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.
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.
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.
Here is Ted Cruz talking with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network about his so-called “God Talk.” (I am having trouble embedding the video. Watch it at the link above).
Cruz is a master politician. This is a very shrewd answer.
He says that it is not his “calling” to deliver the salvation message. Fair enough. Cruz will not use the presidential bully pulpit to preach the Gospel.
He is right when he says the First Amendment reflects the religious beliefs of Muslims and atheists. Again, Cruz is right. But the Texas Senator rarely talks about religious liberty outside the context of Christianity.
And when Cruz says that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian principles that need to be restored today in America, it raises questions about how he reconciles this belief with his defense of religious liberty.
And one more thing about his discussion of the “founding.” The United States was not “founded” by people fleeing religious oppression. Most of the so-called founding fathers were born in the British colonies. Here Trump is confusing the “founding” with what I have called the “planting” of the British colonies in the seventeenth century. I talk about the difference here and in Chapter Five of Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.
But let’s give Cruz the benefit of the doubt here. Perhaps he might accuse me of playing semantics when I distinguish the “planting” from the “founding.” What Cruz is really talking about is the seventeenth-century migrants who first settled along the eastern seaboard, developed societies, and eventually rebelled against England in 1776.
Were these settlers fleeing religious persecution? Some of them were. In New England a small group of Puritans came to Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay in pursuit of religious liberty from what they perceived as the tyrannical leaders of the Church of England, clergy and bishops who were not fans of Calvinism.
But when they arrived in North America, they were certainly not champions of the kind of religious liberty that Cruz celebrates in the First Amendment. They imprisoned, fined, ousted, and even killed people who did not share their religious beliefs. So let’s not pretend that the colonies were planted (or “founded”) on principles of religious liberty. As I tell my classes, inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay were religious free–free to conform to Puritan orthodoxy. Government did “get in the way” of people practicing their faith according to the dictates of their consciences. Just ask Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, and Mary Dyer, to name just a few.
But the Puritans are only a small part of the story. There were several colonies–including Virginia, the first British colony–that were not founded by people seeking religious liberty.
I also want to call attention to what Cruz does not say in this interview with Brody. He never says how his Christian faith will inform the way he governs or his moral vision for the United States.
This may be going too far, but I wonder if Cruz’s claim that he will not be “pastor-in-chief” can be compared to the way that John Winthrop, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was also not a “pastor-in-chief.” Winthrop was a political leader. He was not responsible for preaching the gospel in the colony. At the same time, he enforced and advanced all of the discriminatory policies I mentioned above.
In Massachusetts Bay, church and state were separate. Technically, it was not a theocracy. But the line that separated the government from the church was very, very thin.
And finally, if the events of the last couple of days are any indication, it appears that Cruz’s commitment to the Constitution is not as important as his moral politics.
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.
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.