The painting "Desembarco de los Puritanos en America," or "The Arrival of the Pilgrims in America," by Antonio Gisbert (1834-1902) depicts the Puritans landing in America in 1620.  (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The painting “Desembarco de los Puritanos en America,” or “The Arrival of the Pilgrims in America,” by Antonio Gisbert (1834-1902) depicts the Puritans landing in America in 1620. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Last year at the U.S. Military Academy, President Barack Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”

A majority of Americans seem to share that belief. Six in 10 agree with the notion that God has granted America a special role in human history.

“Fundamentally, if there is one thing that has been traditionally what makes America unique in the world, it’s this idea that we as Americans have a special relationship with God,” said Dan Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute, which studied the subject, “that we are supposed to make a difference, that we are sort of first among equals in the world and it goes back to the pilgrims really.”

The pilgrims came to North America from England in 1620 to avoid religious persecution and established a colony in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. The pilgrims are credited with leading the way in establishing religious freedom and laying the foundations of  American democracy.

John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, delivered a sermon declaring that his fellow settlers must establish a “city on the hill”. This notion of being a beacon of light suggests that the American colonists and the people who followed them were uniquely blessed by God to establish a society that would better all humankind.

The concept of American exceptionalism also has secular roots. In his 1776 revolutionary manifesto Common Sense, Thomas Paine argued America’s difference from the Old World demanded that it be independent from it. He perceived America as a unique land where humankind could begin again, establishing a society built on progressive new ideas.

Others believe the idea of American exceptionalism first appeared in the 1830s, when Democracy in America author Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”

Whatever its exact origin, for many, the idea of American exceptionalism became, and remains, central to our national identity.

“You’ve seen it the second half of the 20th century, espoused by politicians quite frequently,” said Cox. “It’s this belief that, yeah, there’s something unique about being American, that our religiosity, our morality, our economic strength, all makes us something different in the world and you still see people really holding on to that idea and I think you’ll continue to.”

However, not all Americans are on board with the the notion that the United States is inherently unique or exceptional when compared to other countries. One-third do not believe a higher being has given America a special role in human history.

Not surprisingly, religious people are far more likely to believe in American exceptionalism than people who consider themselves to be religiously unaffiliated. Eighty-three percent of white evangelical Protestants agree that God has granted the country a special role in human history, while a majority (53 percent) of religiously unaffiliated Americans disagree.