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!
We are working hard to get Princeton University historian Daniel Rodgers on the podcast. He is the author of As a City Upon a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon. (He will be featured on the Author’s Corner very soon). In the meantime, here is a taste of an excerpt from the book published at the Los Angeles Review of Books:
WAS AMERICA BORN capitalist? it is often asked. Ever since Max Weber proposed a causal relationship between early Protestants’ longing for order and rational control and the spirit of modern capitalism, the question has consumed the attention of generations of sociologists and historians. Weber’s ideal types were too abstract, it is now clear. The careful accounting and control of the self that the Puritans so conspicuously valued was only one of the cultural traits on which capitalist economies have thrived. Others, like the risk-taking and labor exploitation on which the tobacco and slave economy of early Virginia was founded, could be successfully capital-generative as well. Capitalism’s identifying features lie as much in its institutions of trade, property law, and labor as in the inner ethos that captured Weber’s imagination.
Measured in these ways, there can be no doubt that Puritan New England was a by-product of capitalism in its expansive, early modern phase. John Winthrop’s settlement arose within one of the great commercial empires of the early modern world. Unlike the Spanish conquest a century earlier, in which arms, expropriation of easily obtained wealth, and missionary zeal took the vanguard roles, the English colonization of the Americas was a merchants’ endeavor. Trading corporations — the Virginia Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Providence Island Company, the Plymouth Company — undertook the work of settlement throughout British America, capitalized by investors’ purchase of their joint stock.
Read the rest here.
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.
In 17th-century New England, the Puritans set out to forge a “City on a Hill,” a society based upon the teachings of the Bible as they understood them. They believed that they were a new Israel and thus lived in a covenant relationship with God. When God was displeased with the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony he punished them with earthquakes, Indian attacks, bad weather, and a host of other calamities. Whenever one of these calamities took place, Puritan ministers mounted their pulpits to deliver jeremiads, sermons designed to call the Puritans back to their covenant relationship with God.
David Barton, the GOP activist and culture warrior who uses the past to promote his political agenda, apparently still lives in 17th-century New England. He believes that the United States exists in a covenant relationship with God not unlike that of the Puritans. On his recent show Wallbuilders Live he went so far as to connect bad weather with abortion. (This is not unlike his earlier attempt to connect low SAT scores to the removal of Bible reading and prayer in public schools).
Here is what he said:
So we understood and that’s why if you look back on WallBuilders website we have a section in the library of historical documents. We have now 850 actual proclamations that we own that were issued by governors. And they could be Founding Fathers governors like John Hancock, or Sam Adams, or signers of the Declaration like all for Oliver Wolcott, or Samuel Huntington, signers of the Constitution like John- We’ve got their proclamations.
And so often their proclamation says, “Man, we’ve got to have God’s help with the weather. We have to pray, and repent, and fast because something is going on wrong with the weather and our crops need rain.” We understood that.
Well, today 52 percent of Christians think that God does a really lousy job with the weather. Maybe it’s not his choice that is doing it. Maybe it’s our own sin or our own unrighteous policies. Maybe it’s because we love killing unborn kids, 60 million of them. Maybe God says, “I’m not going to bless your land when you’re doing it.”
I believe in God. I also believe he may have something to do with the weather. I also believe that abortion is a moral problem. This probably separates me from many of my secular readers.
But I do not claim, like Barton, to have a hotline to the will of God on these matters. In fact, as I argued in Why Study History?, this kind of providentialism is arrogant, idolatrous, and fails to acknowledge the mystery and otherness of God. To suggest that bad weather is connected to abortion is simply bad theology. And yes, if the founding fathers made this connection it would still be bad theology. And yes, it would still be bad theology if David Barton had a primary document that revealed the founders making such a connection.
What also strikes me about this episode of Wallbuilders Live is Barton’s rant on human sinfulness. He says:
And there’s really three areas that I can quickly point to and pretty much tell whether someone has a basic general understanding, a very broad Biblical teachings. If they have any Biblical literacy at all, even if they themselves are not Christians, it used to be as Tim pointed out, just the culture itself had a pretty good degree of Biblical knowledge and literacy. We understood a lot of Biblical idioms, and phrases, and whatnot, knew where they came from. We knew heroes of the Bible even if people weren’t Christian.
But if I start with the question, “Is man inherently good? Does man generally tend to be good?” If you answer that “yes” that means you don’t understand Bible. Because the Bible says, “No, man does not tend to be good. Man will always be wrong.
He’ll do the wrong thing. History proves that time and time again. When you leave man to his own ways, he doesn’t get better, he gets worse. unless God intervenes and changes his heart and he moves in the right direction.
And that’s a scriptural teaching, Jeremiah 17:9, the heart of man is desperately wicked. Who can know it? Who can predict it? What you can predict is that it will do the wrong thing.
And so you see secular governments across the world end up being oppressive. They end up killing in the 20th Century, killing hundreds of millions of people in secular governments.
So, the heart of man is not good. If you think man inherently tends to be good…
I actually agree with Barton’s understanding of human nature. But unlike Barton, I would also apply this belief to the founding fathers. Last time I checked they were also human beings. And perhaps their sinfulness explains something about the character of the American founding.
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.
Earlier this month Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign introduced us to an impressive list of believing scholars and thinkers—many of them evangelical Christians—who agreed to be part of his newly formed religious advisory committee.
If last night’s debate is any indication, I think Rubio better spend some more time with this group. Since I am guessing that it would be bad form for these scholars (who are in a sense working for Rubio) to critique his performance last night, I will give it a shot.
Rubio is doing his best to sound like an evangelical Christian. Last night he spoke about his faith more than he has done in all the other GOP debates combined. From what I have read, Rubio attends both a Catholic church and an evangelical megachurch. His spiritual commitment seems sincere. I have no doubt that he is a man of faith. But the way he used his religion last night made the Christian gospel subservient to his political ambitions.
The Florida Senator’s use of religion in this GOP debate was problematic spiritually, theologically, and historically.
When Chris Wallace of Fox News asked him if he was still the “Republican savior,” Rubio seized the opportunity. “Well, let me be clear about one thing,” he said, “there’s only one savior and it’s not me. It’s Jesus Christ who came down to earth and died for our sins.” The audience response suggests that Rubio connected with many Iowans. It was a shrewd and opportunistic move taken straight from the GOP political playbook. And in the process Rubio traded the life-giving message of the Christian faith for an applause line and perhaps a few votes.
Rubio’s reference to Jesus Christ as the savior of the world had nothing to do with his qualifications for being President of the United States of America. It was not connected in any way to the substantive policy discussions that took place at last night’s debate. It did not inform the way the candidate approaches economic or foreign affairs. Instead, it came across as little more than an attempt to use an evangelical tag line to pander to his audience–both in Des Moines and around the country. It is hard to read this any other way. From a Christian point of view, this is a spiritual problem akin to idolatry.
Throughout the night the nostalgia for the 1980s and the era of Ronald Reagan was palpable. Rubio was not immune to it. In fact, he sounded a lot like the Gipper when he described the United States as a “light” that is “shining on the world.”
Reagan was fond of describing America as a shining light. He often used the phrase “city on a hill” to illustrate the role that American democracy must play around the world. When the fortieth President of the United States talked about America as a shining city he was referencing John Winthrop’s 1620 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, believed that his colony was a new Israel. It was a chosen nation populated by the Puritans– God’s new chosen people.
Reagan’s “city on a hill” was a secularized version of Winthrop’s vision for Massachusetts. For him, the United States was exceptional because it was founded on the principles of democracy and liberty. It was this commitment to freedom that brought an end to communism and the Soviet Union.
But Rubio took Reagan’s American exceptionalism one step further when he said “the Bible commands us to let our light shine on the world.” He was a referencing Matthew 5:16, the passage of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus tells his followers to “let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and they should glorify your Father in the heavens.” Rubio applied this biblical reference—a call for Christians to share the light of the gospel (and in doing so bring glory to God)—to American power abroad. “For over 200 years,” he said, “America’s light has been shining on the world and the world has never been the same again.”
If Rubio had consulted with his religious advisory committee, he would know that Matthew 5 is not about foreign policy, the spread of democracy, or the ideals of any nation. When the lines between the Kingdom of God and a man-made nation are blurred, the Christian faith suffers. It is a theological error to equate the Kingdom of God with the United States.
Rubio also linked his belief in American exceptionalism to the nation’s apparent Judeo-Christian origins. “I think if you do not understand that our Judeo-Christian values are one of the reasons why America is such a special country,” Rubio argued, “you don’t understand our history.”
The idea that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian values is a questionable historical premise. Many historians—even historians who are evangelical Christians—do not agree with this premise. The Declaration of Independence mentions God, but Thomas Jefferson, its primary author, does not define God in a way that is decidedly Judeo-Christian. The Constitution never mentions God, Christianity, or the Judeo-Christian tradition. I have done some writing on this over the years.
Rubio has a lot more work to do in order to bring responsible Christian thinking to his campaign and avoid these spiritual, theological, and historical pitfalls.
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.
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.
The United States is a nation of second chances.
Or is it?
Dan McAdams argues that the American redemption script has two key components. The first is the belief that we, as individuals and as a people, are fortunate, blessed, or “chosen for a special, manifest destiny” to do great things in the world. The second is the conviction that by responding successfully to hardships and tribulations, we will only grow stronger and better. We will take bad things and create good things out of them. Both beliefs are under threat. Americans have probably never been as special and blessed as they believed themselves to be, but they are particularly less special today. In many areas, from educational achievement to average life span to rates of violent death and infant mortality, measurable evidence shows that we are special only by virtue of our poor standing compared with other countries. And as for our capacity to overcome adversity, it may be limited in the future by increased global competition and environmental challenges.
There may be something to be gained by loosening our grip on the redemption narrative. It has promoted a belief in American exceptionalism that, while serving America and the world well during the world wars and at other times, has often bred national arrogance and self-righteousness. George W. Bush, who so embodied the second act, also embraced American exceptionalism in foreign policy, with far-reaching and destructive results.
There is a counternarrative to the redemption script. Its sources of inspiration include Shakespeare, the Greek dramatists, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre. In the tragic narrative, the hero suffers a plight that he is not responsible for and cannot overcome. Many non-American cultures are rooted in this more tragic, perhaps more realistic view of the world. Such a narrative would allow for a more balanced approach, a realistic appraisal of the challenges and rewards of living. Tragedy, McAdams writes, “teaches us . . . lessons that serve as psychologically useful counterpoints to the redemptive self. Tragedy calls into question the belief that any particular individual is blessed and destined to achieve good things. It looks with skepticism upon the kind of ideological certitude celebrated in the redemptive self.”
Most important, McAdams says, tragedy brings people together. “People often identify moments of greatest intimacy in their lives as those times when they shared with others deep sadness and pain.” As veterans of any war know, tragedy creates bonds that those who haven’t shared it can never fully understand.
Perhaps a greater acceptance of suffering would relieve Americans of a pressure to pursue happiness in a world that quite often doesn’t make it possible. As a Swedish woman once said to us at a reading, “In America, everybody says ‘Have a nice day’ and everybody is supposed to be happy. You ask people how they are doing, and they say, ‘Great!’ In Sweden, you ask people how they are doing, and they say, ‘Terrible!’ But you get to know them, and they are doing fine, while the Americans, once you get to know them, are all on Prozac and miserable.”
Yet the American redemption script has many virtues. Researchers have consistently found that adults who hold such beliefs are far more likely to be successful than others in areas such as parenting, social support, and religious and civic involvement…
Read the entire essay here.
I have been enjoying Tracy McKenzie‘s reflections on moral judgment and the American idea of manifest destiny. I think I approach the question of moral reflection in historical inquiry a little bit differently, but we both seem to end up at the same place.
McKenzie’s posts are making me impatient about receiving the copy-edited manuscript of my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. I want to make a few small changes in light of the things I am learning from his posts at “Faith and History.”
Here is a taste of his post “Manifest Destiny and Moral Reflection–Part Two“:
At its best, the study of the past can provide a marvelous context for serious moral inquiry. One of my favorite statements to this effect comes from historian David Harlan. In his book, The Degradation of American History, Harlan writes movingly about history’s potential to facilitate a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”
In practice, secular historians today frequently write implicitly as moralists—criticizing past views about race, class, gender, and colonialism with which they disagree without building a systematic moral argument for their views. And yet officially, for more than a century academic historians have insisted that moral inquiry has no legitimate place in responsible historical scholarship. They usually make their case by equating moral inquiry with heavy-handed dogmatism, painting nightmare scenarios in which the historian becomes a “hanging judge,” passing out sentences left and right for the moral edification of the audience.
Obviously, this is not the only form that moral inquiry may take, however. I like to distinguish between moral judgment, defined as outward directed inquiry focused on determining the guilt or rectitude of people or events in the past, and moral reflection, an inward directed undertaking in which we engage the past in order to scrutinize our own values and behavior more effectively.
The concept of manifest destiny and its role in American history is one of those topics that cries out for moral engagement. Most of the contemporary allusions to manifest destiny in popular culture evoke the worst kinds of self-righteous judgments, however. The furor over the Gap t-shirt with “Manifest Destiny” on its front was one such instance. But what might it look like to think historically and Christianly about manifest destiny with an eye toward moral reflection?
There is no one single way to do so responsibly, but here is what I would recommend: To begin with, we need to purpose to go to the past in search of illumination, not ammunition. Next, we must determine to take seriously Christ’s injunction to “judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). The starting point of moral reflection is “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), or if you prefer, Paul’s declaration that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (I Timothy 1:15). In thinking about the past, this means that we purpose to identify with those whom we are trying to understand, acknowledging that their propensity to sin is no more developed than our own, glimpsing shadows of our own struggles in theirs. When we do that, whatever is morally troubling about the mindset of manifest destiny becomes a clue to what we might expect to find in our own hearts if we look closely enough.
Over the past few days I have been working my way through Jefferson Cowie’s riveting and deeply satisfying Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (The New Press, 2010). I must confess that I am reading this book less out of a responsibility to “keep up with my field” and more for pleasure. As a child of the 1970s and a product of the white ethnic working class, Cowie’s book is helping me to contextualize some of my memories.
Last night I read Cowie’s chapter on George McGovern and the 1972 presidential race. Cowie’s primary focus is on McGovern’s inability to tap into the white, ethnic, masculine working class–many of whom supported George Wallace in the Democratic primaries. His failure to win the support of organized labor and unite the working class, blacks, and anti-war liberals (a vision he inherited from Bobby Kennedy) led to a divided Democratic Party and a landslide victory for Richard Nixon.
But I was most taken by Cowie’s description of McGovern’s campaigning in the closing weeks of the campaign. By Autumn 1972, McGovern realized that his chances of victory in November were slim and he began to return to his roots as the son of a South Dakota Methodist minister. Newsweek called it “McGovern’s Politics of Righteousness” and compared the candidate to William Jennings Bryan.
In a campaign stop at evangelical Wheaton College, McGovern invoked “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop’s famous “City on a Hill” speech of 1620. As Cowie writes:
For McGovern the invocation of a city on a hill came with an absolute convictions that America had veered from the path of spiritual righteousness. The vote on Tuesday, he claimed on the eve of the election, will be “a day of reckoning and judgment.” Eight years later, Reagan would later invoke the same sermon as an affirmation of national greatness.
After reading this short section of Cowie’s book, I am convinced that we need a good religious biography of McGovern.
Here is another taste of Cowie’s description of McGovern’s righteous campaigning:
Richard Nixon, he implied, was an agent of not just political death and darkness, but spiritual death as well, who had led the people away from the promise of America. On the war, he railed against four more years of “barbarism,” reminding Americans of the “thousands of Asians” who were “burning bleeding, and dying under the bombs that fall from American planes.” “What is it,” he queried the nation, “that keeps a great and decent country like the United States involved in this cruel killing and destruction? Why is it that we cannot find the wit and the will to escape from this dreadful conflict that has tied us down for so long?” he asked. McGovern found Nixon’s formula of sparing American casualties by engaging in the massive carpet-bombing campaigns morally reprehensible. In an address titled “They Too, Are Created in the Image of God,” McGovern subverted the logic of nearly two hundred years of imperial conquest by boldly equating the value of an Asian life to an American life.
Who is up to the task? David Swartz? Brantley Gasaway?