John Wilsey on American Exceptionalism & Civil Religion.
Date: November 29th, 2015

Ever since John Winthrop’s famous declaration that America was a “city on a hill,” the notion of “American exceptionalism” has been woven throughout U.S. history.  Dr. John Wilsey, assistant professor of history and Christian apologetics at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, explores what this concept means and how it has changed over time, looking at some of the more challenging periods of US history that include the Civil War and race relations over the past century.  Prof. Wilsey ties all of this together with a further examination of civil religion and the role of Christianity in defining what it means for our nation to be “exceptional.”

After exchanging a few pleasantries and finding out about how John came to write this book, we dive into the concept of “American exceptionalism.”  Building upon the work of noted political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, Dr. Wilsey lays out two distinct variants of exceptionalism — open and closed.  The former views the nation in terms of an example for the rest of the world that attempts to expand freedom to all in the world by means of example.  Closed exceptionalism, on the other hand, has a much more nationalistic overtone and is exclusionary.  John discusses how the concept has changed over time, with special attention to the era of Westward Expansion and the US Civil War.  Along the way, he highlights how several noted historical figures championed and presented the idea of American exceptionalism, including John L. O’Sullivan, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John Foster Dulles, Ronald Reagan, and (of course) Abraham Lincoln who had a very nuanced version of the concept.

Discussion then moves to the notion of “civil religion,” and John lays out the various sources of this blend of secular and religious ideas to craft a unique American ideology.  He talks about Protestant theology, Enlightenment philosophy, and Roman civil religion and how each element plays out in our thinking of America’s place in history and the world.  John acknowledges that there are  many variants of civil religion and argues that it tends to be at its worth when borrowing explicitly from Christian theology.  Our conversation then covers a number of key eras of American history with particular attention to the Civil War and Lincoln’s view of America, as well as providence.  This leads us into a discussion of race relations following the Civil War and W.E.B. DuBois’s view of Lincoln and America’s reality lived against its ideals.

The interview closes with some of John’s thoughts on the future of American exceptionalism and his desire to see a more open version of that concept.  He also discusses some of the main things he learned throughout the process of writing the book, including a sobering look at racial tension, all of which is leading him to undertake another research project on the thought of DuBois.  Recorded: November 11, 2015.


John Wilsey’s bio at The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea, by John Wilsey.

One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America, by John Wilsey.


 David Mislin on Embracing Religious Pluralism.

Sean Scott on Religious Rhetoric in the US Civil War.

David Dixon on Religious Rhetoric and the Civil Rights Movement.

James Patterson on MLK, Fulton Sheen, and Jerry Falwell.

Robert Delahunty on Alexis de Tocqueville and Religion.

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