6 Questions with John David Wilsey

Jonathan Den Hartog

It's been my great pleasure to get to know John David Wilsey. John is an assistant professor of History and Christian Apologetics at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's Havard School. He is also the associate Director for Southwestern's Land Center for Cultural Engagement, and he blogs at "To Breathe Your Free Air." He has been working on a project about "American Exceptionalism," and the resulting book--American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea--was just released late in 2015 by IVP Academic. I was glad to see that Mark Edwards has already given his recommendation of the book. Today we get to pepper John with 6 questions.

1. Exceptionalism is often treated as a dirty word among historians. What made you want to write a book about it?

Great point, and that is precisely one of the reasons I found the topic compelling. Exceptionalism is an ambiguous term that a lot of people use, but that can also have a lot of different meanings depending on context. And despite the fact that many historians and other academics do not find the term helpful, many of those same scholars continue to employ it.

I became interested in the intellectual history of exceptionalism while writing my dissertation on the Christian America thesis. In my study of Christian America since 1977, I found that American exceptionalism is entailed in the proposition that America was founded as a Christian nation. Despite wide disparity in how advocates of Christian America defined a “Christian nation,” those same advocates all agreed that America was normatively exceptional.
From whence came this need to assign theological significance to the American nation-state? What is the history of American exceptionalism as an idea? How has it developed in American history? What political, economic, social, and religious movements have shaped it over the years? What is the theology of American exceptionalism? Where do exceptionalism and Christianity conflict, and what are the ramifications? Can American exceptionalism be understood in non-theological terms? And is there any place for American exceptionalism in Christian civic engagement? These are some of the questions I brought to the project and am still interested in exploring.

Exceptionalism is, without a doubt, a dirty word among historians—and deservedly so, if we’re thinking of an exceptionalism that baptizes nationalism in Christian theology. But exceptionalism has a complicated history, and not every mention of exceptionalism means the same thing. It is an idea that is worthy of study, at least because it isn’t going away anytime soon.

2. On a related topic, how did you think about your audience while writing the book? Who were you speaking to, and how did that shape your treatment and approach?

I am an historian of ideas, but I am also an ordained Baptist minister. Having served in several Baptist churches over the years, I have gotten to know where Baptists are coming from in terms of their attitudes about America. Thus, one group I am addressing in the book is they who profess Christianity. Since the formation of the Moral Majority and the publication of The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall and David Manuel in 1977, fundamentalist Christians have been vociferous in their affirmations of Christian America and American exceptionalism.

But historically, these affirmations have not been limited to fundamentalists. Mainline Protestants, particularly in the first part of the twentieth century, were some of the most strenuous proponents of Americanism (see Kenneth J. Collins’ fine work, Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism). I devote a chapter to John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under Eisenhower and a mainline Protestant, to cite one example. And as historians like John Fea have pointed out, Americans of every generation since the founding have believed that America is a Christian nation, especially Americans who profess Christianity.

Keeping an audience of professing Christians in mind, but also those who do not subscribe to Christianity but are interested in religion, I look at the history and theology of exceptionalism since the seventeenth century. In particular, I address five theological themes in the book that have factored into exceptionalism as it has developed over the centuries—national election, divine commission, innocence, sacred land, and glorious past.

So, my aim in the book was to write both an intellectual history and a religious examination of American exceptionalism in order to more precisely define the concept, critique it from a broad Christian basis, and seek ways in which to recover the idea for responsible civic engagement. It is a labor of love for my fellow Christians, but it is also aimed to help anyone interested in American religious movements to understand the idea.

3. To clarify your ideas, what is the relationship of “Exceptionalism” to “Civil Religion?” Also, you differentiate an “Open Exceptionalism” from a “Closed Exceptionalism.” What sets them apart?

I define civil religion as “a set of practices, symbols, and beliefs distinct from traditional religion, yet providing a transcendent paradigm around which the citizenry can unite” (20). In his recent book American Civil Religion: What Americans Hold Sacred (Oxford, 2014), Peter Gardella emphasized that civil religion is meant to unify members of a political community around “monuments, texts, and images, along with the behaviors and values associated with them. 

So civil religion is a broad term describing what amounts to a real religion, complete with liturgies, traditions, symbols, sacred texts, and even individuals who minister in its name. American exceptionalism is a doctrine of civil religion, and is made up of sub-doctrines. The sub-doctrines, which comprise American exceptionalism are those I mentioned above: national chosenness, divine commission, innocence, sacred land, and glorious past.

American civil religion and exceptionalism are thus exclusive, at least if they are understood in these terms. Exceptionalism is philosophically exclusive in that it divides people into two groups, the Chosen and the Other. And historically, exceptionalism has been articulated in exclusivist terms over the years, to exclude African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans to name a few examples. Furthermore, exceptionalism hijacks its tenets from Christian theology. Election, divine commission, moral regeneracy, theology of place, and historical thinking are all either specific Christian doctrines or they have an important place in the Christian tradition. American exceptionalism often counterfeits these beliefs and practices for nationalistic purposes. Thus, in my historical and theological discussions, I classify this exclusivist, nationalist, and religious brand of exceptionalism as “closed exceptionalism.”

But I also argue that it is not necessary for civil religion and exceptionalism to be rigidly exclusivist, or to hijack Christian tradition or theology. Civil religion and exceptionalism can indeed exist in a way that is not inconsistent with Christianity. This is done through observance in the ideas expressed in the founding documents, particularly the Declaration of Independence. In the final chapter of the book, I juxtapose Justin Martyr with W. E. B. Du Bois to make this argument and to propose a model for open exceptionalist civic engagement.

4. As an example of some of those dynamics, you devote a section to John L. O’Sullivan. How is O’Sullivan appropriating theological concerns in his writings on Manifest Destiny?

O’Sulllivan is a fascinating person, and his writings on manifest destiny are striking in their appropriation of Christian themes. Three examples come to mind. For one thing, O’Sullivan had a high view of the Christian doctrine of providence, but his use of providence is for the advancement of American territorial expansion to the Pacific. Also, he believes that God’s providence can be read in the signs of the times with certainty, which is why he could say in 1845 that “Texas has been absorbed into the Union in the inevitable fulfillment of the general law which is rolling our population westward.”

O’Sullivan’s providential certainty led him to accept the idea of Anglo-American superiority. He thought that the white race was the culmination of human development. The destiny of Native and African Americans as well as Mexicans was that they would ultimately be permanently displaced. I hasten to clarify that this is not a Christian affirmation. But O’Sullivan’s appropriation and modification of the Christian understanding of providence takes him to these radical white supremacist prognostications.

Also, O’Sullivan believed that the gospel of Jesus Christ was an extension of the democratic idea, and that same gospel found its true fulfillment in the American Constitution. For O’Sullivan, salvation was found, not in the atonement of Christ worked out on the cross, but through democracy. Democracy was the hope of the nations for O’Sullivan, rather than the reconciliation of human beings to God.

5. I was much taken by your survey of Protestant Christian School/High School history textbooks. What did you find? Would you be willing to speculate as to how those messages might shape the vision of civic engagement passed on to those students?

Yes, in my survey of Christian school curricula (Bob Jones Press, A Beka Book, and Veritas Press), I found a consistent articulation of closed exceptionalism in their treatments of US history. Some of what I found was particularly striking—the authors of the Bob Jones text, for example, were not a bit shy about drawing an analogy between America and the New Heavens the New Earth! I was also struck by how, on the one hand, the texts minimized the sins of the American nation perpetrated on African Americans, Native Americans, and Mexicans, but on the other, cried out against the moral failures of the last twenty or so years (especially personified by Bill Clinton.) It was interesting how these texts, as artifacts of contemporary history, were simultaneously products of, and contributors to, the culture wars of the late 20th/early 21st century.

And it seems to me that the curricula I examined set out to make culture warriors. Clearly, the authors of the texts wanted students to “take America back” for God—some of them explicitly expressed that as a goal. My fear is that, in trying to help students think Christianly, these curricula have failed in helping students think historically. I argue that Christianity is an historical faith, and as such, thinking Christianly and historically are not mutually exclusive.

6. Finally, how would you characterize the benefits of adopting your open exceptionalist model?

Getting back to civil religion, and in particular, Gardella’s emphasis on how civil religion promotes unity, I argue that open American exceptionalism can serve as a basis for responsible civic engagement. Exceptionalism does not have to be articulated in exclusivist, nationalist, or even strongly theological terms. As I considered O’Sullivan as an example of the failings of closed exceptionalism, I considered Abraham Lincoln as an example of the potential for open exceptionalism.

For example, for Lincoln, the salient statement of the American founding was found in the Declaration of Independence—“all men are created equal.” This is an absolute statement, and it is consistent with the Christian doctrine of anthropology, namely, that all human beings are created in the image of God. Civil liberties, a high view of human life, the inherent dignity of the individual—these and other political ideas are rooted in the statement found in the Declaration. To adopt the Declaration as a foundational document articulating founding principles that are unchanging is a religious exercise because it is adopting an article of faith. But it is not an exercise that does violence to a Christian people’s confession or practice. Quite the contrary—it is consistent with that confession and practice.

But adopting the principle of equality as expressed in the Declaration does not mean we should divide people into groups of the Chosen and the Other. It does not mean we accept the idea that America has a God given responsibility to go everywhere in the world to enforce American-style democracy. And it does not mean that religious Americans have a responsibility to take something back for God, something that has been lost in a past golden age. None of these tenets of closed American exceptionalism are necessary to be patriotic citizens.

Hopefully, the book will make a contribution to the field of American intellectual history, to American religious studies, and to American civic engagement. Thanks for this opportunity to talk a bit about the project!

Thanks, John!


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