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Before my last semester of full-time college teaching was derailed by a virus, I had been teaching – for about the fortieth time – my course on American Religious Thought to a lively class of undergraduate students at Central College.

That means forty discussions of Harvard historian Perry Miller’s classic 1948 essay, “Errand into the Wilderness.” Miller explored the covenantal ideas behind the English Puritan settlement of the Massachusetts Bay colony in the 1630s, ideas that ultimately shaped not just the consciousness of a colony, but that of a nation. He pointed in particular to a lay sermon preached by John Winthrop aboard the Arabella en route to the New World, entitled “A Modell of Christian Charity,” as a kind of programmatic statement of intent by the Puritan leaders of the colony.

In that sermon, Winthrop cited the powerful metaphor used by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5: 14). If we fulfill the terms of our covenant with God, Winthrop argued, by establishing a new society in the wilderness according to the pattern laid out in Scripture, “we shall be as a city on a hill,” a model for England and the world to follow. If on the other hand we betray the covenant by pursuing our own selfish designs, we will bring down upon ourselves divine judgment that will be equally visible to the world. In any case, Winthrop urged, we are committed – there is no backing out of our covenant obligations, our exceptional destiny.

In his newly-published book, City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2020), Abram Van Engen argues that Perry Miller not only charted the history of American exceptionalism but actually shaped it, by resurrecting Winthrop’s hitherto obscure sermon as a founding document of American civil religion. In the process, he unleashed the “city on a hill” as a political metaphor, one that would be exploited by politicians and pundits over the second half of the 20th century, most notably by Ronald Reagan.

Ironically, in Van Engen’s telling, it was often employed in a sense very different from Winthrop’s (and Miller’s) intention: not as pointing toward future ideals to be achieved, but rather toward present achievements to be celebrated. Hence, the potentially prophetic edge in American civil religion was blunted in favor of smug entitlement.

Have we reached an end-point on this path of uncritical America First-ism, insisting on special treatment within the community of nations while abdicating responsibility for sacrificial service to any cause larger than our own short-term prosperity? The official White House response last year to the grisly murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by assassins connected to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman might suggest as much. In place of JFK’s inaugural boast that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to ensure the survival and success of liberty,” DJT’s statement on the Khashoggi case simply notes that the Saudis have a lot of oil and buy a lot of military hardware from us, so . . . never mind.

Of course, Kennedy-esque idealism had its dark, hubristic side. It brought us the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, and some Great Society over-reach, in addition to the Peace Corps, civil rights progress and Medicare. Sometimes it has served as a convenient cover for self-interest, or tempted us to ill-considered ventures.

Yet, if we abandon the idealism while holding on to the exceptionalism, what remains of the city on a hill beyond a blight on the landscape? How do we find the right balance between gratitude and repentance, between “God bless America” and “God mend thine every flaw?”

Like many others, we will be finishing our semester via “remote instruction.” We’ll see how that works. But I would have enjoyed discussing those issues face to face with my students after reading Lincoln’s profound Second Inaugural Address, or Rev. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Who today gives voice to the prophetic strain of civil religion that they represented so eloquently, uniting a deep love of country with a clear moral vision for its future?

How can we thread the needle between divinizing our nation and demonizing it? Maybe remote instruction will work technologically in an epidemiological pinch; but the issues are not at all remote. They go to the heart of who we are, and what we will become.

David Timmer

David Timmer teaches religion at Central College in Pella, Iowa.

11 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Ja, threading that needle. We need some national leaders who can speak to this.

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    Oh, David. My most immediate response is wistfulness that I never had the good fortune to take your class. Thank you for this edifying statement on some of the roots and thorns of our current “America First” bramble bush.

  • I would have loved to sit in on one of your classes. This would be a wonderful discussion. Thank you and stay safe out there.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    America is not as great or as exceptional as Americans seem to think we are. There are Americans that have done great and exceptional things but as a nation, not so much. Landing a man on the moon in a decade, perhaps. But in many other ways our society compared to others is about average…

  • Helen P says:

    This is wonderful and reminds me of my History 323 class at Alma College when we read this along with William Bradford and others. I remember those days so well with our discussions of American exceptionalism.
    Your sentence below is particularly striking to me especially in today’s environment.
    “Hence, the potentially prophetic edge in American civil religion was blunted in favor of smug entitlement.“
    Thank you for this.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Love the thought of treading the path between divinizing and demonizing the US of A.
    A riff on “God” or “Caesar”? Corollary. We are always caught between the God and our Enemy.
    They both seem to have a hold on us. God help us. Especially now when the “America First” model crumbles like clay.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    In my h.s. American Lit classes years ago juxtaposed “America the Beautiful” with “I Have a Dream”; I had the kids put “May . . .” in front of the song’s statements to see the ideal intent, rather than to see them as having been attained. (May) God shed his grace on thee . . . etc.

  • John Haas says:

    Great piece, and needed. We can probably push back the moment of declension as far as we wish, but I would point out the first President Bush’s response to the Tianenmen Square massacre as being easily as egregious as the Khashoggi episode, and it was motivated by the same considerations: The importance of China to our prosperity. While making some critical comments, Bush also sent his emissaries to assure the Chinese there would be no practical consequences. Indeed, when Congress passed (twice) a revision of China’s most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status, it was vetoed by President Bush. The House then overrode the veto but the Senate sustained it.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    One antidote to the claim of American exceptionalism is to live abroad for a time. If offers one the opportunity to “see ourselves as others see us”, in the great words of Robert Burns. I have had that opportunity on several occasions and found it to be quite thought-provoking and a time for some personal introspection about our grand vision of the United States.

    • Roger Boyd says:

      I would add my support to this observation. I lived in Thailand for 4 1/2 years which is not a long period of time, but long enough to appreciate the different perspective of America that you get when you hear how we ‘come off’ to people in other places.

      • David Timmer says:

        Yes, I think this is a healthy insight. Perhaps the antidote to both divinization and demonization is a dose of normalization. But then I worry that a nation with our enormous power and resources but no sense of mission would be even more dangerous – a national id unleashed on the world with no controlling superego.

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