Survey: Americans still believe God has special purpose for nation

Institute on Religion and Democracy

A post-election survey shows nearly 60 percent of Americans believe God has assigned America a “special role” in human history. According to the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings Institution, Over 80 percent of white evangelicals believe in this special role for America, as do two thirds of minority Christians. Majorities of white Mainline Protestants and Catholics also agree. American exceptionalism essentially originated with the ancestors of Mainline Protestantism, who were America’s earliest European settlers and America’s primary religious pillars for most of American history.

Much and perhaps most of American exceptionalism originated with the Calvinist English religious dissenters who settled New England, the first wave of whom landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. With Thanksgiving, America celebrates those dissenters’ founding holiday. Later waves of Puritan immigrants conceived of their American adventure as an “errand in the wilderness.” And some metaphorically likened their new civilization to the Chosen People of the Old Testament, with special blessings but also special obligations, always under both God’s gracious care and sometimes severe judgment.

Later immigrants, though far removed from the British Protestant tradition, still often comfortably embraced the notion of America as a sort of Promised Land, especially when compared to the travails of the old country. The Calvinist conception of American exceptionalism expanded to include other Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

IRD President Mark Tooley commented:

“According to the poll, the devotees of American exceptionalism were not confined to white evangelicals but were nearly as numerous among minority Christians.

“A half century of leftward drift by Mainline church elites unsurprisingly has dampened their confidence in exceptionalism, but most still adhere. Likewise for most Catholics.”

“Many on the left fret that American exceptionalism is synonymous with superiority, imperialism, and exploitation. But the original Calvinist theorists, from the first Thanksgiving onward, envisioned American civilization having special duties, not special privileges.

“American exceptionalism is not traditionally a pretext for domination, as critics like to allege, but instead an ‘awful responsibility’ intertwined with obligation towards God and the rest of the world. We should mull over that thought as we enjoy a holiday given to us by some of the first American exceptionalists.”

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