned into the citizen with the mantra of American Exceptionalism functions as a principle obstacle to waking up to the demands of this new era. American Exceptionalism has frequently been one of the chief tag lines for the War Party and given how the War Party has whatever it desires, you hear the phrase with increasing stridency as things get more bleak.

    One of the best demonstrations of the twisted state of American Exceptionalism is encapsulated in that marvelous scene from Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” where Slim Pickens kicks the A Bomb loose from its stuck bombay doors and rides it down, waving his cowboy hat and screaming like a bronc buster. The opposite pole remains the polyglot populace, diverse, divergent, cantankerous, hard working, generally good humored, just living their lives within a benediction that has been mortgaged out to some bad actors and finagling middlemen.

  11. Mark,
    Excellent essay, though you give the Democrats too much of a pass here. While liberal liberals (a.k.a. Democrats) like to accuse conservative liberals (a.k.a. Republicans) of rah-rah boosterism, let’s not forget a) the tradition of American Exceptionalism comes out of liberal theory (particularly the investment of human hopes and dreams in the nation state), and b) contemporary liberals are just as prone to invoke it. Recall, for instance, President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address when he declared (to wild, bi-partisan applause) “I do not accept second place for the United States of America.” See also this article by the liberal columnist, E.J. Dionne, who intoned that Democrats are just as enthusiastic about being Number One – they simply want to use economic, rather than military means (oh, really? talk about massive self-deception…).

    I talked about this topic as well back in a February 2010 posting. So much for hope and change…

  12. Thx for yr reply, Mr. WB, whoever you may be but I do understand yr pseudoanonymity, for reasons expressed.

    Many (not all) of them are at the academy because they believe deeply that America is the greatest nation in the history of the world; it is VERY difficult to get them to question this notion. They write history papers arguing that the Allies won WWII because “God was on our side.”

    Don’t dickhead this, play it straight up. Clarify their thinking. Ask them if they really mean that we were on God’s side” vs. the murdering Nazi genocidal bastards. We hope we’re on God’s side, and seek to be.

    That wasn’t even a close call. It wasn’t about USA! USA!

    If we’re to translate “American Exceptionalism” to our present day and age, it’s that we’re the microcosm of the macrocosm that is the earth, with respect and order—pluralism, that men of all creeds and races and the etc. can live together in liberty.

    “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

    That is the American exceptionalism, that such a thing is even possible. If I were a betting man, looking at human nature and its frailties, I’d say that it’s impossible in the longer term. But one nation under God is the only way it can enjoy God’s plan even in the short term.

    Mr. Mitchell speaks of a “person who with a brash swagger asserts that America is the greatest nation on earth.”

    A country song goes

    We’ll put a boot in your ass
    It’s the American way

    post 9-11, and I dig it as a fight song.

    And crown thy good
    With brotherhood
    From sea to shining sea

    remains our prayer as a nation. We are a prayerful and grateful nation, and have been since our Founding. Let us remain so.

    “…it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States.

    —GWash, First Inaugural

    Even if you don’t buy that God favored the Founding. Let us be grateful anyway for whatever, eh?

  13. Mr. Mitchell,

    Thank you – this essay is, I believe, right on point. America is “exceptional” in many ways, but consciousness of the gifts (and the power) that we have should lead, as you have pointed out, to humble gratitude rather than braggadocio or nationalistic fervor – the result of which is always disaster.

    Investing such faith in national exceptionalism is also dangerous in that it prevents us from acknowledging that we are capable of falling into obscurity if we are not vigilant, especially with respect to the social and moral environment we let develop for the upbringing of our families. It has been stated time and time again – truly – that republican government is utterly dependent on a virtuous citizenry (or at least a citizenry conscious of virtue and willing to defend it). Slow rot and collapse is the inevitable alternative.

    Mr. Deneen: though I have no love for the current administration, refusal to “accept second place for the United States of America” is an attitude I have no problem with, generally speaking.

    I believe that it’s absolutely possible (and good) to foster a patriotic love for the United States as a whole. I take more personal pride in being a Midwesterner and, more specifically, a Nebraskan, but the American republic is distinct, if flawed, and it’s ours – both to cherish and defend and to make right.

  14. Exceptionalism finds it’s expression as much (if not more) in isolationism as in interventionism. America needs to intervene on the opposite side the interventionists prefer. Further, it must invite and encourage foreign intervention within itself to counter both the interventionists and their isolationist alter egos.

  15. I can immediately think of one presidential candidate who has been consistently championing your suggestion for decades – Dr. Ron Paul. A foreign policy of the golden rule, peace & trade over wars & sanctions, and a quiet faith that isn’t worn on his sleeve as so many other candidates do for political gain.

    Excellent article and sorely needed advice which is deeply sweetened by the opportunity to support Ron Paul for president.

  16. American exceptionalism is nothing in comparison to Chinese exceptionalism. Ever heard of the middle kingdom? When these two exceptionalisms clash, it’s going to get ugly.

  17. Marion Miner,
    Whether one is Number One or Two or Forty-three depends, of course, on the criteria one uses. The default criteria tend to be measures of money and power. I’d like to see a debate about whether those criteria are the right ones, but my comments were intended to point out that, in spite of all the hew and cry, there’s no substantive discussion or even debate among the various contenders for “leadership.” It’s worth pointing this out in the face of the widespread belief that they are disagreeing about something that matters.

  18. “Even if you don’t buy that God favored the Founding. Let us be grateful anyway for whatever, eh?”
    Even if it lead to mass abortion and sodomy? There are two sides to any coin.

    “Ask them if they really mean that we were on God’s side” vs. the murdering Nazi genocidal bastards. We hope we’re on God’s side, and seek to be.”
    Indeed, but our victory in WWII was a victory for the liberals and social democrats more than it was for Christ. The traditional and conservative elements were destroyed in many of the countries involved before and after the war, and many who fought in that war aided and abetted that destruction. We should be careful about calling that war a complete victory for justice.

  19. I have no love for the evangelical right’s corruption of “American Exceptionalism”, nor Ronald Reagan’s importing Biblical historical-redemptive language (Sacred language) into the secular sphere; at the same time I do assert the American Exceptionalism outlined in the U.S. Constitution, which expresses our American Republic’s exceptionalism in its incorporation and protection of classical liberal values. These values; free minds, free markets, sovereignty of the individual, private property, freedom of religion, et al; are “exceptional” political philosophies for all peoples, races, religions, languages, and ethnicities. And these values – though polity decisions by Republican and Democratic candidates have been both constructive and destructive to such political insights – this American exceptionalism, based on the previous ideas, has led to the greatest personal liberty and wealth creation for the average person the world has ever seen. Is it perfect? By no means! But it has been the best system of government overall, regardless of the confines of the “constrained” vision man this side of temporal life is imprisoned within. Front Porch Republic writers often wage a polemical war against tired, warn out, and so called “Conservative” cliched stump speeches. Bravo! But it should be known not all things mainstream conservative bullet points are bad. In this way, FPR is often reactive rather than pro-active. Like the Founding Fathers, William F Buckley Jr did not argue for a modest republic, nor a small government – but a limited government confined to its enumerated powers explicated in the U.S. Constitution. The Founders did not foresee a modest republic, but a teaming metropolis; one of rural workers, farming, traders, merchants, artists, writers – of immense diversity seen and recorded by Alexis de Tocqueville. Many of the founding fathers saw America as an “Empire” of these values; not in a imperial sense, but in a libertine virtues sense. Candidates such as Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin – or Rick Perry! – express a thorough understanding of these nuances; neither does many of our pop “conservative” talking heads understand these pillars of conservative thinking, but alas, that doesn’t make it any less true. The problem with the evangelical right and pop conservatism is not American exceptionalism, but one of categorical errors and shallow understanding of what American exceptionalism is. In a world interconnected, globally vulnerable, a modest republic seen by many Ron Paul “libertarians” and some paleo-Conservatives is a republic not long for the world. And the founding fathers understood this. This is why the U.S. Constitution gives many another powers to the executive branch, yet has severe limitations on the Federal Government’s intrusion on sovereign individuals (American citizens). I am a classical liberal – libertarian, but have great reservations to certain positions taken by Ron Paul supporters and so called paleo-Conservatives. FPR should read more Buckley, and less Ron Paul.

  20. For the best conservative argument against National Exceptionalism (in any nation), see Remi Brague, “Eccentric Culture,” Chapter Seven.

  21. Great article. I’m a long-time lurker (rare commenter). As one who believes that political conservativism (like liberalism) is a false religion whose adherents are quite prone to adopt and advocate their civic religion whole cloth (gotta support the home team!), I’m pretty skeptical about purely conserverative (or liberal) sites. It’s pieces like this that remind me why I come here fairly regularly to sit down and enjoy a cold one.

  22. Was the Revolution unique? Look at the question experimentally. We have a nearly perfect “separated twins” situation. Not quite identical but certainly fraternal.

    Canada and US started out with basically the same people, the same resources and the same problems. US rebelled against the crown, Canada didn’t.

    Are the two separated twins dramatically different? No. Canada has more freedom in some ways, US has more freedom in some ways. Canada is doing better economically right now because they didn’t stupidly deregulate speculators in 1999, but in the long term it’s a wash.

    Exceptional idea? Nope. Just the natural working out of Anglo culture in a highly mixed populace. Same in both twins.

  23. It IS exceptional. *insert Meryl Streep*

    I didn’t read the article, so maybe this bit of sarcasm is unmerited.

  24. If only the candidates exhibited traces of humility, and if the voters sought humility over arrogance, then perhaps the republic would exhibit humility. But our electoral process hinges upon ‘which candidate will win the debate’.

  25. “You take the breath right out of me / you left a hole where my heart should be / you’ve got to fight just to make it through / because I will be the death of you.”

    The great American debate is a romance between false humility and the romantic individuals trying to escape that spirit.

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