For we 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 Charity,” 1630
Poor John 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.
Somehow, 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.”
Over time, 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 challenging it.”
President Barack 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 Mr. Romney.
An 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 exceptionalism.
Ukraine is 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.”
It’s hardly 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.” Mr. Putin is 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.
While 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, the Pew Research Center found that “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 business” internationally.
As military 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 United States has not always been a force for unmitigated good in the world, says Mr. Bacevich, and they dismiss those who argue for a more modest U.S. 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 if they should place too high a value on worldly gain or power.
To 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.”
Winthrop wrotes, “Now the only way to avoid this shipwrack, 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 10 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.’ ”
It’s at 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.”
But 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.
Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University, a former counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy and a former senior adviser at the State Department. She wrote this for Foreign Policy.