Book Reviews

American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion

Reassessing the History of an Idea

John D. Wilsey Downers Grove December 22, 2015

Wilsey is assistant professor of history and Christian apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to teaching graduate students at the J. Dalton Havard School of Theological Studies in Houston, Texas, he also teaches at the Darrington Extension of Southwestern Seminary, an accredited undergraduate program in biblical studies in the maximum security prison in Rosharon, Texas. In an earlier book, he evaluated the view that the United States of America is a Christian nation (One Nation under God? An Evangelical Critique of Christian America [Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011]).

In this book, Wilsey evaluates the claim that America is an exceptional nation, probes the implications of such a claim, and assesses the relationship between exceptionalism and civil religion. He asserts: “The fact is that Americans have always seen themselves as exceptional. Americans have not always used the term exceptionalism to describe the stark uniqueness of America as a land and a nation. However, the idea that Americans are a people especially chosen by God and given a destiny to fulfill by him has endured since colonial days” (p. 16). Wilsey draws a helpful distinction between a closed and an open exceptionalism. The former “is at odds with the Christian gospel,” since it is rooted in “several themes imported from Protestant Christian theology and applied to America: (1) chosen nation, (2) divine commission, (3) innocence, (4) sacred land and (5) glory” (p. 18). Open exceptionalism, rooted in biblical themes of “justice, freedom and equality among nations” is less problematic (p. 19). In short, “As an element of civil religion, exceptionalism is a coin with two sides. The closed side is exclusive; the open side inclusive. The closed side limits freedom to some; the open side expands it to all. The closed side is self-satisfied, because it is based on determinism. The open side is never satisfied, because it is reaching for an ideal based on natural law and rights theory as well as historical contingency. The closed side denies America can do wrong; the open side acknowledges America’s flaws and endeavors toward improvement” (ibid.). He concludes, “The Christian gospel chastens closed exceptionalism, to keep the nation from becoming an object of worship. Open exceptionalism chastens sectarianism, encouraging the advance of religious freedom” (ibid.). By “civil religion” Wilsey means “a set of practices, symbols and beliefs distinct from traditional religion, yet providing a universal values paradigm around which the citizenry can unite” (p. 20). Since America has no state church, “a civil religion arises to fill the role that an established religion might have played in society” (p. 21).

After an introduction that defines terms and explains the contrast between closed and open exceptionalism, the book follows a chronological, historical approach. In “The Origins of American Exceptionalism,” the author identifies the theological, political, exegetical, and historiographical roots. Theologically, Wilsey grounds exceptionalism in “the Puritan understanding of covenant, typology and millennialism” (p. 40). Later chapters examine the expansion of the nation, manifest destiny, slavery, and the treatment of native Americans and immigrants. Wilsey’s evaluation of the impact of exceptionalism during the World Wars and the Cold War is insightful, particularly when it comes to the interaction between John Foster Dulles and W. E. B. Du Bois, which the author describes as a clash between open (Du Bois) and closed (Dulles) exceptionalism. Wilsey observes, “Du Bois challenged Dulles to be true to the American ideals of personal liberty, human dignity and self-determination” (p. 218). Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. are also positive examples of this principle: “Dissent has historically been a significant aspect of what it means to be an American, and is thus a significant aspect of open exceptionalism” (p. 141).

Later chapters examine the implications of exceptionalism for an American view of the nation’s land, including an excellent discussion of a theology of place. They also show how major home-school history curricula defend closed exceptionalism. A final chapter calls Christians to practice good citizenship, while remaining cautious about the appeal of closed exceptionalism. Wilsey observes, “Perhaps the first task before Christian people, when considering what open exceptionalist citizenship looks like, is to differentiate the church from the nation while situating the church within the national community. By doing this, Christians understand that patriotism does not equate to spirituality. By simultaneously distancing the church from the nation and placing it within the nation, Christians need not sacrifice their unique confession of faith, their loyalty to the nation or their prophetic voice when the nation acts unjustly” (p. 222).

This excellent book offers an insightful theological and historical evaluation. Wilsey avoids caricature and overstatement, while clearly articulating the dangers of closed exceptionalism. His classification of open and closed is helpful, yet perhaps there are multiple positions on the continuum that Wilsey could have explained. The book also begs for a sequel, though it is too soon to be able to evaluate recent political and religious trends and their influence on civil religion. How does the rise of atheism and agnosticism impact this religious perspective?

This book will be helpful to lay people and scholars, pastors and teachers, students and others who desire to be good Christian citizens of America. The problems and concerns are real, particularly for those who are troubled by the blurring of patriotism and nationalism with Christianity. Especially on holidays like Memorial Day and Independence Day, American evangelical churches “associate patriotism with spirituality. . . . Pledges to the flag, singing patriotic hymns, extolling the glorious dead and their sacrifices on our behalf for the cause of freedom—these are all things we Christians often do alongside the worship of Christ during the time we set aside for our sacred corporate gathering around prayer, the Scriptures and the sacred ordinances. Does it not seem strange and contradictory that we who affirm the sole supremacy of Christ exult over American glory at the same time and place that we gather to confess that ‘Jesus is Lord?’ ” (p. 215). That is a good question, indeed, and one that the readers of Wilsey’s book will be better equipped to understand and answer.

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Glenn R. Kreider
Dr. Kreider is professor of theological studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He identifies his motivations as his passion for the triune God and his desire to help others respond to divine revelation in spirit and truth. Prior to coming to DTS he served as director of Christian education and pastored a church in Cedar Hill, Texas. Dr. Kreider’s research interests include Jonathan Edwards, theological method, and our eschatological hope. He is married to his best friend, Janice, and they have two grown children, a son-in-law, and one granddaughter, Marlo Grace. He and Janice enjoy live music, good stories, bold coffee, and their four rescue dogs—two pugs, a chihuahua, and an adorable black lab named Chloe.
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