Are Americans 'special'?

by Michael Foust |

(Anna Pedron/Georgia)

WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) -- As Americans prepare to celebrate the country's 239th birthday, a solid majority of them continue to believe that God has granted America a special role in world history, according to two new polls.

A survey from the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 62 percent of U.S. adults agree that "God has granted America a special role in human history," a concept which is frequently called American exceptionalism and is often debated among politicians, pundits and religious leaders.

It is remarkable that the one generation that produced our Founding Fathers emerged and put together the Constitution that has served us so well for more than two centuries and has brought unparalleled freedom for an unparalleled number of people -- unequaled by any other country in the world.
- Richard Land, president, Southern Evangelical Seminary

That percentage has held steady in recent years, and was 62 percent in 2012 and 60 percent in 2013. This year, 33 percent of the 1,007 adults who were polled disagreed with the statement.

But while the percentage who agree with it has remained consistent, there has been a sharp divide along ideology and religion. For example:

-- 80 percent of conservatives agree with the statement in this year's survey, but only 45 percent of liberals do. In fact, 50 percent of liberals disagree with it.

-- 83 percent of white evangelical Protestants affirm the statement, compared to 70 percent of Catholics and 56 percent of white mainline Protestants. Among the religiously unaffiliated, only 39 percent agree.

Meanwhile, a new LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 adults found that 53 percent of Americans believe "God has a special relationship with the U.S.A." Thirty-eight percent disagree. Among evangelicals, 67 percent agree with the statement.

But while Americans believe they've been blessed, they don't believe the U.S. is setting "a good moral example for the world," according to the Public Religion Research Institute survey. By a margin of 53-43 percent, U.S. adults say the country is not setting a good example. That belief crosses political lines, with most Republicans (54 percent) and nearly half of Democrats (47 percent) saying America is a bad moral example.

The concept of American exceptionalism has had many forms over the past 200 years, but they all hold that the nation is unique among the world's countries. The phrase is often traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the French author and historian who traveled U.S. during the first half of the 19th century.

Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, wrote in a 2010 column for Baptist Press that while Americans are not "God's special people" and that the U.S. is not a "chosen nation," America nevertheless is "exceptional" and blessed by God in unique ways. But it is blessed, Land wrote, to bless others:

"American exceptionalism is the understanding that America is a unique nation with a unique sense of purpose that started with the nation's settlement and has since morphed through various meanings, all of them centered on the observation that America is distinct from other countries in the world -- in its founding, in its government, in its social and economic structures, and in its religious and cultural character.

"America has been blessed in manifold ways. When you look at our resources, our protection by two oceans, our standard of living, can you argue that America has not been uniquely and providentially blessed?"

America has an unparalleled abundance of natural resources, and its "breadbasket" farmland has been a source for much of the world's food, Land said.

"The blessings are not just material, however.

 "It is remarkable that the one generation that produced our Founding Fathers emerged and put together the Constitution that has served us so well for more than two centuries and has brought unparalleled freedom for an unparalleled number of people -- unequaled by any other country in the world."

Land concluded that American exceptionalism "is not a delusion of national grandiosity."

"It is a belief that God has blessed this nation in amazing ways, and those blessings invoke a reciprocal obligation and responsibility to seek to share, but not impose, the blessings of freedom and democracy with others around the world."