Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Source Publication

Theologies of American Exceptionalism. Winnifred Sullivan and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, eds. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020)


What must we explain if we are seeking to understand the theologies of US exceptionalism?

One answer is that our burden is to explain the particular. Here, the appropriate move is to examine the unique histories and imaginative formations of religious, legal, and political life in the United States. We might look to the unique religious history of the early colonies, to the distinctive role that “Church” plays in US constitutional life, or to the tethering of the market, politics, and religion that has a particular shape and force in US political and legal life. With this move, one is seeking to identify the features that generate a theological-political configuration peculiar to the United States. On this approach, an inquiry into exceptionalism is an inquiry into difference: it is an effort to identify the features that make US political life and self-understanding unique or distinctive from those of other political communities. The specific — and deeply interesting — question of the theologies of US exceptionalism is a question of the role that particular understandings of, and relationships to, religion and the sacred play in constituting that unique political identity. We are, here, seeking to explain that which makes this community unique; we are interested in its specificity.

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