American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion

Mark Edwards

Books and articles on civil religion continue to abound.  In his recently released work, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, John Wilsey offers a genealogy of thought about god and nation.  Wilsey has also written on this subject here at the blog.  I have not read the book in its entirety but still wanted to recommend it and to make a few observations.

Wilsey sees American exceptionalism as part of civil religion, which
he defines as "a set of practices, symbols and beliefs distinct from traditional religion, yet providing a universal values paradigm around which the citizenry can unite" (20).  Wilsey traces exceptionalist thinking from the Puritans to the Reagan era.  Along the way, he posits a divide between "open" and "closed" expressions.  As he writes:

American exceptionalism is not a monolithic concept to be either totally rejected or devotedly embraced.  It is not a signpost with only one side.  As an element of civil religion, exceptionalism is a coin with two sides.  Closed exceptionalism, as one side of the coin, must be faced down to avoid idolatry; open exceptionalism must be faced up to foster human flourishing.  The closed side is exclusive; the open side is inclusive.  The closed side limits freedom to some; the open side expands it to all.  THe closed side is self-satisfied, because it is based on determinism.  The open side is never satisfied, because it is reaching for an ideal based on natural law and rights theory as well as historical contingency.  The closed side denies America can do wrong; the open side acknowledges America's flaws and endeavors toward improvement.  The Christian gospel chastens closed exceptionalism, to keep the nation from becoming an object of worship.  Open exceptionalism chastens sectarianism, encouraging the advance of religious freedom (19).

At times, it is hard to tell if Wilsey is reporting, narrating, preaching, or a combination of the three.  To be sure, Wilsey is mainly writing within and for a particular Christian community--positing an "open exceptionalist model for civic engagement" in his conclusion.  Still, his work deserves a wider audience for the several ways in which it engages with broader stories of American history.

For instance, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion immediately reminded me of a book on the "long 1960s" that I use in classes, Simon Hall's American Patriotism, American Protest (2010).  Hall effectively counters neoconservative arguments that the "days of rage" were somehow un-American.  In fact, Hall finds that the civil rights movement, women's liberation, gay civil rights, and even black power drew upon historically patriotic images when confronting narrow conceptions of American citizenship.  Wilsey's "open" exceptionalists do the same.  Readers will rightfully wonder about the racialized nature of the exceptionalist debate Wilsey uncovers: It seems closed exceptionalists were predominantly white (Reagan, John Foster Dulles) while their challengers (W. E. B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X) were persons of color.  In any case, there is much great food for thought in Wilsey's volume.  Be on the lookout for an interview with Wilsey sometime next month.