Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

American Exceptionalism and Religious Freedom

Dennis Hoover


The phrase “American exceptionalism” now occupies an unprecedented position in the American public conversation. As Jerome Karabel notes in a recent Huffington Post blog, LexisNexis data on media coverage over the past three decades shows only occasional mentions of “American exceptionalism,” but in 2011 mentions spiked upward to nearly 3,000.

The reason is politics. It started in April 2009 while President Obama was on his first European tour and was asked by a Financial Times reporter if he subscribed to American exceptionalism. Obama began his response with: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Although Obama went on to say that he does believe Americans “have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional,” conservative critics immediately seized upon this initial hedge against appearing arrogant as evidence of Obama’s unpatriotic equivocation.

The two most zealous critics have been Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. On the campaign trail and in their recent books (Romney’s No Apology: The Case for American Greatness and Gingrich’s A Nation Like No Other: Why Exceptionalism Matters), these leading candidates for the GOP presidential nomination have competed in making American exceptionalism a campaign issue. A favorite turn of phrase is that the US is a “city set upon a hill.” Gingrich’s production company even released a “documentary” titled A City Upon a Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism. The phrase is a quote from Matthew 5:14, used in 1630 by the Puritan John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in his famous sermon "A Model of Christian Charity."

What’s largely missing in today’s rhetoric is an emphasis on the one thing that is truly most exceptional about the American experience in world-historical perspective—namely, its early embrace (at least in principle) of religious freedom. Indeed, it is ironic that the “city on a hill” has become the go-to metaphor for exceptionalism, because Winthrop himself was concerned with spiritually purifying a state church (the Church of England), not with instilling religious freedom in a new country. It was in fact the Rhode Island model of robust religious freedom, as advocated by the Baptist Roger Williams, that would later define the core of American national identity, not the ethos of religious establishment that pervaded Massachusetts and lingered there for decades even after Independence.

Although there have been some gaps between ideals and realities, the overall trajectory of the American experience with religious freedom is a legitimate source of national pride and should be celebrated. And yet it should not be celebrated in the context of a politicized patriotism. To do so would be, among other things, counterproductive to US efforts to promote religious freedom internationally. Even the most die-hard enthusiast of American exceptionalism will recognize that there is hardly any point in being an “exemplar nation” if no other nations follow the example. As such, religious freedom should be held up not as something other nations can embrace only after first bowing to American superiority, but rather as something that is consistent with the best of their own values and enlightened self-interest. Moreover, it should be celebrated in a way that makes it politically easier, not harder, for other religiously-free democratic countries to join the US in promoting international religious freedom.

—Dennis R. Hoover is Editor of the Institute for Global Engagement’s journal, The Review of Faith & International Affairs. The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily those of IGE.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”