Tag Archives: Ross Douthat


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.

Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop

Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop

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.


In my last post I used Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion as a springboard to talk a bit about one of the most misunderstood statements in the American past, Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop’s famous declaration, “We shall be as a city upon a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us.”  I noted that historians have often taken the statement out of context and discerned in Winthrop’s words an early expression of “manifest destiny,” the belief that the United States has a special, divinely ordained role to play in world affairs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Rather than trumpeting the special mission for which God had chosen his Puritan colony, Winthrop was instead reminding his listeners that the enemies they were leaving behind in England would be closely watching their every move and hoping that they would stumble.  If they did so, there would be no concealing the fact: like a “city upon a hill,” their venture would be visible for all to see.

The concept of manifest destiny is still salient today, and still worth our thinking about, both Christianly and historically.  Just this past autumn, the popular clothing retailer The Gap created a mini firestorm when it added to its “GC Collection” a black and white t-shirt with “Manifest Destiny” blazoned across the chest.  (You can read about the episode here.)  A chorus of righteous indignation immediately assailed the corporation for its egregious insensitivity.  Incredulous critics circulated a Facebook petition condemning the retailer for promoting “a belief that has resulted in the mass genocide of indigenous people” and suggesting that, if the t-shirt continued to be sold, it would serve “to normalize oppression.”  Predictably, The Gap quickly backed down, responding to the threat of a boycott by announcing that, “based on customer feedback,” it was withdrawing the shirt from its stores.

As a historian, what struck me most was that this was one of those rare, fleeting moments when history seems to matter in contemporary popular culture.  At the heart of almost every scathing condemnation of the hapless Gap was a lecture about the corporation’s unfathomable historical ignorance.  And yet with history seemingly so central to the controversy, the episode evoked a boatload of dogmatic historical pronouncements but almost no serious thought about the past.  More specifically, they seethed with moral judgment at the expense of moral reflection.  Moral judgment, as I am defining these terms, is directed outward, as we strive to understand the world around us.  Moral reflection is directed inward, as we attempt to understand ourselves.  As applied to history, we engage in moral judgment when we use our critical faculties primarily to determine the guilt or rectitude of the people, events, or belief systems we encounter in our study.  In contrast, we approach history as a medium for moral reflection when we determine to make ourselves vulnerable to the past, when we figuratively resurrect the dead and allow their words and actions to speak to us and ask hard, probing questions.  The Gap t-shirt tempest elicited an outpouring of cheap moral judgment—moralizing that renders a verdict but requires nothing of the knowing heart.

In my next post I will share some thoughts about what it might look like to grapple with a historical phenomenon like manifest destiny with the goal of genuine moral reflection.


One of my favorite Christmas presents this year was the book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.  Since I almost never read the Times, I was not familiar with Douthat, but I was intrigued by the title and I was encouraged to read it when I spotted endorsements on the back cover by pastor Tim Keller and fellow Wheaton faculty member Alan Jacobs, among others.  The thrust of Douthat’s argument is neatly captured in the book’s title: “America’s problem isn’t too much religion,” he contends, “or too little of it.  It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.”  I don’t agree with all of the particulars of the argument, but Bad Religion is engagingly written and thought provoking, and I think there is much in it that American evangelicals need to hear.  There are far worse ways to spend your time at Starbucks (or Caribou Coffee, which happens to be my personal “third place”).

If you are interested in the relationship between religious faith and American history—as you probably are if you are reading this blog—I think you would find the book especially intriguing.  Bad Religion is essentially a lengthy interpretive essay about the changing contours of American religious belief since the middle of the last century.  Equally interesting to me, the book concludes with a chapter that touches on how Americans have remembered their past.  This latter may sound esoteric, but it is extremely relevant to any believer interested in what it means to think Christianly about history.  As I always stress when speaking to Christian audiences, “Christian history” is not just ransacking the past for evidence of Christian influence or for stories about Christian heroes.  More broadly, and far more importantly, any “Christian history” worthy of the name should involve the conscious application of Christian precepts to our study of the past in all its breadth and complexity.

So which Christian precepts are particularly relevant to the study of the past?  Christian historians surely wouldn’t all agree on an answer, and I haven’t arrived at a definitive list myself.  Indeed, one of the reasons that I started this blog was to create a context for my own working through the question.  (As I stress to my classes, the questions that bring life into the classroom—and with it the potential for life-changing insight—are the questions that we grapple with together.)

For my part, one of the most important Christian principles to keep in mind when studying the past involves what the Bible has to say about us.  My understanding of Christian theology tells me that ever since the Fall, human beings come into the world with two overriding desires: the desire for self-rule and the desire for self-gratification.  These twin drives are related, of course.  We want to rule ourselves in part because we are determined to please ourselves.  What this means when it comes to the study of history is that we will always struggle with the temptation to interpret the past in self-justifying ways.  Orthodox Christianity has also long pointed to our propensity to idolatry.  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin observed centuries ago that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”  In context, Calvin was addressing the literal worship of physical objects as a substitute for God, but other writers have broadened Calvin’s insight to apply more generally, pointing to our tendency to waver in our allegiance to God, to elevate things or people or desires to the position of primacy in our hearts that belongs to God alone.  This need not be conscious.  It is so easy to intertwine our Christian faith with some other seemingly compatible allegiance—to a particular social cause, economic system, approach to education, or political party, for example—until the former becomes merely a means to promote the latter.  (In his Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis called this heresy “Christianity And . . .”)  When it comes to thinking about the past, however, I think that this temptation to idolatry is most often manifested when we grapple with the relationship between our identity as Christians and our heritage as Americans.

Here is where Douthat’s concluding chapter—titled “The City on the Hill”—is most relevant.  Douthat’s focus is on “the heresy that increasingly disfigures our politics, on the left and right alike: the heresy of American nationalism.”  Douthat’s choice of words is intentionally provocative, but he is not attacking a Christian patriotism that expresses gratitude for God’s blessings to our nation, an appreciation for figures from our past, or a conditional loyalty to our government.  He has in mind instead a constellation of values that, whether explicitly or implicitly, equates our nation with the new Israel, conceives of Americans as God’s “chosen people, or assigns to the United States a missionary role to the world that the Lord has reserved for his Church.”  You may or may not agree with his theological assessment, but as a historian I would assert that this form of nationalism has regularly distorted our understanding of the past.  One simple example, which Douthat highlights, is the way that we frequently misremember Puritan John Winthrop’s famous allusion to a “city on a hill.”  The Massachusetts Bay governor’s allusion is simultaneously one of the most quoted and least understood statements in all of American history.  We’ll turn to it next.

Here’s wishing you and yours a blessed 2013!