The theology of American exceptionalism

Every four years America has a national revival, where candidates traverse the nation preaching about what it means to be American and the nation’s future. While these candidates’ sermons may differ, they agree that the US is exceptional; it should lead the world. Commonly, they justify this esteemed image of the nation by arguing that its exalted status is a divine endowment.

The theology of American exceptionalism has its origins in the rhetoric of the New England Puritans who viewed their development in America as divine will. John Winthrop famously argued that America is a “City upon a hill” that had gained God’s favor. However, these divine blessings are not unconditional, America’s moral direction is under constant judgement. The nation is always at risk of losing its heavenly grace if it violates God’s will. This theology has buttressed our definition of America and dictated its behavior. Recognizing the power of the theology of American exceptionalism, political leaders create their version of the American gospel within this framework.

During the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton evangelized that staying course would ensure divine blessings. Conversely, Donald Trump preached that the nation had lost its divine favor. Much like the rhetoric of the “Lost Cause”, a theme articulated by former Confederates in response to their defeat by the Union, Mr. Trump argued that incompetent and corrupt leadership caused the nation to lose its glory. Specifically, Mr. Trump tapped into an American gospel which focused on purity and called for the nation to rid itself of infidels and heretics. Political correctness and diversity had stripped the rightful leaders of the nation from their prominence and taken the nation off its divine path. For the nation to re-ascend in the divine hierarchy, it must reverse its course of action, and only he could save the nation’s corrupted soul.

Unlike past presidential candidates, who used implicit language, Mr. Trump was overt. In announcing his candidacy, he painted Mexican immigrants as the infidels who tainted the nation’s soul with their immoral behavior. Later he argued that the American Muslim community was actively subverting the nation from its divine path. While Hillary Clinton sermonized that America’s blessings come from religious and racial diversity, he argued diversity brought in heretics that must be expunged. Only through this purge could the nation return to its divinely dictated path.

Many questioned the sincerity of this rhetoric and attempted to advance a counter gospel. One need only look at the rhetoric of religious and political leaders at the Democratic National Convention to see the counter gospel in action. However, the outcome of the election demonstrates that Mr. Trump’s gospel is what resonated with the American public. Numerous studies demonstrate that Trump supporters were fearful of the nation’s racial and religious diversification. These Americans saw the dwindling presence of Whites and Christians as corrupting the nation’s soul.

This phenomenon of national soul cleansing is not limited to the United States. The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union along with other European nations pushing back against racial and religious diversity demonstrates that citizens in western industrialized nations feel threatened by globalization.

The American case is unique because of the continued insistence that the nation’s destiny is divinely inspired. Furthermore, American religious and racial identity are tightly intertwined. The highly segregated nature of America’s churches informs us that religious similarities cannot overcome racial dissimilarities. Because of this, White Americans perceive an assault on the nation’s religious identity as an attack on their racial identity.

Mr. Trump’s tapped into these fears and crafted a gospel that converted these citizens from passive to active. His speeches reassure them that they will be led out of the wilderness of racial and religious diversity. By advocating stricter immigration policies, instilling law and order in minority communities, and exorcising incompetent and corrupt politicians, he calls for returning control of the nation to those truly intended to be American. Much like the southern leaders who emerged after Reconstruction, his gospel promises national and global redemption.

Even with the success of Mr. Trump’s great revival, his American gospel is in a struggle with several others. Just as the gospel of slavery competed with the gospel of abolition and the gospel of segregation competed with the gospel of racial equality, the gospel of Trump will not go unchallenged. His combatants will be those who view diversity and protecting the marginalized as a divine edict. Individuals, such as Rev. William Barber and his Moral Mondays movement, will be tasked with converting the nation to this counter gospel. Soon we will see the effects of Mr. Trump’s great revival through policy and citizen action. Further, we will see the gospels crafted in response. But no matter what gospel is presented, it will be articulated in the theology of American exceptionalism.