John D. Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion sheds light on the ways that Americans through history have conceived of the United States as a blessed nation.
The book is organized around various historical periods, from the origins of exceptionalism in the earliest colonial periods to modern times. One aspect of American exceptionalism is “the idea that Americans are a people specially chosen by God and given a destiny to fulfill by him…” (16, cited below). Throughout the book, Wilsey shows how this idea has developed and how it has negatively impacted not only our theology but also the way the country developed politically and ethically.
Wilsey traces the sad history of slavery and expansion into North America, highlighting how the ideology of American Exceptionalism played into the whole endeavor. Because that which was deemed “American” was theologically tied to a concept of chosen nation and a skewed view of manifest destiny, people from the lowliest white farmer to the President of the United States were able to justify heinous acts upon fellow human beings. Furthermore, due to the concept of chosen nation that theologians lifted from the pages of the Bible and applied to the United States, many of these atrocities were dismissed as aspects of a new eschatological narrative pointing towards the concept of America’s growth and civil religion.
This notion is made particularly acute in the chapter entitled “The Innocent Nation” which shows how various American leaders portrayed the United States as innocent and without moral faults. Though this narrative was often challenged, it has been maintained over time and modified to keep up a notion of America as the moral light for all nations. The occasional mixing in of imagery is a powerful way Wilsey depicts narratives like this, such as the image of John Gust’s American Progress (featured on p. 78). Readers are exposed to a number of firsthand accounts and quotes from those involved in the process of theologizing and putting forth ideas about the United States.
Balance is an admirable feature of this book, which cautions against going to extremes in either direction related to the notion of the United States as a chosen nation. Moreover, even when critical of certain figures throughout history, Wilsey notes how many helped to bring about some good as well. For example, a few Presidents have perpetuated notions of America as an “Innocent Nation” while still working for justice and international peace–thus showing that exceptionalism can lead to a belief that those with the blessings ought to use them to help others.
What is all too often lacking in books like this is presentation of a way forward. That is, too often books like this focus solely on showing the problems with systematic corruption or evil, but then leave readers at a loss for how to combat it or try to move beyond it. Wilsey, however, laces commentary on “open exceptionalism” throughout the book as a way for Christians to remain appreciative of the blessings of their country without turning to an unbiblical view of deifying their nation. This open exceptionalism allows for Americans to see the United States as blessed with certain freedoms and prosperity, while still moderating notions that might lead to seeing America as above criticism or without fault. Thus, he provides a way to reevaluate our own views and move towards a position where we can remain patriotic while not falling into the traps of an exceptionalism that redefines Christianity.
American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion is an incisive critique of the notion of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion. Moreover, it provides a way forward for those wanting to help bring about change.
+Excellent analysis of American exceptionalism
+Presents a positive way forward
+Utilizes several threads of evidence
-Requires readers to draw out definitions on some points
Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of the book by the publisher. I was not required to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
John D. Wilsey, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015).
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