The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats are trying to reclaim American exceptionalism. Will it work?

Joe Biden’s quest to win over skeptical Americans.

President-elect Joe Biden speaks at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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President-elect Joe Biden’s promise for his administration is to win back the “soul of the nation,” the central theme of his 2020 campaign. Meanwhile, former president Barack Obama’s memoir, “A Promised Land,” tells of his ongoing faith in America and its exceptional story of progress. In 2008, he accepted his nomination with the song “Only in America,” and throughout his presidency he spoke of the American experiment as setting the nation apart, giving it a unique trajectory toward its own highest ideals. In short, leaders of the Democratic Party have embraced an idea with a powerful history: American exceptionalism.

The rhetoric of American exceptionalism owes its most influential formation to the Cold War. In the context of facing down a communist and atheist foe, the United States increasingly defined itself as capitalist and religious. It was then, during the Cold War, that the United States for the first time started calling itself the “city on a hill.”

That phrase comes from a sermon Jesus gave in the Gospel of Matthew, and for most of American history it applied almost exclusively to the church. As ministers repeatedly explained, the church had been called out and set up as a city on a hill. It was meant to shed light on others. Protestants and Catholics interpreted the phrase differently, but they agreed that it had nothing to do with the nation and everything to do with the church.

In the 1950s, however, the United States increasingly saw itself as a church. President Dwight D. Eisenhower quipped in 1952, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Congress soon obliged the sentiment, adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and declaring “In God We Trust” the national motto in 1956.

It was in that decade of rising Cold War tension and national religious rhetoric that a Harvard scholar named Perry Miller began placing the phrase “city on a hill” at the foundation of American history. Turning his attention to a 1630 Puritan sermon that had been largely ignored for more than 300 years, Miller claimed that John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had declared the new land “a city on a hill” the very moment he arrived, establishing the nation’s purpose and identity ever since.

After Miller began telling this story, John F. Kennedy, a Harvard graduate, became the first president to use Winthrop’s sermon in a speech, applying the phrase “city on a hill” to America in January 1961. Since the 19th century, the claim that American history started in New England with the Mayflower had offered a national purpose and identity wrapped up in White Protestantism. The Pilgrims and Puritans were touted as the origin of the nation in a bid to erase the history of slavery (sidelined to the South) and celebrate civil and religious freedom, simultaneously condemning the absolutism, violence and supposed indolence of Catholic conquistadors. Kennedy, a Catholic himself, knew this history. And when he left Boston for the nation’s capital in January 1961, addressing the Massachusetts Legislature a few days before his presidential inauguration, he invoked Winthrop’s sermon to graft American Catholics onto the Puritan “stock.”

In the coming years, “city on a hill” bounced from president to president, but no one made it central to presidential rhetoric until Ronald Reagan. During the 1970s, Reagan, like Miller, turned to Winthrop and declared the United States “a shining city on a hill” from our very first moments forward. Increasingly, Winthrop’s sermon came to be seen as foundational. Soon it appeared in anthologies and history textbooks, introduced as the first and most formative expression of what it meant to be American.

The thing about Winthrop’s sermon, however, is that no Puritan seems to have heard it. In its own day it went almost completely unnoticed. No one remarked on it, no one published it, no one even knew it existed. The sermon was discovered in 1838, a surprise to archivists fiddling around one day with old manuscripts. It claimed to be a sermon of Winthrop’s, but it wasn’t in Winthrop’s handwriting. Though it was published in 1838, it again went largely ignored for another century. When Miller placed this sermon at the center of American history, he did what American exceptionalism does best: invent history.

American exceptionalism requires two things above all: an exceptional origin story and an exceptional enemy. The Cold War gave credence to both, and across the political spectrum presidents built a civil religion to combat communism, touting the American way as a kind of righteousness that set the light of revelation (America, capitalism, freedom) against the forces of evil (the Soviet Union, communism and oppression) from its very “beginning” — from the moment the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill.”

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the unifying force of a world historic enemy dissolved. In that collapse came a secondary, delayed demise: the gradual downfall of an exceptional origin story.

Apart from a vague gesture that once we were great and now we are not, Donald Trump in 2016 never gave a grand story emanating from a single moment. He never turned to the Pilgrims. He cited no Founders. He never used the phrase “city on a hill.” Instead, Trump explicitly rejected American exceptionalism in 2015 and embraced “America First,” rhetoric with a radically different vision of the nation.

The driving mood behind American exceptionalism is overconfidence (a sense that we have all the blessings to share, all the lessons to teach). The dominant emotion of “America First” is insecurity (a sense that “Germany is eating our lunch”). In American exceptionalism, the vision is global, and the foes are largely external. The language of exceptionalism focuses on America’s unique role in human history — how it is meant to act, serve and lead among the nations of the world. In “America First,” on the other hand, the enemies are largely internal — all those bad actors in our midst who are supposedly dragging us down and causing us to fall behind.

Recently, Trump has tried to add American exceptionalism to his rhetoric with the creation of the 1776 Commission, a response to the 1619 Project aimed at bolstering his White evangelical base. Yet while Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to believe that God has given the United States a special role to play in human history, they have largely traded the idea for loyalty to Trump. The 2020 Republican platform says it all: “The Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda.” As a result, the enemies remain within; conspiracy theories of election fraud abound.

Over the past four years, liberals have embraced American exceptionalism and tried to paint Trump’s “America First” agenda as an aberration from the country’s trajectory. But the question for the incoming Biden administration is whether the rhetoric of American exceptionalism has purchase in a world where, for the first time, a majority of Americans do not believe that God has granted the United States a special role in human history. For more and more Americans, the “city on a hill” story does not shine as it once did.

Both American exceptionalism and “America First” are forms of national rhetoric with long histories and major flaws. It remains to be seen whether others can and will invent a new national rhetoric for the needs of another age.