John Wilsey is Assistant Professor of History and Christian Apologetics and Associate Director of the Land Center at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His first book, One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America, argues that America was not founded as a Christian nation but as a nation with religious liberty.
Wilsey’s book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea framed this interview.
The interview was conducted by David George Moore. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.
Moore: To what degree, if any, was the previous work you did in One Nation Under God? a catalyst for writing this book?
Wilsey: Yes, this book is an outgrowth of my research from One Nation Under God. That work originated as my PhD dissertation. I noticed while surveying the Christian America literature from 1977 to 2007 that American exceptionalism was entailed in the Christian America thesis. I spent a few pages describing how this was so in One Nation, but I did not have the space to devote a fuller attention to it. So, I decided to pursue a book length study on exceptionalism after One Nation was published.
Moore: You describe two different types of American exceptionalism: open and closed. Briefly sketch what they are and why it matters.
Wilsey: Exceptionalism is a loaded and ambiguous term, and the purpose of the book is to attempt to offer precision in how we understand what it means. To do that, I wanted to look at the history of exceptionalism as an idea going back to the Puritans of the 17th century and also to consider what theological commitments exceptionalism entails.
I argued in the book that exceptionalism has had strong theological commitments throughout American history. Still, exceptionalism has also been articulated in political/social forms, too. I call the theological forms of exceptionalism “closed exceptionalism” because these forms divide people into either the Chosen or the Other. Thus, theological, or closed, exceptionalism is exclusive. But “open exceptionalism” is based on the liberal founding ideals of the nation as expressed in documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. Open exceptionalism, because it does not generally appear in imperialistic or theological ways, is inclusive.
Moore: There are plenty of politicians on the right who have a closed form of American exceptionalism. Are there any politicians, either moderates or liberals, who articulate a closed form of American exceptionalism?
Wilsey: Interesting question. Because the Democratic Party has largely abandoned its interventionist policies that defined the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, closed exceptionalism has not been as widely embraced by those on the left. Obama is likely the most strenuous advocate of American exceptionalism on the left today, but the brand he extols is definitely open exceptionalism.
The most recent figure on the left to argue for closed exceptionalism would probably be Lyndon Johnson. An example of how he articulated closed exceptionalism is in his 1966 speech, “The Obligation of Power.”
Moore: For those who hold to an open form of American exceptionalism, are there any grounds to apologize for past abuses to Native Americans and African-Americans?
When Ronald Reagan acknowledged past abuses to Japanese Americans during World War II by offering reparations, this is an example of how open exceptionalism can take a step toward correcting past wrongs.
Moore: Other than Russell Moore, I haven’t seen many Southern Baptist leaders decry the immensely troubling endorsements of Trump by the likes of Jerry FalwelI Jr. or Robert Jeffress. I pay pretty close attention to the news and have been dismayed (but sadly not surprised) by the lack of critical scrutiny. I would like to buy each one of them a copy of your book, but I’m not convinced it would move the needle much. If you had the chance to sit down with those men, what would you say to them?
Wilsey: Another great question! I might sit down with these brothers of mine in Christ and take them to 2 Chronicles 7:14. We’d look at the verse, as well as the context of that verse as it is situated in the larger passage of chapters 1-7. I would show them how to interpret the passage in its immediate historical context, but more importantly, how Christ fulfills the passage in his redemption of humankind through his death, burial, and resurrection. It is centrally because of Christ that we do not think about nations and lands being chosen by God. Christ is God, having come down to us as one of us and in bringing reconciliation through his atonement for sin. There is no longer any need for chosen nations and lands, because God now dwells with His people, the universal church.
Moore: You write some very helpful things about not confusing loyalty with conformity. You are addressing what it means to be a good citizen, but your discussion is very applicable to what I’ve seen in many Christian organizations where those raising legitimate concerns can be marginalized for being “critical spirits.” Would you unpack a bit more about the importance of not confusing loyalty with conformity?
Wilsey: Sure. True loyalty does not overlook faults. True loyalty brings faults into the light so that those faults might be corrected. Proverbs 27:6 tells us that “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” This is referring to personal relationships, but the same can be said about patriotism. The notion of “America, right or wrong” is thoroughly unhelpful, and has gotten the nation into trouble in the past. On the other hand, protest movements that have stood against injustice—particularly the civil rights movement and the pro-life movement—help the nation be confronted with its sins and figure out ways to correct evil trends.
Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers will take away from your fine work?
Wilsey: Thanks for the interview!
I hope readers will see that embracing closed exceptionalism is not an appropriate way to express patriotism. As I wrote in the book, true patriotism does not equal absolute agreement with everything the nation is doing. What happens when the nation begins trampling upon the rights of freedom of religion or freedom of speech? What happens when our own friends, neighbors, family members—even ourselves—are persecuted for what we say or what we believe? True patriotism entails standing up for the right, and opposing the wrong, as Lincoln famously said in many of his speeches and writings. America is historically an exceptional nation, and exceptionalism as a political/social construct built on the founding ideals puts us on a path to responsible civic engagement.