Study Finds that While Evangelicals Believe in American Exceptionalism

by Evan Trowbridge 11-23-2010

More than eight-in-10 white evangelical Christians in the United States believe that God has granted the United States a special role in history, according to a study released Wednesday.

The study, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in cooperation with the Brookings Institution, also found that these white evangelicals are joined by a majority of all U.S. residents (58 percent) who also believe that, “God has granted America a special role in human history.”

Now the question immediately arises, “What is a ’special role?’”

As a Christian, I tend to believe that God has a “special role” for every person and everynation. Too often, however, we confuse “special” with “exceptional.” If we agree that God has granted the United States a special role in history, then shouldn’t we also agree that God has granted Thailand and Kenya a special role?

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s what most of the respondents in the study had in mind, and the research of Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, seems to agree. In Jones’ analysis he found:

“Americans who affirm the idea of ‘American exceptionalism,’ a belief that God has given the U.S. a special role in human history, have a distinctly more militaristic approach to foreign policy than those who do not affirm this idea. Those who believe in American exceptionalism are more likely to favor military strength over diplomacy as the best way to ensure peace, and they are also more likely to say torture can be justified than those who do not believe God has given the U.S. a special role.”

Jones is referring to the disturbing finding in the same study that a majority of white Americans who say God has a special role for the U.S. also believe that peace is best found through the use of military strength rather than diplomacy and that torture can be justified in at least some cases.

Additionally, an especially regretful 73 percent of those who identify with the Tea Party chose military over diplomacy.

Yes, God has a plan for us, but it is “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Another red flag went up from the study when respondents were asked what was the most important factor heading into this year’s election.

Nearly everyone in the country has been affected by the recession; many families are subsisting day-to-day in a manner they never would have imagined just three years ago. Everyone knows someone who has lost a job and is suffering from the financial and emotional consequences.

It’s not too surprising then that almost half of the respondents listed “the economy” as their top concern. But we, as Christians, have to be diligent that we don’t let our other priorities fall by the way side. It’s disconcerting to hear that only 1-in-20 respondents listed their main concern as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where both the residents of those countries and the soldiers of this nation must remain prominently on our minds. Similarly low numbers of respondents listed immigration or same-sex marriage as their top priority.

If we truly were to be an “exceptional” nation, one would expect our priorities to be aligned in an exceptional way. As Jim Wallis says, we can’t just ask when we’ll get out of this recession; we have to ask how it will change us. We must guard against fixing our sights solely on the wealth of our nation. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

We pray to God, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done,” but it comes so naturally to be more concerned about the wealth and comfort of our kingdom. What if Jesus really meant it when he said, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst”?

Let us pray for our nation that it will do its best to reflect God’s kingdom and not try to become God’s kingdom, and let us contemplate the sobering words of the Psalmist, “Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling.”

Andrew Simpson is a policy and organizing intern at Sojourners.

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