Robert Jones writes in The Washington Post's On Faith about the myth of American religious exceptionalism:
American exceptionalism: divine hall pass?
By Robert P. Jones in The Washington Post's On Faith
The idea of American exceptionalism, that God has singled out the country for a special role in human history, goes back to the earliest English settlements on what is now American soil. While still onboard their ship the Arbella in 1630, John Winthrop delivered his well-known sermon to the Massachusetts Bay colonists, describing colonial destiny with biblical metaphor:
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.... For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.
In his famous Second Inaugural Address following the Civil War in which both sides claimed divine favor, Abraham Lincoln struggled to reconcile American exceptionalism with the legacy of slavery and the bloody facts on the ground. And modern presidents as diverse as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan have hearkened back to Winthrop's biblical imagery.
But the idea of a special, even divine, role for America can be fairly slippery. At its best, it has inspired Americans to hold themselves to a high moral standard, serving as exemplar to other nations. At its worst, it becomes a license for rationalizing away morality itself. The former demands humility and responsibility and ties us to the moral human community, making our exceptionalism dependent upon how we treat not only our fellow citizens but our enemies. The latter breaks the bonds of moral solidarity, and turns exceptionalism into a political tool--a kind of divine hall pass that can be conveniently wielded for strategic advantage.