The Common Good

Thanksgiving and American Exceptionalism

Date: November 24, 2010

 A columnist for the Evangelical Left Sojourners group was also disturbed by the survey. "As a Christian, I tend to believe that God has a 'special role' for every person and every nation," noted Evan Trowbridge, a Sojournerscommunications staffer. "Too often, however, we confuse 'special' with 'exceptional.' If we agree that God has granted the United States a special role in history, then shouldn't we also agree that God has granted Thailand and Kenya a special role? Unfortunately, I don't think that's what most of the respondents in the study had in mind…"

No, it almost certainly is not what most American exceptionalists have in mind. Even non-believers in American exceptionalism must grant that America's story has an outsized influence on the world that exceeds Thailand's and Kenya's. Many on the Left fret that American exceptionalism is synonymous with superiority, imperialism, and exploitation. But the original Calvinist theorists, from the first Thanksgiving onward, envisioned American civilization having special duties, not special privileges. Failure to comply with these duties risked divine wrath. Later, more generic versions of American exceptionalism, at least at its best, cited America's special role as exemplar of democracy and justice. American exceptionalists were never exclusively property owning, patriarchal, Anglo-Saxon Protestant white males. Social reformers of all races and both genders, especially religious ones, successfully cited exceptionalism to justify their appeals for a more just America.