Thank you for Rosa Brooks’ “City on a Hill” (March 23 Forum). She writes concerning American exceptionalism as a mistaken interpretation of John Winthrop’s famous sermon of 1630. Much of what she writes is a helpful corrective and one only has to remember the national sin of slavery to reinforce her point. She is right that American exceptionalism was not Winthrop’s point but a stern admonition of the evils that would befall the settlers if they would place too high a value on worldly gain or power. The sermon was about, as she writes, “a covenant with God and a pledge to lives of service to the Lord.”
However, why does she not recognize that because of such beginnings the Bible and Judeo-Christian ethics had currency throughout all of American history? Martin Luther King used the two-pronged weapon of the Declaration of Independence and the Scriptures — both of which combined to express that covenant that the community of citizens could engage, understand and respond to. Those documents were the vocabulary that King and many of our presidents have used. They provided a language of duty and responsibility of this covenanted community.
However, it is the dominant view today that if the language of the Bible and the historic Judeo-Christian traditional ethic are used you are a bigot. The popular view works hard to discredit these founding realities and thus such reality disenchants civic discussions. We must be tolerant except when it comes to certain ideas and views. It may be the dominant conclusion that in our culture such views are passe, but not to admit that they are a significant part of our founding is wrong. They were most certainly the major point of the sermon “City on a Hill.”
There is a growing civic inequality where the secular cultural elites have a monopoly on the discourse that cannot be challenged without being labeled a hate monger or fundamentalist. In my view the Rev. John Winthrop would be appalled today and conclude that the Covenant is broken and be shocked that its language, worldview and ethic are on the part of the dominant cultural voice not even allowed as a voice in the public square.
JOHN H. WHITE