John D. Wilsey
American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion
Reassessing the History of an Idea
IVP Academic 2015
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in Intellectual HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in ReligionNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books in World AffairsNew Books Network March 18, 2016 Lillian Calles Barger
John D. Wilsey, assistant professor of history and Christian apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His book American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (IVP Academic, 2015) is a work of historical political theology and examination of the idea of American exceptionalism that many have held as true and compatible with the evangelical faith. Exceptionalism, as part of civil religion, has its roots in several theological ideas including the Puritan concept of covenant, providence and millennialism. These theological ideas were extracted from the bible and applied to the American nation, married to republicanism, and championed by nineteenth century historians. Through its history exceptionalism was reinforced by western expansion, slavery, and the rise of the U.S as a global power. National leaders have espoused notions of choosenness, divine commission, innocence, sacred land and glory. All these ideas that have been challenged by critics and charge with exclusivity, racism, and hubris. Wilsey does not reject America as exceptional in world history. Instead of a strong and closed exceptionalism that is blind to national failure, he offers an open exceptionalism that rejects the appropriation of biblical language for America, allows for vigorous critique, and seeks to maintain the independence of the Christian faith from nationhood. Wilsey’s open exceptionalism provides a place to be both patriotic and critical of America and reconstructs an inclusive, liberal, and pluralistic notion of the idea. His analysis is illuminating to both religious and secular readers on the theological foundation of exceptionalism whose legitimacy has come under vigorous questioning.
Lilian Calles Barger is a cultural, intellectual and gender historian. Her current book project is entitled “The World Come of Age: Religion, Intellectuals and the Challenge of Human Liberation.”