n June 1988, at a Southern Baptist Convention conference in San Antonio, W.A. Criswell delivered the “skunk sermon.” Criswell, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and former president of the Convention, thundered against liberal theologians who masked their true identity by calling themselves moderates. “A skunk by any other name still stinks!” he said to vigorous applause.

The sermon followed a well-worn pathway of Southern Baptist thought, fusing American exceptionalism with a theology of destiny. Unapologetically equating democracy with Christianity and American history with divine providence, Criswell warned of growing secularism:

We have lost our nation to the liberal, and the secularist, and the humanist, which finally means to the atheist and the infidel. America used to be known as a Christian nation. It is no longer. America is a secular nation. Our forefathers who came on the Mayflower founded here a new republic, a new nation, and it was Christian. Our Baptist forefathers founded a state, and it was Christian. When I was a youth growing up, the name of God and the Christian faith was a part of the civic and national life of our people. It is not anymore.

Criswell’s sermon is indispensable to understanding America’s Christian Right, particularly its conflation of politics and religion. The pastor currently occupying Criswell’s pulpit in Dallas, Robert Jeffress, often preaches similar sermons, heralding American exceptionalism as essential for understanding of Christianity. In American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, historian—and Southern Baptist pastor—John D. Wilsey examines this world of divine election and American exceptionalism.  

Wilsey, a professor at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues that “a high view of American exceptionalism is, at significant points, at odds with the Christian gospel.” He attempts to reduce this tension by distinguishing “closed” from “open” exceptionalism. Closed exceptionalism treats America as God’s instrument for saving the world. Political actions are equated with divine purposes as the nation itself becomes an “object of worship.” Wilsey believes this understanding “paves the way toward heterodoxy at best, heresy and idolatry at worst.”

In contrast, open exceptionalism views America as just one of many nations, none of which can lay claim to being God’s instrument of salvation. The only true agent of salvation is the church. The Old Testament idea that any one nation has a unique, essential role to play in mankind’s redemption, as Israel did, is replaced with the New Testament understanding of personal redemption by grace, through Christ. This new understanding of God’s relation to humans is seen as the fulfillment of prophecies about the Messiah and his dominion beyond the boundaries of a particular people or nation.

From the founding to the start of the Civil War, argues Wilsey, most Americans believed in closed exceptionalism. Abraham Lincoln’s political teaching, however, helped change the national understanding. From the Civil War to the present, Americans have increasingly rejected the idea of the United States as the new Israel, while our civil religion has taken on broader theological overtones. Today, civil religion embraces a broad national morality expressed in vague terms of social justice and compassion.

The political sermons of the colonial and founding eras planted the seed for the “tree of American exceptionalism.” The American Revolution was suffused with the Reformation’s language and ideas. Preachers borrowed from the text of the Bible to identify the American people with the nation of Israel as they fled the slavery and bondage of Egypt.

The obvious impediment to the full liberty of the United States, however, was slavery itself, sanctioned under law by a “holy” nation. The march toward the Civil War could, in many ways, be described as a theological undertaking. Wilsey compares the writings of the influential editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, John L. O’Sullivan, who “equated democracy with Christianity,” with those of Lincoln, who came to understand the equality clause in the Declaration of Independence as mandating freedom, regardless of race, circumstance, or ethnic origin. O’Sullivan went so far as to suggest “that democratic principles were the animating force of Christianity, and that salvation itself was to be found not in the person and work of Christ, but in democracy.” At the same time, he denied the principles of liberty to non-whites and created an “exclusionary system” that would ultimately annex “Christian theological themes”—resulting in the betrayal of the Declaration’s precepts and “a counterfeit to the gospel of Christ.”

Though Lincoln’s forebears were Puritans and Quakers, his interpretation of American history was filtered through America’s civil religion, whose canon encompassed the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Washington’s Farewell Address. Where O’Sullivan claimed that the “voice of the people will be one with the voice of God,” Lincoln systematically deconstructed biblical allegories and analogies between Old Testament Israel and the modern United States, while preserving the integrity of the Declaration’s focus on liberty and justice. He used theological language to underscore not American exceptionalism but religious liberty—something James Madison had done in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments in 1785—retaining a strong sense of justice in his public policy while eschewing sectarian conflict.

The evil of slavery meant Lincoln could not accept that America was simply the instrument of God’s salvation, or that American history revealed God’s will. Rather, as he put it in his second inaugural, “The Almighty has His own purposes.” America, punished by God for the sin of slavery, appeared to many Americans during and following the Civil War as more like a new Egypt than a new Israel.

Such an understanding of American history is not well received by certain segments of organized Christianity today. Wilsey examines contemporary texts and sermons that demonstrate the resurgence of closed exceptionalism in modern Evangelical circles. He identifies Patrick J. Buchanan’s “Culture War” speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention as marking a very public instance of the return of this view, and finds numerous instances of this resurgence in the texts used by many Christian schools and homeschools across the nation. Each “presented American history in closed exceptionalist terms… [and] was ethnohistorical, morally censorious (rather than morally reflective) and lacking in critical historical thinking.”

As a Southern Baptist teaching at a Southern Baptist institution, Wilsey is careful to maintain a respectful approach when evaluating these texts. His position is clear, however. “It is imperative to distinguish between the Christian gospel and the concept of national chosenness in closed American exceptionalism,” he writes. Because the two are “mutually exclusive,” to “accept the gospel is necessarily to reject closed American exceptionalism.” Not only are they distinct things, but “their objects of loyalty are two distinct entities in opposition to one another.”

The abiding quandary for Wilsey is whether modern American Christianity can understand the United States and its exceptional status in such a way as to prohibit “well-meaning Christian people” from going down paths where the “potential for wrong in the name of right” transforms Christianity into mere politics. If Pastor Criswell was right, perhaps not.