American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion

Reassessing the History of an Idea

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John D. Wilsey
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    InterVarsity Press
    , November
     2015.
     263 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830840946.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

John D. Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion is a focused book in many ways. As the title suggests, it is focused not on American civil religion as a general phenomenon, but rather on the long-standing belief within American civil religion that the United States holds a place of favor in the Divine’s plan for the world. Wilsey traces the growth of American exceptionalism from colonial times, and its dissemination throughout American culture in sermons, political rhetoric, art, and literature.

Wilsey is focused too in the way he treats American exceptionalism, breaking it down into two types: “open” and “closed.” Most of the things Wilsey sees as good—for example, inclusivism, expansive freedom, and a spirit of honest criticism—are associated with “open exceptionalism.” Most of the things that he sees as bad—such as exclusivism, limited freedom, and self-satisfaction—belong to the “closed” type. Throughout the text Wilsey portrays closed exceptionalism as the problem to which open exceptionalism is the solution.

Finally, Wilsey is focused in terms of his intended audience. Evoking memories of Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), Wilsey has written a book to conservative, evangelical Christians, whom he sees as especially, perhaps uniquely, prone to sanctifying the United States and in so doing, running off the rails of true Christianity. Wilsey describes how this has happened in the past and is happening now. His goal is to keep it from happening in the future.

In sum, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion is an intervention in the life of a specific faith community. Wilsey seeks to show conservative evangelicals the errors of exclusivist, white-washed, my-country-right-or-wrong civil religion, and to set them on the right path. He assures his readers that it is entirely possible to love Jesus and America. One just has to keep in mind that the love of Jesus comes first, and to know that America is at its best when it is open to difference, change, and critique.

The focus of Wilsey’s book is at once a great strength and a limitation. By drawing the lines of his inquiry so tightly around a doctrinal problem plaguing conservative evangelical Christians, he is able to move briskly and deftly over long stretches of American history, and to provide an admirably concise genealogy of America’s exceptionalisms, covering issues ranging from colonization and slavery to contemporary home-school curricula. Wilsey’s writing is clear, his terminology is consistent, and his argument will not be lost on most readers.

Yet by focusing so closely on civil religious doctrine and addressing such a specific readership, Wilsey avoids engaging with the other ways in which American civil religion has interacted with American Christianities, ways that are harder to see and that aren’t necessarily solved by a commitment to separate patriotic celebrations from worship services, or a decision to embrace diversity. Is it possible, for instance, that aspects of patriotic celebrations have strongly Christian substructures? Is there a properly Christian way to think about the rhetoric of suffering and salvation so often associated with American soldiers?

It is also unclear, given Wilsey’s commitment to a particular audience, whether he thinks that closed exceptionalism is only a problem for conservative evangelicals, or if he sees it as a wider phenomenon but doesn’t feel compelled to address it as it is manifest in other communities of faith. Moreover, if Wilsey’s open-exceptionalism compatible-evangelicalism, is the only or the best way to arrange faith in the divine and love of country in one’s life, has he done more in civic and religious terms than open one door to close another?

However one answers these questions, Wilsey’s book seems an important contribution for his intended audience. If the first sixteen years of the twenty-first century haven’t taught his readers that Americans ideals, strong, appealing, and transcendent as they may be, can be devilish in practice, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion should give them a great deal to talk about.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Ebel is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John D. Wilsey (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is assistant professor of history and Christian apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as associate director and senior research fellow for faith and liberty at the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern. He is the author of One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America.

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Comments

Anthony B. Pinn

This is a very useful review.  Much appreciated.  I'll look forward to reading the book.

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