Civil Religion—or Christianity?
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.
In short: “America is not God’s chosen nation; it does not exist in some specially privileged position with God. And whatever God’s sovereign plan is for America in his overall program for human history, no man, no woman, no child can know it because God has not spoken it.”
Amen to that. This is the kind of epistemic humility that would guard believer and unbeliever alike against chosen-nation hubris. If Wilsey had stopped there, I would be celebrating this book as an important departure for American evangelicals and a welcome tool to help them begin a long-overdue reassessment of America and their place in it as citizens.
I have argued before in favor of a salvageable conception of American exceptionalism. For lack of a better adjective, I call it the “old exceptionalism” and have tried to anchor it in the United States’ distinct political, economic, and religious institutions. This seems to me to be the only “safe” way to contain an idea that otherwise justifies an expansive, moralistic domestic and foreign policies. Wilsey’s “open exceptionalism,” while in some ways more constrained than the standard nationalist and imperialist version, turns out to be something quite different from the old exceptionalism. And those differences ought to give pause to conservatives and to confessional Christians troubled by an evangelical transformationalism that never seems to disengage itself from the social gospel.
In a number of ways, Wilsey’s book unintentionally confirms Darryl Hart’s thesis that American evangelicals are temperamentally ill-suited to be conservatives.
First, Wilsey doesn’t let go of an outward-directed American mission. He hangs on to a robust version of the national purpose—a universal, benevolent, humanitarian calling from God to promote justice and “human flourishing” at home and abroad. In his search for a national mission in line with America’s best traditions and with Christian theology, he affirms George W. Bush’s account of such a mission in his justification for America’s humanitarian efforts in Africa. For Wilsey, this is the kind of mission that patriotic Christians, faithful to their nation’s and their faith’s best traditions, can endorse.
“America is on a mission of mercy,” Bush said in 2008. This mission advanced U.S. “security interests” by preventing the spread of dangerous radical ideologies that prey on suffering, and it served the nation’s “moral interests” by recognizing all people as “children of God” and the moral obligation of the strong to help the weak.
These may be noble ethical sentiments akin to neighbor helping neighbor, but it is hard to see what they have to do with the U.S. Constitution and the president’s oath of office.
Second, Wilsey cannot let go of the presupposition that American conduct in the world needs to be based on a biblical standard. He uses the famous words of Micah 6:8—“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Wilsey applies this “moral mission” from the Old Testament prophet to “all people,” not just to the covenant community. “Of this mission, Americans can have certainty,” he promises. And that means “it is not necessary to abandon the idea of a national mission” in toto once we abandon closed exceptionalism. “A concept of national mission that is animated by justice, self-examination and stewardship of resources,” Wilsey concludes, “is potentially a source of true human flourishing.”
Those who prefer America’s original purpose-statement found in the Constitution might worry about exchanging “general welfare,” “domestic tranquility,” and protection from all enemies for global “human flourishing.”
Third, a heavy dose of nationalism persists in Wilsey’s open exceptionalism. This tendency becomes most evident in his conclusion. He needs to hold on to civil religion and a certain brand of exceptionalism because of their unifying power in the midst of increasing diversity. He longs for a national community in the ways that the sociologist Robert Nisbet warned against more than half a century ago. Even his notion of patriotism is surprisingly abstract. It is a patriotism without place. In fact, he calls patriotism the “love expressed to the national community.” The intermediary communities vanish.
Fourth, despite his commendable caution, Wilsey shows his evangelical colors by the degree to which he craves a transformative role for America and the Church. His America is a very bright beacon that will change the world. This expansive exceptionalism will promote “justice, natural rights and the ethical well-being of the nation and the world.” It is “inclusive,” and it (again) promotes “human flourishing.”
“Open” indeed. This America still pursues the liberal, rights-based, universal, benevolent, humanitarian mission the Kantians have always dreamed of. Open exceptionalism, Wilsey writes, “is never satisfied, because it is reaching for an ideal based on natural law and rights theory as well as historical contingency.” This “open exceptionalism … serves as a benefit to the nation to religion and to the world by fostering a civic engagement informed by freedom, equality and justice.” And Wilsey grounds much of this idealism in a very loose reading of the Declaration of Independence as the key to the Constitution and the “real” America.
Wilsey is certainly right to warn that a “nationalized” Christianity unable to tell the difference between the nation’s calling and the Church’s mission is fatal to the gospel. But an “ethicized” Christianity, via the social gospel, is also fatal, as we figured out more than a hundred years ago. Evangelicals have proven themselves to be gullible for both nationalism and social gospelism. (The history of that fatal attraction is yet to be written.) Evangelicals eager to rethink nationalism and imperialism need to go further and rethink the social gospel of “applied Christianity” as well.
More broadly, and this is my fifth objection, Wilsey accepts a modern and liberal (mis)reading of American history and identity. He endorses the radical social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, affirms Robert Bellah’s interpretation of civil religion, and gives nearly the book’s last words to Peter Gardella’s recent definition of America’s civil religion as “liberty, democracy, world peace and cultural tolerance.”
This way of reading the meaning of America leads Wilsey to insist that “the church must find its prophetic voice” in such critics of moral complacency as Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois. Considering that the Church already has, and always has had, its prophetic voice, this is an odd rebuke. It is all the odder since Wilsey’s admonition follows directly upon a discussion of Justin Martyr and Augustine as models for civic engagement.
In the end, does Wilsey’s sanctified exceptionalism really escape the hubris of national vanity? His “open” exceptionalism may be safer for American Christians than “closed” exceptionalism. But conservative Christians will be left wondering what this grand vision of the benevolent empire has to do with constitutional republicanism. Wilsey offers Christians a false choice between two kinds of imperialism—selfish and altruistic—both at war with American constitutionalism and both unsafe. Wilsey’s “open” exceptionalism isn’t open enough—open to the possibility that his own analysis is closed around the contemporary dogmas of Americanism.
Richard Gamble is the author of In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth.