The American Exceptionalisms of Foner and the Cheneys

The American Exceptionalisms of Foner and the Cheneys September 2, 2015

I’m pleased to present a guest post by John Wilsey, an assistant professor of history and Christian apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of the forthcoming American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea, which will be published by InterVarsity Press Academic. I had the privilege of reading it in manuscript form, and I hope my blurb for the book, which you’ll be able to purchase in November, reflects the high regard with which I view the book: “This unsparing recitation of manifest destiny, Indian removal, slavery, Cold War dualism and pervasive jingoism should give all American Christians pause. John Wilsey, in offering an alternative model for Christian engagement with the state, moves the conversation toward a higher ideal of global and kingdom citizenship.”


Presidential election seasons can be counted on to stimulate discussions about the meaning of American exceptionalism. Last week, in the span of two days, three writers articulated two forms of exceptionalism using the upcoming 2016 presidential contest as their backdrop.

On August 27, Eric Foner wrote an op-ed in The Nation on recent Republican calls for the “repeal or reinterpretation” of birthright citizenship, laid out in the 14th Amendment. The next day, an article written jointly by former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz Cheney appeared in the Wall Street Journal, in which the pair criticized President Obama for the Iran nuclear deal.

Foner argued that, if American exceptionalism has any basis of truth to it at all, that basis is found in the concept of birthright citizenship. He noted in his piece that the idea of birthright citizenship arose out of the injustice of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Americans had not always acted justly toward non-whites, as seen in the Dred Scott case of 1857 and in attempts to exclude Chinese people (among others) from citizenship in the late nineteenth century. But regardless of those violations of justice, Americans ultimately came to believe that, as Foner wrote, “anyone born here can be a good American.” Foner wrote that Republican presidential candidates now calling for an end to birthright citizenship in the name of American exceptionalism are really betraying it.

The Cheneys’ conception of exceptionalism differs significantly from Foner’s. While the Cheneys and Foner both talk about American ideals as being central to exceptionalism, the Cheneys see those ideals in terms of a global mission and responsibility. For the Cheneys, America is a superpower “because of our ideals and our power, and the power of our ideals.” America has championed causes of “freedom, security and peace for a larger share of humanity than any other nation in history” and is “the most powerful, good and honorable nation in the history of mankind.” And while America did not necessarily seek greatness, greatness was thrust upon her—and America has a profound duty in the world to champion righteousness and freedom wherever these are threatened.

Foner’s conception of exceptionalism is exemplarist. It is a conception that admits flaws, but conceives of those flaws as opportunities for correction. Foner’s conception of exceptionalism is rooted in the founding ideals of individual rights, basic human equality, and the human dignity on which those ideals are based. Foner’s articulation of American exceptionalism is open, inclusive, and expansive. While Americans do not always get it right, Americans remain perpetually unsatisfied with wrong, and seek, by fits and starts, to promote the ideals with which they began their national career.

The Cheneys’ conception of exceptionalism goes beyond mere example. To be sure, the Cheneys wrote that America began as an example, but after World War II, “we became freedom’s defender.” (We could quibble with their historical accuracy—they leave out America’s contribution to Allied victory in World War I and Woodrow Wilson’s messianic vision of American leadership in the Versailles peace, a vision that birthed the Cheneys’ articulation of exceptionalism in the first place. But I digress.)

Two qualities animate the Cheneys’ articulation of exceptionalism—missionary zeal and American innocence. The idea that America has been charged with a global mission to “defend freedom” anywhere and everywhere is not new. It can be traced back to the colonial Puritans in the seventeenth century, American revolutionary sermons in the eighteenth, the manifest destiny of “Young America” in the nineteenth, and Wilson’s messianism of the early twentieth. In the Cold War, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles saw the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in Manichean terms, part of a cosmic conflict of good versus evil. And everyone remembers Reagan’s “evil empire speech” of 1983. Reagan was fond of loosely quoting Abraham Lincoln, calling America “the last best hope of humanity” and advocating for America’s indispensability and innate goodness in a world perpetually threatened by forces of wickedness.

In this closed form of exceptionalism—this form of exceptionalism that is largely informed by religiosity and nationalism—America has two things that no other nation has, or ever has had. The first is immense power, and the second is innate innocence. Only America has the ability to defeat threats to freedom, and only America has the righteous credibility to do so.

These two articles—one by a respected historian, and the other by a political family—are representative of an interesting reality when it comes to American identity. Americans have competing visions of who they are, who they were, and who they aim to be. These competing visions have, more often than not, been at the center of the most intense internal conflicts and crises in American history—the Civil War, the revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, and the divisions we face as a nation today. But the innate dignity of the human person serves as a sound basis for defining American identity, and a firm starting point for healthy and responsible civic and global engagement.

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