One of the most enduring phrases at the heart of American exceptionalism is John Winthrop’s famous proclamation that the Puritan colonists were establishing a “city upon a hill.” But the story of this lay sermon is much more complicated, and, according to Bancroft-winning historian Daniel Rodgers, Winthrop was not being triumphalist, but instead a statement of anxiety. Dr. Rodgers joins us to discuss his new book on the sermon and its endurance, As a City on a Hill.
Daniel Rodgers is Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. This interview is based on his new book As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon (Princeton University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write As a City on a Hill?
DR: “City on a hill” is a phrase almost every American knows. They know its roots in the Sermon on the Mount. Many of them know that the leader of the Puritan settlement in New England used the phrase to describe the society he hoped his countrymen would build in their new world. They recognize “shining city on a hill” as a synonym for the United States that Ronald Reagan and his speech writers polished to perfection. A belief that they had been called to be a “city on a hill” for the world is said to have run through the entire course of American history, carrying the sense of mission and moral destiny that the Puritans had planted at the culture’s very beginnings.
I had taught the Puritan sermon from which the “city on a hill” phrase is drawn in just that way to generations of students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Princeton. But like so many other historians and pundits I was wrong. After its writing in 1630, John Winthrop’s sermon dropped almost completely out of sight for three centuries. It was not understood as a founding document of the nation until the 1950s. And, most strikingly, what Winthrop meant by “city on a hill” was radically different from the meaning we routinely give the phrase now. Anxiety, not pride, was at its heart, together with an admonition to charity that we have let disappear from the core values of our political culture. How could changes this dramatic have happened? This book is an answer to that puzzle. It tells the story of a phrase and a text which have become so familiar that their unexpected twists and turns, their disappearance and revival, their radically shifting meanings, and their connections with the world beyond America have been all but forgotten.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of As a City on a Hill?
DR: The claim that Americans have always thought of themselves as “a city on hill” to the world is a myth, an invented tradition created during the struggles of the Cold War. The phrase and Winthrop’s sermon were not present at the nation’s foundation; they were revived in the twentieth century, filled with much more nationalistic meanings than they had carried before, and then injected into an imagined past as if they had been there all along.
JF: Why do we need to read As a City on a Hill?
DR: If we are to get an honest picture of our nation and our world we need a less mythic history of our past. The distinctive character of the American nation was not the product of Puritanism or of any single founding moment. It was not the product of an “exceptionalist” history. A great deal of the rhetoric of providential mission and destiny that saturated the American past was a variant on the nationalistic formulas of other nations. The meanings those ideas would carry in the United States were worked out through aspiration, argument, and contention. They are still under construction now. In our post-Cold War world, where no one nation can dominate the globe as the U.S. did in the in the generation after 1945, we need a more realistic and self-critical understanding of our history than Ronald Reagan’s remake of John Winthrop’s words can give us.
At the same time, there are forgotten themes in Winthrop’s sermon worth recovering. When Winthrop announced that “we shall be as a city on a hill” he did not mean that a future American nation would be an object of admiration to all the world. He meant that his social and religious would be visible: open to the eyes of everyone and nakedly exposed to its critics. Its burden was not to radiate its ideals but to try, as best as anxious and deeply fallible persons could manage, to live up to them. Winthrop injected a second strain in his “Model of Christian Charity” too: an insistence that the morals of market and trade would not be sufficient to the project. Sacrifice of private advantage for the public good, love for others, and care for the poor: all these were essential for the “city on a hill” that Winthrop imagined in America. Like the Puritans’ call for self-scrutiny, these, too, are worth remembering.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DR: I did not imagine I might teach and write history until after I graduated from college. Like others of my student generation I was swept up in the civil rights movement, where I saw a nation changing some of its oldest and ugliest values right under our feet. I went from Brown University in 1965 into the VISTA program to join the “war on poverty.” When I realized that my real love was teaching, I knew I wanted to teach how social and cultural change occurred. History does not move in straight lines without swerves and interruptions. Its course is often crooked and surprising. Why does history sometimes jump its accustomed tracks, for good as well for bad? Many members of my generation thought the answer lay in the history of social movements, and they were not wrong. But I thought the deeper history was to be found in the ideas and ideals persons carried in their heads: in their efforts to make sense of and to change the shifting world around them. I have been writing and teaching about those themes ever since.
JF: What is your next project?
DR: After five books which have won more than their share of prizes, As a City on a Hill may be my last book-length project. But I love the essay form. I’ve written about radically changing ideals of work, about continuities and disruptions in political language and culture, about the transnational dimensions of U.S. history, about the dwindling place of the “social” in contemporary American ideas and culture and, now, about the lives of a “foundational” text. These all remain concerns of our current moment. We’ll see where they take me.
JF: Thanks, Daniel!
Donald Akenson is Douglas Professor of Canadian and Colonial History at Queen’s University. This interview is based on his new book Exporting the Rapture: John Nelson Darby and the Victorian Conquest of North-American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Exporting the Rapture?
DA: This is the second volume in my three-volume set on where and how radical apocalyptic millennialism was built into its central position in American conservative evangelicalism. The first volume, Discovering the End of Time was published in 2016 by McGill-Queens University Press.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Exporting the Rapture?
DA: The big argument is that the ideological core of American evangelicalism was formed overseas and in the period 1860ff began to be energetically imported into North America. Surprisingly, the germinal ground was southern Ireland in the 1820s and thereafter. The entry point was the Great Lakes Basin and the subsequent process was equally a matter of Canadian and US assimilation of imported concepts. That is simple to state, but the process was anything but linear.
JF: Why do we need to read Exporting the Rapture?
DA: Mostly to help us escape the mortmain of American Exceptionalism, which, despite the heroic efforts of some fine historians, too frequently comes forth as American Parochialism.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DA: I am an historian of Ireland, and of the Second British Empire and of the diasporas that had their origin in the British Isles. For a long time now, I have been arguing that in diaspora studies religion not only counts, it counts a great deal—despite its being marginalized by most historians of physical migration and by their counterparts in the field of cultural studies.
JF: What is your next project?
DA: To complete the third volume of the study and to bring the story up to the first decade of the twentieth century, when the new apocalyptic evangelicalism won.
JF: Thanks, Donald!
Today I will be teaching John Winthrop’s sermon A Model of Christian Charity to the teachers in the Princeton Seminar. You may know this as the famous “city upon a hill” sermon. Winthrop’s words have been used by several U.S presidents (John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan come immediately to mind) to promote the idea of American exceptionalism. John Wilsey does a nice job of unpacking this history in his book American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion.
Over at the website of Foreign Affairs, Cal-Berkeley historian Daniel Sargent argues that we may have seen the end of the era of American exceptionalism. Here is a taste of his piece “RIP American Exceptionalism, 1776-2018“:
When Benjamin Franklin went to France on a mission to win support for America’s fledging revolution, his fur hat intrigued Parisians, spurring emulation. But the fashion choice was also a considered statement of the distinct values of his country. From the very beginning, the affirmation of republican probity has remained a touchstone for U.S. diplomacy, just as a sense of the United States as a nation “conceived in liberty” has informed Americans’ understanding of their place in the world. As citizens of the “freest of all nations,” as Ulysses S. Grant put it, Americans favored “people struggling for liberty and self-government.”
It’s true that United States became in the 20th century an imperial republic, but even then, it disavowed conquest and subjugation. Liberation and emancipation became the refrain for America’s many wars, animated by President Woodrow Wilson’s refrain that the United States battles tyrants but emancipates ordinary people. The United States would even strive to elevate and redeem the citizens of the Axis powers it defeated in 1945. After 9/11, the trope became entrenched, as President George W. Bush aimed to sever al Qaeda from Islam and Iraqis from their president. “The tyrant will soon be gone,” Bush promised Iraqis. “The day of your liberation is near.” What other conquering power has code-named a major military operation for the liberation of the invaded, as Bush did with Iraq? (Doubtless it did not occur to Hitler’s high command to dub Operation Barbarossa “Operation Soviet Freedom.”)
Read the rest here.
American exceptionalism asserts a unique history and destiny for this nation. It is usually based on a story with divine overtones, a narrative which arcs toward freedom and justice. In this story, God in his providence founded the United States to lead the world into civil and religious liberty. American exceptionalism, in other words, is first and foremost collective history.
America First, in contrast, has little interest in history. Instead, it offers a national philosophy. It claims that all countries are essentially alike, including the United States, and all share the same fundamental goal: to win.
Both forms of rhetoric have their own particular hazards. The idea that our country has a distinct history and unique purpose has always implied both a higher morality to guide us and a sense of God’s election. And a belief in special election, for nations at least, can be quite dangerous. John O’Sullivan, who coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny,” declared that the United States would “establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man—the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world … has America been chosen.”
That mission, expressed in Manifest Destiny, involved a brutal confiscation of land, an unwillingness or inability to recognize the civilization, culture, or contributions of other peoples, and an extension of American interests frequently dressed up in the guise of being good for all the world. If we call or consider our nation the special messenger of God, we are not likely to be found listening to, or learning from, others.
The hazards of America First, in contrast, come not from a sense of divine election, but from a worldview based in the utter absence of any higher moral good. America First urges self-interest in a world seen as a survival of the fittest, where winners make losers and losers have no claim to sympathy. The goal is to get ahead, and getting ahead means leaving others behind.
Read the rest here.
Philip Gorski is Professor of Sociology at Yale University. This interview is based on his new book, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write American Covenant?
I began writing the book nine years ago, during the 2008 Obama campaign. My initial aim was to place Obama’s campaign rhetoric within the civil religious tradition originally identified by Robert Bellah a half century ago, in his 1967 Daedalus article. It then evolved into an attempt to recover that tradition and to distinguish it from its historic rivals: radical secularism and religious nationalism.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Covenant?
America’s civil religious tradition is a synthesis of prophetic religion and civic republicanism or “prophetic republicanism.” Although it has evolved and expanded as America has become diverse and powerful, prophetic republicanism has always been the vital center of our public life.
JF: Why do we need to read American Covenant?
The Trump Presidency represents a mortal threat to the vital center. Only a broad alliance of committed democrats that cuts across the usual cultural and political divides will be strong enough to withstand his efforts to abolish the American Republic and replace it with an un-American regime of authoritarian populism. This book identifies the core values that are at stake in the present conflict and places the current struggle within a deeper context. The analysis of religious nationalism also helps uncover the deeper roots of Trumpism and illuminates the puzzling appeal to a certain sort of Christian conservative. Likewise, the critique or radical secularism should remind secular progressives of the religious roots of many of their most deeply held values and commitments — and of the dangers of denying them.
Though the book was always intended as a public intervention aimed at a broader audience of educated Americans, it is also a work of serious scholarship that will, I hope, outlast the Trump regime, and appeal to academic specialists as well. As such it will appeal to American religious historians as a deep history of the modern culture wars; to political philosophers interested in the proper role of religion in public life, and to theological ethicists concerned with the role of civic engagement in religious communities.
JF: When and why did you decide to study American history/social history?
I was originally trained as an early modern Europeanist. I began studying the US in preparation for a comparative project on the divergent religious trajectories of the US and Western Europe since the late 19th Century. I then got “sidetracked” by this project on civil religion.
JF: What is your next project?
I am currently working on the connection between religion and populism. Populism is usually thought of as a “secular” phenomenon, rooted in class conflict, cultural pluralism and party competition. While economic inequality, mass immigration and political gridlock are surely part of the explanation for the current populist resurgence, religious factors are also crucial. This is true not only in notoriously religious countries such as India and the United States, but also in Eastern and Western Europe.
JF: Thanks, Philip!
This is Walter Brueggemann:
They both believe that America is a “shining city on a hill.”
Some of you may remember that I questioned the way Eric Metaxas used this phrase in his book If You Can Keep It. You can read the criticism here.
Now it is Hillary Clinton who is playing the “city on a hill” and American exceptionalism card. Granted, Clinton’s “city on a hill” is not as overly providential at Metaxas’s use of the term, but the rhetoric of American exceptionalism is similar.
Here is Ryan Teague Beckwith’s piece at Time on Clinton’s use of this language:
In her address, she also heartily endorsed the concept of American exceptionalism, going even further to call America “indispensable” and citing two Republican presidents in her speech to the American Legion.
“The United States is an exceptional nation,” she said. “I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country. … In fact, we are the indispensable nation.”
It was an argument aimed squarely at the veterans of an organization that lists “Americanism” as one of its central pillars. But it was also a way of turning one of the Republican lines against Obama back against the party’s own nominee.
Read the entire piece here.
This may be the first time a Democratic candidate has the phrase “city on a hill” since John Kennedy in 1961.
On why the use of this phrase is problematic as a way to describe American exceptionalism, click here.
Thanks to longtime reader and commentator Tom Van Dyke for bringing this article to my attention.
Six posts are enough. I could say a lot more about Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, but I decided, for a variety of reasons, to bring the series to an end yesterday.
Today Religion News Service is running a piece that I envisioned, when asked to write it, as a summary and wrap-up post.
Here is a taste:
(RNS) In 1994, evangelical historian Mark Noll wrote about the “scandal of the evangelical mind.” The Wheaton College professor called out evangelicals for their anti-intellectual approaches to public engagement and urged his fellow believers to be more thoughtful in their political reflections.
I don’t know if Eric Metaxas has ever read “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” but since the release of his wildly popular biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer he has been touted as one of conservative evangelicalism’s leading spokespersons and public intellectuals.
Metaxas’ latest book, “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty,” is soaring up the New York Times best-sellers list. The title comes from a popular story about Benjamin Franklin and the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787. When Franklin walked out of the Pennsylvania State House at the end of the convention he was met by Elizabeth Powell, a prominent woman in Philadelphia. She asked Franklin what kind of government the members of the convention had forged. Franklin responded, “A republic … if you can keep it.”
Read the rest here.
We are in the midst of a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. You can get caught up here.
This post, our final one in the series, examines Metaxas’s understanding of American exceptionalism, an idea that drives much of his thesis in If You Can Keep It.
Metaxas roots his understanding of American exceptionalism in the famous words of John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In his lay sermon A Model of Christian Charity (1630), Winthrop used the phrase “city upon a hill” to describe the colony. The phrase comes from Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Here is how Winthrop used the phrase in A Model of Christian Charity: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world…”
It is worth noting that Metaxas has made the common mistake of taking Winthrop’s words, which were addressed to the inhabitants of one British-American colony, and applying them to the United States writ-large. Winthrop, of course, was not applying his “city upon a hill” metaphor to the already-existing colonies of Virginia, Plymouth, and the Dutch colony of New Netherland (which became New York thirty-four years later). Yet these colonies and several others–colonies in which the “city upon a hill” metaphor was not part of their founding ideal–would also be part of the United States of America in 1776. Metaxas is in good company here. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, both fans of the “city upon a hill” metaphor, also made this mistake. (More on Reagan below).
At the heart of Metaxas’s argument in If You Can Keep It is the idea that America remains a “city upon a hill” today. It is, and always has been, a nation chosen by God to do His will in the world.
Here are some pertinent passages from the book:
p.25: “Therefore, if in any sense we care about the rest of the world, we must first ‘keep’ this republic. We are to shine not so that we can admire our own brightness but so that we hold out a beacon of hope to the rest of the world. Our exceptionalism is not for us but for others.”
p.188-189: In speaking about the United States as a “chosen” nation akin to Israel in the Old Testament, Metaxas writes: “So far from being a selfish idea, it is the idea of living for others–of showing them a new way of thinking–that was at the heart of America. To miss that is to miss everything. This idea of being as a ‘city upon a hill’ that can be seen from afar–and that will be seen from afar–has been with us from the beginning. It is the idea that what we have is indeed something extraordinary, but because of this we have been given the tremendous burden of stewarding and sharing what we have with the rest of the world. So if we are exceptional, we are not exceptional for our own sakes. We are exceptional for the world beyond our shores, for all who are interested in seeing what we are doing and in joining our project.”
p.194: “Reading Reagan, we see that this most conservative of modern presidents, even in underscoring this idea of American exceptionalism, pointedly expressed the idea that America existed for others, for those not yet here among us. So if this is an idea that has been at the very core of our identity from before the beginning, can we truly continue to be America if we forget it?
p.211-212: “…Lincoln did not think America’s exceptionalism a mere accident of history. Indeed…he makes clear that he sees our special role in history much as John Winthrop saw it and as many men in the two centuries connecting them saw it: as nothing less than a holy calling.”
p.212-213: “We are not here talking about the contested and controversial idea of ‘Manifest Destiny,’ nor merely of noblesse oblige, but of something far more serious, of something that is even sacred. Lincoln felt that America had been called by God to fulfill a role and to perform a duty for the rest of the world. It was not something to be giddy about. Far from it. He understood that to be chosen by God–as the Jews had been chosen by God, and as the prophets had been chosen by God, and as the Messiah had been chosen by God–was something that was a profound and sacred and even terrifying obligation.”
p.214-215: “[The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay] would care for one another. The rich would lift up the poor. This is something that resonates with us today in large part because Winthrop and his fellow shipmates were successful. What they did shone so brightly that their distinctly biblical model carried on beyond the Massachusetts Bay Colony and into the United States of America.”
So what is wrong with these passage from If You Can Keep It?
Before we examine the historical and theological problems here, let’s remember that the United States has, at times, been a force for good in the world. It has provided a home to millions of immigrants fleeing persecution and economic hardship. It has offered aid to oppressed and sick people groups around the world. It has used its power to stop tyrants and advance freedom across the globe. And in some circumstances American leaders–Woodrow Wilson comes to mind immediately–believed that they were extending American relief and support as leaders of a Christian nation. (The previous sentence is a historical observation, not an ethical or theological one. In other words, I am not saying that Wilson and others were right in believing this).
With that said, we must begin our critique with Metaxas’s use of Winthrop’s famous phrase. Metaxas believes that Winthrop was correct when he called Massachusetts Bay a “city upon a hill.” I don’t know how he knows this, since there is nothing in the Bible about the United States of America, but he nevertheless thinks that Winthrop was on to something. And then he argues that somehow the special mission assigned to Massachusetts Bay got transferred, presumably at some point during the American Revolution, to the United States.
As historian Tracy McKenzie has pointed out in his own critique of If You Can Keep It, Metaxas does not understand the way Winthrop was using the phrase “city upon a hill” when he uttered it in 1630. I will let Tracy take it from here:
So what did Governor Winthrop mean when he told the Massachusetts Bay colonists that they would be “as a city on a hill”? The most common reading—Eric Metaxas’ reading—is that Winthrop was telling the colonists that God had given them a special mission. The colony they were establishing (and by extension, the future United States) was divinely destined to serve as an example to the world. God’s plan was for the new nation to model the values (religious, political, and economic) that He desired the rest of the world to emulate. Metaxas strengthens this interpretation by adding the adjective “shining” to the metaphor—“a shining city on a hill”—although we have Ronald Reagan to thank for that phrase, not John Winthrop.
Admirers of this reading have been deeply convicted by the sense of America’s high calling that it embodies. In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas exhorts readers to rediscover this noble mission and rededicate themselves to it. Critics, on the other hand, have scorned the arrogance that Winthrop was supposedly reflecting and promoting. Both evaluations miss the mark, because both are based on a misreading of Winthrop’s original statement….
Far from claiming that the Lord had chosen the Puritan migrants to serve as a glorious example to the world, Winthrop was instead reminding them that it would be impossible to hide the outcome if they failed. Their massive departure had unavoidably attracted the attention of the countrymen they left behind. They would be watching, many of them hoping that the Puritans would stumble. If Winthrop had been writing today, he could have conveyed his point by telling his audience that everything they did would be under a microscope. The point was not that they had been divinely selected to serve as an exemplary beacon, but rather that they could not possibly escape the scrutiny of their enemies.
So it is that in the very next sentence after noting that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop warned that “if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken . . . we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” In so many words, he was telling the migrating Puritans that they would become a laughingstock, objects of scorn and derision. What was worse, their failure would “open the mouths of enemies to speak evils of the ways of God.” Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission, Winthrop intended his allusion to “a city upon a hill” to send a chill down their spines.
If McKenzie is correct, and I think he is, then one of the central arguments of Metaxas’s book completely falls apart. McKenzie shows that there was little continuity between the way John Winthrop used the phrase “city on a hill” and Ronald Reagan (and Metaxas) used it in the 1980s. When Winthrop used the phrase it had nothing to do with Massachusetts Bay (or the United States of America) sharing its ideals with other nations.
But the problems with Metaxas’s argument go deeper. I hope that his Christian readers will be bothered by the fact that Metaxas equates the United States of America with God’s chosen people. By equating the United States with the chosen people of God he is propagating one of the worst forms of American exceptionalism. Most versions of Christian theology teach that God no longer works through the nation of Israel but has instead established a “new covenant” with the church. The church is a community made up of those who have embraced the redemptive message of the Gospel and, as a result, live their lives devoted to building the Kingdom of God, a kingdom defined by loving God and loving neighbor. In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas conflates the calling of the church with the United States of America. I am not sure whether to call this blasphemy or idolatry. Perhaps both.
For a more thoughtful Christian assessment of American exceptionalism I highly recommend John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.
Here is a taste of my latest column at Religion News Service:
(RNS) There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the rise of Donald Trump represents the decline of the Christian right in American politics.
In a recent article at The Atlantic, political commentator David Frum suggests Trump has all but captured the GOP nomination by driving social conservatives from power in the party.
In this line of thinking, Ted Cruz is the candidate of the Christian right. Indeed, he has the support of culture warriors such as James Dobson, Tony Perkins and Glenn Beck. Trump is the candidate of “New York values” who has just happened to attract a few evangelical leaders (Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Pat Robertson, for example).
But what Frum and others miss in this analysis is the fact that many evangelical conservative voters who affiliate with the agenda of the Christian right believe they can support Trump without sacrificing any of their moral convictions about abortion, marriage and religious liberty — the primary Christian right talking points in 2016.
The beliefs of the conservative evangelicals who support Cruz, and the conservative evangelicals who support Trump, are really two sides of the same coin — two ways of understanding evangelical politics that differ only in minor points of emphasis. The Christian right is far from dead; it is just having a bit of an intramural squabble.
Read the rest here.
In 1620, the Puritan John Winthrop said that Massachusetts Bay Colony was a “City on a Hill.” The Puritans who came to New England believed that they were a new Israel–God’s chosen people. This sense of Christian exceptionalism, as my friend John Wilsey has recently shown, has been around for a long time. The so-called “greatness” of America has been inextricably linked in the minds of many Christians to the blessing of God.
In 1776, John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, preached a sermon entitled The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men. In this sermon the Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton argued that the American Revolution was a just cause because God is always on the side of liberty. The British colonies were fighting for liberty. The King and Parliament were acting in a tyrannical fashion. Based on this logic, Witherspoon believed God was on the side of the American Revolution.
In the early nineteenth century evangelical Christians, the products of the so-called “Second Great Awakening,” formed dozens of reform movements to Christianize the nation. These evangelical reformers believed that God had a special destiny for the United States. If they could Christianize the culture they might even usher in the second coming of Jesus Christ. The fate of the gospel and the fate of the nation were tightly bound.
During the Civil War both the North and South connected their visions for America with divine Providence. At the turn of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson tried to make the world safe for democracy and did so with a sense of Christian zeal. During the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower baptized American prosperity and the free-market with a dose of Christian nationalism. “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was placed on paper money during this decade because Americans wanted to distinguish the “greatness” of their country from the so-called “godless Communists.” And in the 1970s and 1980s these historic efforts to link God and country were enhanced by the evangelicals and fundamentalists who founded the Christian Right.
This quick and dirty sketch reveals that “God and country” idealism has been around, in one form or another, since the 17th century. When Christianity is not protected, celebrated, and even privileged America ceases to be great. When people believe that the American economy is not strong, or when newcomers do not seem to assimilate as quickly as natives would like to see them assimilate, then it is a sign that God is disciplining the nation. When this happens, a revival of Christianity and patriotism (which have often been code words for nativism) is necessary to “make America great again.”
Over the last several months I have spent a lot of time talking with evangelicals who support Donald Trump or are leaning toward Trump. I do not question their religious faith. They are people who read their Bibles and pray. Some go to church and some do not, but they do take their relationship with God seriously.
They also take their identity as patriots seriously. If we understand American religious history and the longstanding connection between Christianity and nationalism, the fact that so many evangelicals are supporting Trump should not surprise us.
Trump may be crude and offer very little in terms of policy, but by trying to “make America great again” he has embarked, in the minds of many evangelicals, on a divine mission.
John Wilsey teaches history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary–Houston campus and is the author of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. This is a must-read if you are a Christian who is trying to make sense of the relationship between your faith and American identity. But Wilsey’s book will also be useful for anyone–Christian or not–who is interested in the history of the idea of American exceptionalism. See our Author’s Corner interview with Wilsey here.
John has been thinking about writing a religious biography of Cold War intellectual John Foster Dulles. I hope he decides to do it.
In the meantime, John has written a piece at History News Network that bridges his current book with his possible future project and applies his findings to the 2016 Election. Here is a taste of “The Legacy of John Foster Dulles That Remains With Us to this Day.”
How do we see the continuation of Dulles’s legacy in contemporary times? Certainly we can see it in manifold ways, but let us consider that legacy through the lens of the presidential candidacy of GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. Rubio has made American exceptionalism the centerpiece of his personal narrative, and by extension, his entire campaign.
This past July, Rubio sat for a question and answer session hosted by Americans for Peace, Prosperity, and Security at Furman University in Greenville, SC. What he said about American exceptionalism in general, and America’s role in the world in particular, was strikingly similar to Dulles’s vision of America’s global responsibility. “For reasons we don’t fully understand, “ he said, “America has been charged with this task of being the most influential nation on the earth.” One may wonder, who gave this charge to America? Rubio implied that the charge is God-given.
In contrast to America, which is committed to righteousness, China threatens the world with moral darkness for Rubio. He said that China “does not respect human rights,” “does not respect religious liberties,” “does not allow its people unfettered access to the internet and information.” And what happens if America were to step aside from its divine charge to lead the world? Rubio’s answer is “chaos, violence, war, radical jihadism.” Without American leadership, Rubio said that “the world will return to an age of darkness, of violence, of lack of freedoms.”
Rubio clearly believes in the moral imperative of American power and leadership, just as Dulles did in the 1950s. He divides the world into the forces of good and the forces of evil, just as Dulles did. The vision of an exceptional, indispensable America on a God-given mission is not new to Americans. But Dulles’s vision of a global mission in a Manichaean universe has become an article of faith to many Americans. It does not seem to be going away anytime soon.
Read the entire piece here.
John D. Wilsey is Assistant Professor of History and Christian Apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (IVP Academic, 2015).
JF: What led you to write American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea
JW: This project arose out of my dissertation on the Christian America thesis from 1977-2007 that I finished back in 2010. When I encountered the idea of American exceptionalism in the context of the Christian America thesis, I knew I wanted to explore it further. I was intrigued because the Christian America thesis at the turn of the 21stcentury clearly entailed American exceptionalism. Furthermore, after reading Anthony Smith’s incomparable Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity, it became obvious that most Western civilizations since the fourth century believed themselves to be, in some way, God’s chosen nation.
I could only mention exceptionalism briefly in the dissertation. But once the dissertation was finished, I revisited the idea, presenting a paper on it at the Conference on Faith and History meeting in 2012. The presentation went awful (I thought). I remember taking a moment to myself after my panel was concluded and wanting to have a good cry. But it forced me back to the drawing board—I read an article by James W. Ceaser on the origins of American exceptionalism, and the light turned on for me. It was a key moment in my thinking about exceptionalism, and I think Ceaser’s article made the difference when I wrote the book proposal.
On a more personal level, I grew up surrounded by a strong military tradition on both sides of my family. But I was intrigued by the whole idea of God and country. What happens when we use God-talk to self-identify as a nation? And what are the theological entailments in American exceptionalism? These remain fascinating questions to me, and the intersection between nationalism and religion in history is a busy one indeed!
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion?
JW: American exceptionalism has historically entailed several theological assertions, and can thus be an idea that is exclusionary, imperialistic, and contrary to Christianity from which it is indebted. But exceptionalism can also be construed in political/social terms, and when it is, the idea forms the groundwork for sound patriotism and healthy civic engagement.
JF: Why do we need to read American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion?
JW: American exceptionalism is a very old idea. It can be traced back to the Puritans of the seventeenth century, and it evolved around the contours of all the major crises America faced from the colonial period to the present. And everyone is talking about it. A casual Google search of “American exceptionalism” yields 775,000 results. President Obama—a president whose patriotism is often questioned—frequently refers to it in his rhetoric, most notably perhaps in his response to the Syrian crisis in 2013, his commencement address at West Point in 2014, and in his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march earlier this year.
But hardly anybody defines their meaning when they use the term. Most people think that the term is concrete, and universally agreed upon and understood. But it is an ambiguous term that demands precision.
Exceptionalism is also an article of faith. Interestingly, when people consider exceptionalism, they often speak about it in terms of either “believing in” American exceptionalism or not. This way of thinking about exceptionalism seems to suggest that the idea is often more than a political idea—it is a tenet of a civil religion.
Because Americans employ the term so frequently, so ambiguously, and so often as an article of faith, I think it is important that we explore the history and theology of the idea. What are we talking about when we invoke American exceptionalism? What have Americans in the past meant when they have expressed nationalistic feeling in ways consistent with what we call exceptionalism?
And most importantly, what damage does American exceptionalism do to the Christian religion? What harm has the idea wrought within our own national community, and in the world? And is there any way the idea can be put to positive use in the ways we Americans self-identify and engage one another and other peoples of the world? I think America is an exceptional nation, and I also think that exceptionalism can serve as a model for healthy civic engagement—provided that we define it in open, political/social terms and reject its strong theological assertions.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JW: I was inspired to study history by my grandfather, Jasper N. Dorsey, my high school history teacher, Doug Frutiger, and my professors at Furman University, particularly Marian Strobel and Lloyd Benson. And David Puckett, my church history professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was another important person in my development as a student and as a scholar. American history is terribly fascinating to me, and since our history is so comparatively short, it is amazing how close we are to the events that shaped our nation. I’m not sure when I decided I wanted to make the study of history my life’s work, but I’m sure glad I did!
JF: What is your next project?
JW: Presently, I’m editing, abridging, and writing an introduction for Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America for Lexham Press. I’ll finish that project by the end of the year, and then I’d like to pursue a study of W. E. B. Du Bois’ writings on American identity as his views evolved from his early to middle to late career.
JF: Thanks, John! Sounds like some great stuff.
I will start this post with a confession. A few years ago I watched an entire season of the History Channel series Ice Road Truckers. I don’t remember much about it now, and I don’t think I have watched an episode since then, but I was entertained by the show.
As I have noted here before, I am looking forward to the release of John Wilsey’s book American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. Wilsey, a professor of history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes from the perspective of his own Christian faith, but I think his arguments will resonate with just about anyone interested in making sense of this topic.
If you want a taste of what you can expect from the book, check out Wilsey’s latest post at his blog, “To Breathe Your Free Air” (a quote from James Madison, I might add).
Wilsey’s post was timely for me. Tonight I am teaching the Puritans in my Gilder-Lehrman online graduate course and the students are reading Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity.” I hope to reference the way Winthrop’s phrase “a city on a hill” has been used by Reagan and other politicians over the years.
Here is a taste of Wilsey’s post:
Ronald Reagan invoked the phrase in the 1980s.
Of course this raises even more questions. Does he want to “restore” America to the way it was in the 17th century, at the time Winthrop first used the phrase? Or does he want to “restore” America back to the way it was in the Reagan era? Of perhaps he wants to “restore” America to the age of the Founding Fathers or the 19th century or the 1950s? Inquiring minds want to know.
Over at The Anxious Bench blog, John Wilsey, a professor of history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, explores the various ways that Americans think about the United States as an “exceptional” nation. He compares the form of American exceptionalism espoused by Eric Foner in a recent article in The Nation with the view of exceptionalism recently put forth by Dick and Liz Cheney in the Wall Street Journal and in their new book Exceptional. Here is a taste:
It is really hard to argue that the United States is not an exceptional nation. It was the first nation born out of the Enlightenment. In the early 19th century it was probably the most democratic place in the world. As Chesterton said, it has always been a “nation with the soul of a church.”
American exceptionalism has fallen out of favor in recent decades, especially among liberals. When understood in the context of the history of American foreign policy, American exceptionalism has produced some ugly results. Unfortunately the idea of American exceptionalism has often gone hand in hand with some of the worst forms of imperialism.
And then there are those Christians who connect American exceptionalism to the providence of God. They believe that the United States is exceptional because it has somehow been uniquely blessed by God. I am not going to go into the various problems with this view, but if you want to delve deeper into this idea I would recommend John Wilsey’s forthcoming book American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.
Eric Foner, the liberal historian who teaches at Columbia University in New York, might not come immediately to mind when thinking about the defenders of American exceptionalism. Yet, in this piece published in The Nation, Foner shows how the United States’s commitment to birthright citizenship makes America exceptional.
Here is a taste:
Birthright citizenship–the principle that any person born in the United States is automatically a citizen–has been embedded in the Constitution since the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. This summer, it has suddenly emerged as a major issue in the Republican presidential campaign. Following the lead of Donald Trump, candidates like Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul have called for the repeal or reinterpretation of the amendment, to prevent children born to undocumented immigrants from being recognized as American citizens.
The situation abounds in ironies. Now a Republican target, the 14th Amendment was for many decades considered the crowning achievement of what once called itself the part of Lincoln. Today, moreover, birthright citizenship stands as an example of the much-abused idea of American exceptionalism, which Republicans have berated President Obama for supposedly not embracing. Many things claimed as uniquely American–a devotion to individual freedom, for example, or social opportunity–exist in other countries. But birthright citizenship does make the United States (along with Canada) unique in the developed world. No European nation recognized the principle. Yet. oddly, those most insistent on proclaiming their belief in American exceptionalism seem keenest on abolishing it.
Read the rest here.
Not everyone liked my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. For example, Cambridge University professor G.R. Evans found it a bit too “chatty” and “scattergun.” She especially chides me for focusing too heavily on the American context. This is a fair a critique. My audience was American Christians and other Americans interested in history. Since I am an Americanist, most of my illustrations came from the United States or United States history. Guilty as charged.
Here is Evans’s review. It appeared in volume 117 (November 2014) of a journal called Theology.
This is a book with a strong USA viewpoint and written mainly for and about American university students taking ‘History’ courses. It begins with a chapter about what historians ‘do’ and ends with a chapter entitled ‘So what can you do with a History Major?’ It also has an Epilogue, ‘History and the Church’, containing the author’s personal view of the kind of work a historian can and should do by speaking in churches and to church groups, and especially for the cause of making America more acceptable in God’s eyes. The final section is an appendix containing ‘A proposal for the Center for American History and a Civil Society’. So the book’s purpose has further dimensions.
It tends to the chatty and the personal in its approach and has a somewhat eclectic, even scattergun, approach in its main chapters to the task of supporting its argument with evidence and illustration. The ‘usable past’ is sketched in terms of modern American ideas about consumerism and ‘progress’; it is barely queried that ‘the United States survey course has always been taught as a way of producing good American citizens’; ‘history for a civil society’ is said to be about ‘how to get American democracy on the right track’; and so on.
To a reader who sees the world from the other side of the Atlantic and from a broader and longer perspective, this is disturbing when the underlying themes of the book include the role of Christian history and the history of Christianity. To find a chapter on ‘Providence and History’ which barely touches on Augustine and has nothing to say about Joachim of Fiore or the other twelfth-century theorists is worrying. The author regrets American cultural ‘isolationism’, but perhaps he has some way to go in breaking free of it himself if he wants to write a book called Why Study History that will have something of value to say to a non-USA readership.