From the moment Barack Obama appeared on the national stage, conservatives have been searching for the best way to describe the danger he poses to America's traditional way of life. Secularism? Check. Socialism? Sure. A tendency to apologize for America's greatness overseas? That, too. But how to tie them all together?
Gradually, a unifying theme took hold. "At the heart of the debate over Obama's program," declared Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru in an influential 2010 National Review cover story, is "the survival of American exceptionalism." Finally, a term broad and historically resonant enough to capture the magnitude of the threat. A year later, Newt Gingrich published A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters, in which he warned that "our government has strayed alarmingly" from the principles that made America special. Mitt Romney deployed the phrase frequently in his 2012 campaign, asserting that President Obama "doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do." The term, which according to Factiva appeared in global English-language publications fewer than 3,000 times during the Bush Administration, has already appeared more than 10,000 times since Obama became president.
To liberals, the charge that Obama threatens American exceptionalism is daft. He is, after all, fond of declaring, "In no other country on Earth is my story even possible." For some progressive pundits, things hit rock bottom when conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker flayed Obama for not using the words "American exceptionalism" in his 2011 State of the Union speech, even though he had called America a "light to the world" and "the greatest nation on Earth." The entire discussion, declared liberal Post blogger Greg Sargent, had become "absurd," "self-parodic," and an exercise in "nonstop idiocy."
But that's not quite right. When conservatives say American exceptionalism is imperiled, they're onto something. In fundamental ways, America is becoming less exceptional. Where Gingrich and company go wrong is in claiming that the Obama presidency is the cause of this decline. It's actually the result. Ironically, the people most responsible for eroding American exceptionalism are the very conservatives who most fear its demise.
To understand what's threatening American exceptionalism, one must first understand what its contemporary champions mean by the term. American exceptionalism does not simply mean that America is different from other countries. (After all, every country is different from every other one.) It means that America departs from the established way of doing things, that it's an exception to the global rule. And from Alexis de Tocqueville, who chronicled America's uniqueness in the 1830s, to Joseph Stalin, who bemoaned it in the 1920s, to social scientists like Louis Hartz, who celebrated it during the Cold War, the established way of doing things has always been defined by Europe. What makes America exceptional, in other words, is our refusal to behave like the Old World. "Exceptionalism," wrote historian Joyce Appleby, "is America's peculiar form of Eurocentrism."
As America and Europe have changed over time, so have the attributes that exceptionalists claim distinguish us from them. But for the contemporary right, there are basically three: our belief in organized religion; our belief that America has a special mission to spread freedom in the world; and our belief that we are a classless society where, through limited government and free enterprise, anyone can get ahead. Unfortunately for conservatives, each of these beliefs is declining fast.
The Rise of Anticlericalism
For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. "There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America," de Tocqueville wrote. In his 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset quoted Karl Marx as calling America "preeminently the country of religiosity," and then argued that Marx was still correct. America, wrote Lipset, remained "the most religious country in Christendom."
Today's conservatives often cast themselves as defenders of this religious exceptionalism against Obama's allegedly secularizing impulses. "Despite the fact that our current president has managed to avoid explaining on at least four occasions that we are endowed by our creator," Gingrich declared at a 2011 candidates forum, "the fact is that what makes American exceptionalism different is that we are the only people I know of in history to say power comes directly from God."
But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity that Gingrich wants to defend is an artifact of the past. The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it's one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that "religious faith and values are very important to America's success." And young Americans don't merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. "Americans," Pew notes, "do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle"—which means it's unlikely that America's decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as Millennials age.
Americans remain far more willing than Europeans to affirm God's importance in their lives (although that gap has closed somewhat among the young). But when the subject shifts from belief in God to association with churches, America's famed religious exceptionalism virtually disappears. In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were more than 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point. According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.
Even more interesting is the reason for this change. Many of the Americans who today eschew religious affiliation are neither atheists nor agnostics. Most pray. In other words, Americans aren't rejecting religion, or even Christianity. They are rejecting churches. There are various explanations for this. As Princeton's Robert Wuthnow notes in his book After the Baby Boomers, the single and childless historically attend church at lower rates than married parents do. And women who work outside the home attend less than women who don't. Which means that with women marrying later, having children later, and working more outside the home, it's logical that church attendance would drop.
But it's not just changes in family and work patterns that drive the growth of religious nonaffiliation. It's politics. In the mid-20th century, liberals were almost as likely to attend church as conservatives. But starting in the 1970s, when the Religious Right began agitating against abortion, feminism, and gay rights, liberals began to identify organized Christianity with conservative politics. In recent years, the Religious Right's opposition to gay marriage has proved particularly alienating to Millennials. "The actions of the Religious Right," argue sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, "prompted political moderates and liberals to quit saying they had a religious preference." In their book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and United Us, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell cite a study suggesting that many "young Americans came to view religion ... as judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political." Today, according to Pew, the religiously unaffiliated are disproportionately liberal, pro-gay marriage, and critical of churches for meddling too much in politics. Not coincidentally, so are America's young.