In April 2009, President Barack Obama said, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
This reflects a basic misunderstanding of what American exceptionalism means. It doesn’t mean that Americans are exceptional people (although in many respects we are). It means that the values our Founding Fathers expressed in our founding documents are exceptional!
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The founders recognized that religious governments get their charge from someone's sacred scripture while secular governments simply codify the beliefs of whoever happens to be in power. Both types have significant disadvantages: religious governments frequently experience doctrinal struggles and often create an environment of intolerance toward those of other faiths; and secular governments — since they are based on nothing more than the personal opinions of their rulers — have a tendency to lose stability and violate the rights of the people when corrupt rulers take power. Our Founding Fathers wanted to avoid these two extremes.
In England, mandated government religion led to acts of religious intolerance that violated unalienable human rights. The Founders wanted to ensure that the citizens of this new nation did not make the same mistake as their mother country. They realized that since God doesn't force anyone to adhere to one set of religious beliefs, neither should the government.
Frank Turek is coauthor of I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, and the author of Stealing from God: Why atheists need God to make their case. See more of his work at CrossExamined.org.