must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.
The eyes of all people are upon us."
John Winthrop, A Model of Christian
Winthrop! If he knew how badly future generations of Americans would mangle and
misread his most-famous sermon,
he'd be turning over in his grave.
Winthrop's invocation of the Sermon on the Mount -- delivered, according to
American lore, to Massachusetts Bay colonists on board the ship Arabella -- became the first crucial
brick in the vast edifice now known as American Exceptionalism. Winthrop's
words have been repeatedly used to invoke the notion that America is not only unique, but uniquely
blessed: destined by God to be "the greatest nation on Earth."
a stated commitment to this belief became more or less mandatory for American
politicians. America, Mitt Romney declared during the 2012 presidential election
campaign, is "a shining city on a hill. I believe in America. I believe it is
the greatest nation in the history of the Earth. I believe that the next
century must be an American century. Our highest priority must be to maintain a
people, an economy, and a military so strong that no nation would ever risk
Obama has gone out of his way to assure Americans that he shares the sentiment:
"I will work every single day to make sure that America continues to be the
greatest nation on Earth," he insisted in his final 2012 debate with Romney.
unwritten corollary to the "greatest nation on Earth" narrative is that
criticism of the United States is unacceptable, and apologies and admissions of
error are beyond the pale. Even realist acknowledgment of U.S. limitations
quickly provoke accusations of "declinism." As a result, debates about U.S.
foreign policy tend to quickly degenerate into debates about American
a case in point. To critics, President Obama's failure to prevent or end the
Russian military incursion into Crimea demonstrates his shameful lack of
conviction in American supremacy. As a Heritage Foundation report puts it, "President Obama's foreign policy has been an
empty shell masking a spectacular lack of American leadership on the world
stage. This flawed approach, with a fundamental rejection of the notion of
American exceptionalism, is amply on display in the Ukrainian crisis."
surprising that the rest of the world is dubious about American claims to
exceptionalism. In September, Vladimir Putin called American
exceptionalism "dangerous," and in the context of Ukraine, the Russian media
was quick to deride American exceptionalism as "arrogance and lawlessness." Putin's not alone: around the world,
global publics seem to have grown increasingly disenchanted with U.S. claims to leadership, and
fewer and fewer think Washington will remain the world's leading seat of power.
And though American
political leaders seem to share a bipartisan dedication to denying that
American global power could ever decline, the American public seems far more
realistic. In poll results released in December 2013,
the Pew Research Center found: "For the first time in surveys dating back
nearly 40 years, a majority (53 percent) says the United States plays a less important
and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago. The share saying
the U.S. is less powerful has increased 12 points since 2009 and has more than
doubled -- from just 20 percent -- since 2004. An even larger majority says the U.S.
is losing respect internationally," and a majority told pollsters that the United States should "mind its own
scholar Andrew Bacevich recently noted, the pundits and politicians who are so
quick to invoke the battle cry of American exceptionalism suffer from more than
a little "selective amnesia": they prefer to forget that the US has
not always been a force for unmitigated good in the world, says Bacevich, and dismiss
those who argue for a more modest US role in the world as "unwashed masses... too
quick to give into the temptation to shirk their duty."
But American "exceptionalism" wasn't always premised on a
conviction of permanent U.S. power and superiority. After all, in 1630, John
Winthrop's famous Arabella sermon was far from triumphalist. On the contrary: it
was a stern admonition of the evils that would befall the settlers is they
should place too high a value on worldly gain or power.
Winthrop and his fellow Puritans, the settlement of the New World represented a
covenant with God -- the settlers pledge to live lives of "service to the Lord"
if God will "bring us in peace to the place we desire." And God, Winthrop
reminds his flock, expects people to keep their promises. "If we ... shall fall
to embrace this present world ... seeking great things for ourselves and our
posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged
of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant."
the only way to avoid this shipwrack," wrote Winthrop, "and to provide for our
posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do Justly, to love mercy, to
walk humbly with our God." If the settlers could manage
this, he assured them, their future would be bright: "The Lord will be our God,
and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing
upon us in all our ways.... We shall find that the God of Israel is among us,
when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall
make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, 'may
the Lord make it like that of New England.'"
this point that Winthrop offers his most-quoted lines: "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of
all people are upon us."
most people don't bother to read his next lines:
"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. We shall open the mouths of
enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake. We
shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers
to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land
whither we are going."
Those fond of quoting Winthrop to buttress theories of
American exceptionalism should remember this: Winthrop's declaration that "we shall be as
a city upon a hill" wasn't a promise.
It was a warning.