In my last post I offered a summary review of Eric Metaxas’ new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. Metaxas believes unabashedly in American exceptionalism, although he is quick to disavow all forms of jingoism or triumphant nationalism. The United States is exceptional, he contends, because we have a unique mission—a divinely ordained, unique mission—to be a blessing to the other nations of the world.
Although I’m sure he means well, the theological implications of this belief are enormous and appalling. One of my favorite historians of the American Civil War, Steven Woodworth, calls this blurring of the roles of the church and the nation “patriotic heresy.” In his book Bad Religion (which I reviewed here), New York Times columnist Ross Douthat echoes this critique, referring to such views as “the heresy of American nationalism.” Hugh Heclo, Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University, writes in his book Christianity and American Democracy, “If America is the redeemer of nations and time, then America is the Christ of history,” Heclo writes. “This notion may be inadvertent, but it is blasphemy all the same.” This is not a minor concern.
I am not a theologian, but I have spent the past three decades as a professional historian, and what jumps out at me is the way that Metaxas offers historical evidence to support his essentially theological claim. I could give numerous examples, but I’ll limit myself to one: his misreading of the message of John Winthrop’s 1630 shipboard sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” and its oft-quoted words, “We shall be as a city on a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” In fairness to Metaxas, he is hardly alone. Heclo aptly describes the memorable metaphor as “rhetoric so beloved and so thoroughly misrepresented by later American politicians.”
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.
In context, Winthrop was not remotely claiming that God had decreed a special mission for the political community that the Puritans were about to establish. For nearly a century, a minority of the members of the Church of England had believed that the English Reformation had not gone nearly far enough. Although they were openly critical of the established church, these “Puritans” had not withdrawn into secret “Separatist” congregations (as the group that we remember as “the Pilgrims” had done). Instead, they had hoped to cooperate with the state in purifying Anglicanism of surviving vestiges of Catholic hierarchy, doctrine, and ritual that they believed were unsupported by Scripture. Under Queen Elizabeth such an outcome had seemed possible, but the hopes for continuing reformation grew dim under her successor, James I, and vanished entirely when James was succeeded by the openly Catholic Charles I in 1625. The eventual result was what historians call the “Great Migration,” a massive relocation to New England of perhaps as many as 20,000 Puritans during the 1630s. In the technological context of the early 17th century, this was an undertaking of monumental proportions.
In his sermon, Winthrop reminds his listeners of the seriousness of the undertaking upon which they had embarked. They were leaving England in search of a new home in which they could more effectively serve the Lord, increase His church, and distance themselves from the corruption of the English church that now seemed to them as beyond reformation. If their venture was to succeed, Winthrop stresses, the migrants must purpose to “love one another with a pure heart,” “bear one another’s burdens,” and be willing to sacrifice their “superfluities” (material surpluses) “for the supply of others’ necessities.” (Oddly, that’s a portion of Winthrop’s exhortation that almost never gets quoted.) If the Puritans failed in these particulars, the governor warned, they would almost certainly fail in their overall endeavor.
This brings us, finally, to Winthrop’s famous phrase. 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.