City on a Hill

City on a Hill January 22, 2013

John Winthrop’s famous speech, given on a boat crossing the Atlantic in the hope of forming a new kind of community, rooted in (Puritan) faith but also radically committed to “charity,” drew Tom Geogeghan into a bit of a rant about America’s self-perception:

As Obama and his staff thumbed through the great American political speeches in advance of his second Inaugural address, I wonder if it occurred to them to go back to the first attempt to express the American idea, John Winthrop’s famous speech invoking a “City upon a Hill,” written for his fellow Puritans in 1630 on board the Arbella.

George Washington’s Farewell Address, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and John F. Kennedy’s first all have their admirers. But Winthrop’s remains the ultimate inaugural address: the one that inaugurated everything. And it’s the one we most need to hear again with fresh ears — because it’s also the speech that everyone seems to get completely wrong.

Known colloquially as the “City on a Hill” speech, Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” unfairly gets the rap for the idea of American exceptionalism when presented in its Fox News form: We’re number one and no one should apologize for America.

How could anyone read Winthrop’s speech and reach that conclusion? The first great American political speech, it is terrifying in its humility. Winthrop gave that speech not to pound his chest but to beat it. If we aren’t humble and meek — at least in Winthrop’s telling — the good ship Arbella could well end up at the bottom of the sea.

The speech makes clear that humility is our only hope: “The only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly without our God.”

Sound much like the present-day United States, snarled in political gridlock? Here’s the key point we too often overlook in Winthrop’s speech: We ought to think twice about what it means to be a City upon a Hill. If we’re proud and boastful, it’s not a place we want to be. According to Winthrop, God put us up high, not to have the whole world bow down to us — but to give everyone a front row seat to view our example. Should we are no longer be meek and humble, God would rain down fire on our heads before their upturned eyes.

That’s really why we’re the City upon a Hill: to be a giant fireball for all the world to see should we break our covenant with God.

And what is this covenant we dare not breach?

Nothing so tame as interfering with traditional marriage or the right to bear arms. No, while it may come as a surprise to many, the most sacred covenant of the community is this: “[W]e must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of each other’s necessities.”

Yes, Tom, yes, he advocated charity. But the heart of the Winthrop vision was a kind of holiness that establishes the context for charity.

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