This essay is part of our collection on nationalism. See the full collection here.

One of the questions I frequently get when teaching is, “What would [x historical figure] think about [y contemporary reality]?” For example, “What would Tocqueville think about the reach of the federal government into local politics?” or, “What would Jefferson think about Trump’s election?”

Questions of this sort reveal a number of things going on in people’s minds, many of which make a historian’s heart sing. They show that the people asking them understand the importance of history to contemporary events, grasp the context of a historical moment, are interested enough in history to ask a question about how the past relates to the present, and are looking for cause-and-effect relationships between events over time. That’s exactly what historians do.

Still, as fascinating as these questions are, they often assume the predominance of continuity in history rather than change. And assuming the predominance of continuity often leads to cherry-picking from the historical record in order to advance a particular ideology.

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In truth, history is marked more by change over time than by continuity. Tocqueville cannot be brought into our own time; and if he could be, it would be as if an alien from another planet had landed here. The world of the past is different from our own, and historians labor to make sense of it using the relatively few artifacts left behind. Historians often cite British novelist L. P. Hartley’s earnest and evocative observation that, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Texts, like the people who produce them, exist in time. People produced them in the specific contexts of particular events, places, and cultures. Not only that, but texts are also received by specific audiences in other particular contexts in space and time. They are not read by one audience living in one historical context in precisely the same way they are read by another audience living in a different context. Thus, interpretation of the past and of the artifacts left behind by the people of the past is both historical and epistemological. The content of a text might not have changed, but the people and times have. Change over time introduces complexity into interpreting the meaning of a text from the past. Complexity is what makes history so interesting; it’s what makes history, to use a colloquialism, “relevant.” (It is also what keeps historians employed!)

The Myth of America as “A City upon a Hill”

In As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon, Daniel T. Rodgers compellingly demonstrates this point in his study of what has become one of the most important texts defining American identity: John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” The most unforgettable line from Winthrop’s sermon is, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.” Many Americans would instantly recognize that line and regard it as a vital description of the American character. Those Americans would probably believe that Winthrop’s sermon has always been received as a defining document, stamping divine chosenness and mission on the nation much as the text of Deuteronomy stamped the ancient nation of Israel with its cosmic significance. But, Rodgers argues, those Americans would be wrong.

Rodgers maintains that the myth inspired by the “city” metaphor is a product of the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in the Cold War. Winthrop’s sermon was largely forgotten for three centuries, until it was put to use for nationalistic purposes to inspire the nation against global Communism during the mid- to late twentieth century. As Winthrop’s metaphor was put to work to construct a usable past for nationalistic purposes (most famously by Ronald Reagan), the built-in assumption was that Americans had always looked to “a city on a hill” as formalizing a covenant between God and the nation.

Nationalism and Civil Religion

One problem with this nationalistic reading of the text is that no single source can be demonstrated to define the American character, American identity, or America’s place in the world. Contra Tocqueville, Perry Miller, and more recently George McKenna, the Puritans did not give birth to any essential American disposition. Neither did any other intellectual source, be it religious, political, or practical. Moreover, according to Rodgers, Americans are not the only people in the world to think that their nation was chosen by God for a divine purpose (see Anthony D. Smith’s Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity for a definitive argument in this direction). American exceptionalist language from the nineteenth century forward adopted characteristics largely imported from other imperial powers, especially the British.

For Rodgers, contemporary Americans must take Winthrop’s sermon seriously, but not for nationalistic purposes. Use of the 1630 text as a basis for religious nationalism assumes continuity and is the product of cherry-picking from the historical record for ideological purposes. Americans ought to understand that Winthrop wrote “Model of Christian Charity” as a sermon more about anxiety than national identity, and more about fear of faithlessness than imperial vision. Winthrop spoke of a community built on neighbor-love, shared commitments to the common good, forgiveness extended to others, and self-examination, which results in fidelity to the ideals expressed by Christ in the New Testament for people living under his reign.

John Winthrop wrote “Model of Christian Charity” as a sermon more about anxiety than national identity, and more about fear of faithlessness than imperial vision.

Rodgers’s work is both reception history and intellectual history at their best. In it, he examines the whole text of Winthrop’s sermon. The document is famous only for the last couple of paragraphs, but it is far-ranging in its admonitions to a Christian people embarking on an uncertain endeavor. He traces how Americans have read the text over time. He also explores the history of American nationalism in various contexts: Herman Melville’s novel White Jacket; the nineteenth-century nation-building project in Liberia; the American expansionism inspired by John L. O’Sullivan’s “manifest destiny”; and the American idealism embodied in its intervention in World War I. The final section of the book introduces the reader to the Harvard historian Perry Miller, his existentialist reading of Puritan history, and how his understanding of the Puritans helped shape America’s view of itself in an existential struggle with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

As a City on a Hill fits well alongside another recent work on Winthrop’s potent metaphor: Richard M. Gamble’s In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth (2012). Rodgers references Gamble’s book and situates his own work alongside it. Gamble, writing as an evangelical Christian, makes arguments similar to Rodgers’s about how texts are received differently as people and times change. Gamble argues that ideas do not influence people and events nearly as much as people influence ideas. This dynamic holds true for any text, but both Gamble and Rodgers show how this dynamic applies to Winthrop’s sermon, and most especially, to Winthrop’s “city” metaphor.

The image of the “city on a hill” became baptized in civil-religious waters during the twentieth century. Civil religion, by definition, is malleable. It is shaped by people along the contours of immediate historical contexts. And Winthrop’s metaphor, as a civil-religious trope, was shaped and formed by Americans over time as they shaped and formed their civil religion. Many scholars have observed the malleability of civil religion, especially Robert Bellah, Richard Pierard, Peter Gardella, John Fea, Walter McDougall, Raymond Haberski, Ronit Stahl, Philip Gorski, and Arthur Remillard, to name a few.

Seeking Peace amid Polarization

There is one other noteworthy aspect of Rodgers’s work, one that serves a patriotic purpose and not a nationalistic one (see David A. Koyzis’s book, Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies for a fine treatment on the difference between the two). That is, Winthrop’s sermon is instructive for contemporary, polarized Americans on how to live at peace with one another.

Because the republic was founded on ideals, Americans have grappled with an identity crisis over time in various ways. Perhaps most noteworthy, Americans have labored to come to grips with the meaning of equality and individual rights, ideals that are at the center of the American founding. Massachusetts’s founding was also rooted in ideals, and in 1630, Winthrop urged his audience to live out those ideals. This was not for the sake of exporting them to other nations. Rather, to Winthrop, the ideals themselves were life-giving and worthy of devotion. The ideals also defined them as a people. The world was watching them, and Winthrop could feel that “the eyes of all people” were upon them. Thus, charity, the bearing up of one another’s burdens, the vigilance for the common good, and the corporate responsibility that each had for the other were central to the “errand in the wilderness” that they were undertaking. Those commitments to the common good were still evident to Tocqueville, a foreign visitor to New England two hundred years after Winthrop, who named that commitment their “public spirit.”

We in the present should take Winthrop’s whole sermon seriously, not only as a historical artifact, but also as a source of wisdom. The naked quest for power, whether it begins from nationalism, identity politics, or global utopianism, always pits the “Chosen” against the “Inferior Other.” A recovery of Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity,” informed by sound historical thinking, is apt for contemporary Americans. Our national traumas could use a balm from the seventeenth century.