Note to CPAC Conservatives: “City [Up]on a Hill” Wasn’t About American Exceptionalism

We are a “City on a Hill.” Or so we were told repeatedly this past weekend by the speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). And we’ll likely hear this reference again between now and the 2012 Elections. Conservatives, in their fervent religious nationalism, invoke this as a proof text for their version of American Exceptionalism.

But for all their adoration of “the founders,” conservatives seem woefully ignorant of the origins and significance of this particular image. Indeed I cringe when I hear it invoked in this way. And no, it wasn’t Ronald Reagan’s phrase, he used it in a speech but it comes from Puritan minister John Winthrop who included it in a sermon on board the Arbella in 1630 (originally “city upon a hill”). Winthrop wasn’t suggesting American Exceptionalism (America did not yet exist of course), it was about the deal his flock had made with God.

The sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity”—that’s right Charity—was about his shipmates’ charitable obligations to each other. A look at some other, less oft-quoted lines, may shed some light on what this founding (god)father intended by his powerful picture that still resonates after 400 years.

According to Winthrop, the Puritans had Covenanted together before God to take care of each other (the word commonwealth, really does include the notion that what we own belongs both to us and to our community, without which our own wealth would not be possible). In planning their endeavor and asking God to bless it, the Puritans had offered a Covenant. Should God safely deliver them in peace to the place they desired they should consider the offered Covenant to be ratified by God and themselves to be bound by it.

So what were the terms of that Covenant? First, Winthrop was very clear that in every instance they were obligated to put the welfare of the community above their own, and no, it was not meant to be taken care of with faith-based initiatiaves (emphasis mine):

In such cases as this, the care of the public must oversway all private respects, by which, not only conscience, but mere civil policy, doth bind us. For it is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public… We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren.

The Puritan sense of being God’s chosen people was not put forth by Winthrop as a point of pride, as an early expression of American Exceptionalism, but rather as a warning. Relationship with God brings special responsibilities and a higher standard of judgment.

(Because of the) near bond of marriage between Him and us, wherein He hath taken us to be His, after a most strict and peculiar manner, which will make Him the more jealous of our love and obedience. So He tells the people of Israel, you only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore will I punish you for your transgressions.

Explicitly, Winthrop says, if “we” fail to put the interests of the community above our own and instead, “embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us.” We can avoid God’s wrath, in other words, if we make the needs of others more important than our own superfluous abundance.

So what of that City [up]on a Hill? Is it like stage from which everyone can see us? A place of honor? A Pedestal? Frankly the Puritans would have considered that idolatrous hubris. Winthrop meant that, as representatives of the Christian faith, the rest of the world would judge Christianity (and even God) by whether or not they lived up to this commitment.

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.

At the Grammys Bruce Springsteen opened with, “We Take Care of our Own,” the single from his forthcoming album, Wrecking Ball.

When he says “we take care of our own,” he’s not bragging; this is not self-satisfied patriotism. The lyrics are about our failure to live up to our ideals:

From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/We yelled “help” but the cavalry stayed home

Where the eyes, the eyes with the will to see…Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea

Springsteen is challenging us to live up to who we think we are; a classic Jeremiad in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets… and John Winthrop. A City on a Hill, indeed.

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