John D. Wilsey is Assistant Professor of History and Christian Apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (IVP Academic, 2015).
JF: What led you to write American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea?
JW: This project arose out of my dissertation on the Christian America thesis from 1977-2007 that I finished back in 2010. When I encountered the idea of American exceptionalism in the context of the Christian America thesis, I knew I wanted to explore it further. I was intrigued because the Christian America thesis at the turn of the 21st century clearly entailed American exceptionalism. Furthermore, after reading Anthony Smith’s incomparable Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity, it became obvious that most Western civilizations since the fourth century believed themselves to be, in some way, God’s chosen nation.
I could only mention exceptionalism briefly in the dissertation. But once the dissertation was finished, I revisited the idea, presenting a paper on it at the Conference on Faith and History meeting in 2012. The presentation went awful (I thought). I remember taking a moment to myself after my panel was concluded and wanting to have a good cry. But it forced me back to the drawing board—I read an article by James W. Ceaser on the origins of American exceptionalism, and the light turned on for me. It was a key moment in my thinking about exceptionalism, and I think Ceaser’s article made the difference when I wrote the book proposal.
On a more personal level, I grew up surrounded by a strong military tradition on both sides of my family. But I was intrigued by the whole idea of God and country. What happens when we use God-talk to self-identify as a nation? And what are the theological entailments in American exceptionalism? These remain fascinating questions to me, and the intersection between nationalism and religion in history is a busy one indeed!
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion?
JW: American exceptionalism has historically entailed several theological assertions, and can thus be an idea that is exclusionary, imperialistic, and contrary to Christianity from which it is indebted. But exceptionalism can also be construed in political/social terms, and when it is, the idea forms the groundwork for sound patriotism and healthy civic engagement.
JF: Why do we need to read American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion?
JW: American exceptionalism is a very old idea. It can be traced back to the Puritans of the seventeenth century, and it evolved around the contours of all the major crises America faced from the colonial period to the present. And everyone is talking about it. A casual Google search of “American exceptionalism” yields 775,000 results. President Obama—a president whose patriotism is often questioned—frequently refers to it in his rhetoric, most notably perhaps in his response to the Syrian crisis in 2013, his commencement address at West Point in 2014, and in his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march earlier this year.
But hardly anybody defines their meaning when they use the term. Most people think that the term is concrete, and universally agreed upon and understood. But it is an ambiguous term that demands precision.
Exceptionalism is also an article of faith. Interestingly, when people consider exceptionalism, they often speak about it in terms of either “believing in” American exceptionalism or not. This way of thinking about exceptionalism seems to suggest that the idea is often more than a political idea—it is a tenet of a civil religion.
Because Americans employ the term so frequently, so ambiguously, and so often as an article of faith, I think it is important that we explore the history and theology of the idea. What are we talking about when we invoke American exceptionalism? What have Americans in the past meant when they have expressed nationalistic feeling in ways consistent with what we call exceptionalism?
And most importantly, what damage does American exceptionalism do to the Christian religion? What harm has the idea wrought within our own national community, and in the world? And is there any way the idea can be put to positive use in the ways we Americans self-identify and engage one another and other peoples of the world? I think America is an exceptional nation, and I also think that exceptionalism can serve as a model for healthy civic engagement—provided that we define it in open, political/social terms and reject its strong theological assertions.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JW: I was inspired to study history by my grandfather, Jasper N. Dorsey, my high school history teacher, Doug Frutiger, and my professors at Furman University, particularly Marian Strobel and Lloyd Benson. And David Puckett, my church history professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was another important person in my development as a student and as a scholar. American history is terribly fascinating to me, and since our history is so comparatively short, it is amazing how close we are to the events that shaped our nation. I’m not sure when I decided I wanted to make the study of history my life’s work, but I’m sure glad I did!
JF: What is your next project?
JW: Presently, I’m editing, abridging, and writing an introduction for Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America for Lexham Press. I’ll finish that project by the end of the year, and then I’d like to pursue a study of W. E. B. Du Bois’ writings on American identity as his views evolved from his early to middle to late career.
JF: Thanks, John! Sounds like some great stuff.