Magazine article The American Conservative

Civil Religion-Or Christianity?

Magazine article The American Conservative

Civil Religion-Or Christianity?

Article excerpt

American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea, John D. Wilsey, Intervarsity Press, 240 pages

Can "exceptionalism" be made safe for America? Can exceptionalism be made safe for American Christians who desire to be at the same time patriotic and faithful to their God? As long as exceptionalism remains the test of creedal orthodoxy it has been turned into, these questions will need to be answered with all the sound historical and theological judgment at our disposal.


To that worthy end, John Wilsey offers a timely reassessment of American exceptionalism. He sets out to discover what, if anything, in the idea of exceptionalism can be salvaged as consistent with America's founding principles and with Christian theology. He argues that exceptionalism, and the civil religion it helps sustain, can indeed be made safe, if freed from its worst abuses and confined within ethical and theological limits.

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.

Wilsey, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, builds his case on a distinction between what he calls "closed" and "open" exceptionalism. This contrast serves as his organizing principle to understand the American identity. "Closed" and "open" correspond somewhat with the "missionary" and "exemplary" categories familiar from older studies in American foreign policy. They help Wilsey distinguish between the nationalist, imperialist, selfish exceptionalism that he rejects as un-American and un-Christian, on the one hand, and the patriotic, liberal, benevolent exceptionalism he favors on the other. The emergence of "closed" exceptionalism in the early national period, evident in slavery and land-grab of manifest destiny, betrayed the "objective, transcendent, authoritative" principles of justice articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

Wilsey employs five themes to sort out the differences between open and closed exceptionalism. These themes, indebted largely to America's Protestant heritage and appropriated from Christian theology, are 1.) chosen nation, 2.) divine commission, 3.) innocence, 4.) sacred land, and 5.) glory. When abused, each of these ideas poses a danger to the nation and to authentic Christianity. All go back to the beginning of American history, all have shown that they cause mischief at home and abroad, and all need to be guarded against or corrected. Some, such as America's identity as the chosen nation, cannot be salvaged because of how far they intrude on Christian theology and rob the Church of its identity. Likewise, belief in divine commission is "theologically problematic" because only the Church has been entrusted with anything like the Great Commission. The real missionary enterprise does not belong to America.

A more sober, responsible American exceptionalism would resist the delusion of national innocence and instead cultivate habits of self-examination, recognize the nation's failures to live up to its ideals, and make its peace, in the fashion of Reinhold Niebuhr, with a world of moral ambiguity and irony. Instead of reveling in triumphalist vanity, open exceptionalism would acknowledge the dark moments in America's past and not long for a "golden age" that never existed. And it would no longer misapply the biblical "dominion mandate" by exploiting the land but instead care for it, as good stewards of God's creation should. …

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