The City on a Hill: A Critical Reading of Winthrop’s Sermon on Christian Charity

In 1630, John Winthrop (a later governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) wrote a sermon on Christian charity, in which he referenced Matthew 5:14, the Sermon on the Mount, and described the new America to come as a city upon a Hill.”  The city on a hill is visible to all; and either lights the darker places in the valley below with the light from its windows, or keeps them in the dark through its inaction or miserliness. Winthrop helped to develop an idea of America as a new, holy community with a mission, focusing the world’s attention upon it. Winthrop concentrated on charity, specifically, in order to push the community members into a greater, more cohesive collective and to give the community the responsibility to act charitably. Charity was not to be a personal responsibility alone; but was now also the communal responsibility of what would become the new American nation – the responsibility of its society and its government.

In the modern political dialogue between Left and Right, however, we often lose sight of the responsibility that falls upon the city on the hill. Two troubling aspects of this problem are the notion of “American Exceptionalism,” and the notion that the US is (and is supposed to be) a “Christian nation.” Both arguments are superficially derived from Winthrop’s sermon (as well, of course, as other sources), but they also lose completely the point of Winthrop’s sermon. On the one hand, liberals downplay American Exceptionalism, understanding that our nation has failed at many points of its history to live up to its most basic promises, has supported slavery and perpetrated genocide, and has denied basic “guaranteed” rights to its citizens. Liberals also downplay or deny the Christian nation argument, citing especially the Founding Fathers. Liberals also wish to distance modern American notions of rights and legality from Biblical directives and outdated concepts of social structure. Conservatives, on the other hand, superficially embrace both American Exceptionalism and the Christian nation argument, but they ignore completely the essential requirements, as laid out by Winthrop’s sermon, of fulfilling their own apparent visions of America.

American Exceptionalism is the notion that the US stands apart from the rest of the world’s nations. Proponents of Exceptionalism love to cite the Revolution, the Constitution, and other patriotic moments of our history as proof that the US was first, and remains the best, at fulfilling a special role to make the world a better place. Proponents ignore some of the basic failures of the US (slavery, the Indian wars, the Southern “Redemption” and its century of post-slavery racial violence, the Vietnam War, etc.), and they also ignore basic successes of foreign states in establishing and maintaining strong democracies (Canada, Scandinavia, western Europe, Japan, etc.). But more disturbingly, they ignore the question of why America is supposed to be “exceptional,” and what the ramifications and responsibilities of exceptionalism are.

It is easy to be not just patriotic, but nationalistic. Nationalists pop up in every nation on Earth, each convinced fiercely of the mission that bears upon their nation, to make the world a better place by making it more like their own nation. Russians, Germans, Frenchmen, Britons, Chinese, Japanese, Iranians, Saudis, etc., each have a concept of nation that makes their nation “exceptional.” The ancient Romans did, as did the Spartans, Athenians, and ancient Persians, etc. That America is “exceptional” is ironically something that makes us like every other nation, and every other national identity, throughout history – like all individuals sharing the fact that we are all, indeed, individuals.

If, however, we are to interpret “exceptionalism” to mean being better, being destined for something greater, than it is a title that must be earned, and not just once but perpetually. If you got an A+ in the third grade, but have never again shined academically, you are not an “exceptional student.” If just once, in high school, you scored that awesome touchdown with which you continue to bore your friends, but never again accomplished any great athletic feats, you are not an “exceptional athlete.” A truly exceptional nation must continue to fight itself, fight its own demons and failures, and confront them while striving towards perfection; not merely content itself to be “good enough” or better than that one bad place in today’s news. Otherwise, it becomes merely a nation, like all others, that had its moment of glory but is now just another place to live.

So, if America is truly “exceptional,” what makes us so? Certainly not our record of failures, nor our neighbors’ record of successes, nor the fact that, like all nations, we are unique. Neither our declining productive capacity, nor our stagnating education system, our rotting infrastructure, nor our refusal to extend basic health-care without extensive personal costs, argue for some right to a mission; nor do our increasing militarization of our police and their own increasing aggressiveness in policing their communities.

Winthrop’s sermon on charity demonstrates exactly how the “exceptional” new community must be defined. He demonstrates that the Christian community (which conservatives consider the US to be) is Christian not because of the faith of its majority, but because of the charity of its work. Winthrop specifically argues the notion of social contract between the various members and classes of the community. The rich, who Winthrop argues have not their own talents to thank for their fortunes but the designs of God, are responsible for using their wealth, all of it, to care for the poor – to feed, house, clothe, and provide for them. Similarly, the poor have not their own faults to blame for their status, but the designs of God. So long as the rich live up to a promise of community and employ all possible tools and wealth to look after the poor, the poor are responsible for maintaining basic order and civility – not to revolt, or to steal, or otherwise commit violence. Winthrop is clear on the function of wealth in the City on a Hill: the expenditure of all wealth toward the alleviation of “every want or distress.” If that mission is not fulfilled, the poor are no longer “under contract” (so to speak) to remain humbly in servitude and quiescence.

So, when conservative pundits and politicians blame the poor for their “laziness”; or refuse to allocate funding for welfare, food support, or health care; or refuse to tax the wealthy (specifically and especially) to provide for these needs, when they argue against funding for education, when they call for “simple” or “fair” taxes, when they call for cuts on wealth taxes and estate taxes and on corporate taxes for the larger corporations, when they laud the wealthy and loathe the needy, they break the contract. In doing so, they earn, as Winthrop stated openly, the curses of the world, and of their own putative God Himself, and they diminish that special light by which the City on a Hill lights the darker places in the valley below.

On the other hand, when liberals argue for these services, argue for taxes on wealth, argue for a greater and deeper community of care and mutual provision, they are, indeed, fulfilling Winthrop’s mission, and building the City on a Hill. It is those who draw away from the worst nationalistic pride of “exceptionalism,” those Christians (like our Founding Fathers) who separate their worship from their politics, who earn the title of exceptionalism for America, and who demonstrate what Winthrop argued a holy Christian community and nation to be. Those of us who keep hammering away at our nation’s faults build our City; those who wave the flag while denying national flaws tear it down. Those of us who seek to level the playing field, who urge that corporations be held accountable and financially responsible for their actions (and for funding public support structures), fulfill Winthrop’s mission, and build the City. Those merely “proud of their country,” but hateful of their neighbors, distrustful of the poor and of people who look or act differently, those supporting the concentration of wealth and opposing taxes and social supports, have earned no right, for themselves or their nation, to be called either “exceptional,” or “Christian,” two terms they pretend to hold most dearly. Winthrop shows us that ultimately, the City on a Hill is an obligation, both political and moral, to advocate for those values that, in today’s dialogue, fall on the liberal side (or even the more openly leftist side) of the political spectrum.


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