IF I TOLD YOU that today’s America needs instruction from 17th-century Puritans, you’d probably think I was joking. We’ve heard enough about their depravity and their violence toward themselves, religious dissenters, and Native Americans to laugh off any suggestion that some of them may have been far ahead of us in facing hard realities that we prefer to finesse or ignore as our own society becomes more violent, addictive, deranged, and depraved than theirs ever was. The truth is complicated, as the intellectual historian Daniel T. Rodgers shows in his new book, As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon. It may be even more complicated than Rodgers’s rendering of it.
In the winter of 1629–’30, John Winthrop — Puritan lawyer; owner of Groton Manor in Suffolk, England; and soon to be the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony — was composing “A Model of Christian Charity,” a 6,200-word tract presenting the venture’s religious, political, and economic rules. His “Model” — which evangelical historian Michael Parker called “the most famous lay sermon in all of American history” — projected a “civil and ecclesiastical” regime binding its members to one another and to God in a covenant of Christian charity that would remain in force until 1684, when their charter was annulled.
Puritans lost their ecclesiastical, legal, and civic control not only to the monarch and to mercantilists but also to their own doctrine of “inscrutable grace,” which denied any connection between earthly success and salvation. Although the preeminence of their magistrates, ministers, and monied men carried godly obligations, it was no sign of how God would dispose of them or of the poor and lowly in heaven or hell. That contradiction prompted challenges to Puritan leaders from godly dissenters such as Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and the consequences haven’t been limited to 17th-century New England. As Rodgers, pondering an insight of literary historian Sacvan Bercovitch, observes: “America could be John Winthrop’s nation and Anne Hutchinson’s nation because, in the dialectical heart of Winthrop’s model, the language of hegemony and the language of dissent were all but inseparable.”
In his new book, Rodgers follows that tension through American religious, civic, and political history, up through evangelical Christians’ embrace of Donald Trump. His survey of the Winthrop model’s ups and downs as an American “origin myth” shows that, although it was forgotten, derided, or invoked hypocritically to bless ill-gotten wealth in the booming, market-liberal republic that displaced it, it has resurfaced with a strange new vengeance since the mid-20th century, when prominent Americans have recast Winthrop’s text, wishfully or opportunistically, as one of the country’s semi-sacred founding documents. After World War II had ignited what Rodgers calls a search for “deeper knowledge of the values, character, and culture that would keep Americans in the fight,” the newly powerful and prosperous, but bewildered nation, uncertain of its mission and soul, reassessed the Puritan mind more respectfully — in the work of historians such as Perry Miller (The New England Mind , Errand into the Wilderness ), Edmund Morgan (The Puritan Dilemma ), Daniel Boorstin (The Americans: The Colonial Experience ), and Clinton Rossiter (Seedtime of the Republic ). Chastened by the worldwide surge of fascist and communist illusions of perfection, many of them saw Winthrop’s Puritans as more complicated, responsible wielders of power. Miller’s dramatically existential reckonings with contradictions in the Puritan mind prompted other more nuanced appreciations.
But then, as Rodgers tells it, all hell — or heaven — broke loose. Politicians, often prompted by speechwriters who had read the historians but probably not Winthrop’s whole text, repurposed his exhortation to his investors and settlers to “consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill” because “the eyes of all people are upon us.” Ronald Reagan recycled that summons endlessly, at first to sacralize what he saw as the United States’s fight against the long, dark night of totalitarian communism. “What joined Reagan’s and Winthrop’s cities on a hill,” Rodgers writes, was their “sense of a people living under probation at a profoundly urgent moment in history.” Then, upon his ascent to the presidency, Reagan used Winthrop’s image to herald a new “morning in America,” euthanizing the country’s republican spirit by drawing down the stored moral capital of Winthrop’s tract and World War II’s “greatest generation,” while preparing Americans to submit to what Winthrop would have condemned as “carnall intentions” to pursue “pleasures and profits” above all.
Rodgers cautions against catering to a hunger for any nationalist “origin myth” because it “feeds on the continuous invention of timeless-appearing texts” that bolster a troubled civic culture’s “rhetorics of compensation” for whatever it fears it has lost. (“Make America Great Again”?) We need to “disentangle ourselves from the lure of simple origin stories,” he writes, casting a cold eye on the “sense of national mission that marks American civic-political culture […] and its fervent sense of exception from the lot of all other nations.”
But there are compelling anthropological reasons why almost every society in history has invented “special covenant” and “origin” myths, or “constitutive fictions.” Although all such narratives are somewhat fictional, and hence illiberal when imposed upon public decision-making, they can be as deeply instructive as they are dangerous. Narratives that inspire as well as instruct us temper the cold reality that all of us, even historians and scientists, are homeless in the universe. We write and weave them into our societies because they tell us more than we can actually know about who we are, what we belong to, and what we owe to one another.
John Winthrop’s favorite origin story told of Moses’s descent from Mt. Sinai carrying the tablets of the divine Covenant, only to find a Golden Calf being worshipped by a people whom Winthrop surely thought of as the predecessors of his own investors and adventurers. He took up Moses’s daunting role in leading a persecuted people from England’s “slavery” to a new promised land. It’s why many American towns are named Canaan, Bethlehem, Goshen, even Jerusalem — and why his “Model” closes by adapting Deuteronomy’s account (30:19) of Moses’s enjoining of the Israelites approaching Canaan to choose life in the covenant.
Rodgers doesn’t mention that — in a politically potent, symbolic reenactment of Winthrop’s origin myth 334 years after he landed in Massachusetts — Kingman Brewster Jr., president of Yale (founded in 1701 by Puritans who put Hebrew on its seal, thinking themselves the new Israelites escaping Egypt), presented an honorary doctorate to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. — who, somewhat like Winthrop, had taken up Moses’s mission to lead a formerly enslaved people toward freedom. At Yale’s 1964 commencement ceremony, Brewster — himself a descendant of the minister William Brewster, who arrived on the Mayflower — shook hands with King not only across a racial line but also across time and space, restoring the Puritan origin myth from poetry to power.
That power has since been shattered, Rodgers suggests, citing Robert Bellah’s 1967 book, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. He might also have considered Yale historian Philip Gorski’s American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (2017), which, picking up from Bellah, proposes new expressions of an American “civil religion” that would avoid extreme religious nationalism and radical secularism. But Rodgers seems haunted by Daniel Bell’s lament — in his 1975 essay, “The End of American Exceptionalism” — that “[c]onsumption and its exhibition is the homogeneous value” that has drained the American republic of its energy and character. “We have not been immune to the corruption of power,” Bell writes. “We have not been the exception. […] [D]espite a common culture, there is no common purpose, or common faith, only bewilderment.” Bell credits Puritans for that insight, but Rodgers bids good riddance to origin myths, even though his own survey suggests that we should more wisely consider the human need to renew them.
Rodgers writes that Winthrop fought for understandings of
love and the obligations of social solidarity that would be often sharply at odds with what capitalist America would become. […] To the extent that the “Model” stands at one of the foundation points of the American story, Winthrop’s concern to establish the proper place of markets within the moral imperatives of charity must be recognized to stand there, just as prominently, too.
But isn’t that an “origin story” worth deepening, not “disentangling” ourselves from? Imperfect keepers of their faith though the Puritans were, they sustained convictions and conventions capable of calling themselves to moral account in ways today’s liberal evasions and market incentives can’t do, in a society where the pursuit of “pleasures and profits” is displacing all other convictions and coordinates.
Rodgers tracks such misinterpretations of Winthrop’s struggle, first by the founders of a republic whose “central doctrine was the idea of individual achievement free of class origins” and “acceptance of the risk of individual failure and of individual enterprise.” Winthrop’s hope was also miscarried by national rhapsodists such as Walt Whitman and Herman Melville and by imperialists, Cold Warriors, peacetime politicians, and even historians who have glorified the special destiny of the United States. My favorite of his examples of an American exceptionalist misappropriating Winthrop is John Bolton, formerly George W. Bush’s Under Secretary of State and currently Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor. In 2010, Bolton derided President Obama as “our first post-American president,” who “doesn’t believe as we do in American exceptionalism,” which Bolton claimed had “started really with Gov. John Winthrop of the Plymouth Bay [sic] Colony.” Rodgers’s insertion of “sic” here signals that Bolton has confused Winthrop’s Puritans with the often-hapless Plymouth pilgrims, who arrived 10 years before Winthrop. As Rodgers argues, contra Bolton, Winthrop’s Model “was not nationalistic but local and intense.”
When Reagan attached the word “shining” to Winthrop’s “city,” he was probably borrowing, as Winthrop had done, from Jesus’s announcement, in the Sermon on the Mount, that “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14). Reagan didn’t remind his listeners that Jesus was addressing — and blessing — the downtrodden, “the poor in spirit,” “the meek” who “will inherit the earth,” and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Nor have Reagan and most other recent peddlers of the “city on a hill” metaphor made much of Winthrop’s call “to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities […] [and] make others Condicions our owne […] allwayes haveing before our eyes our Commission and Community in the worke,” because it is “a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” Rodgers writes that, when Winthrop coupled his “city upon a hill” imagery with a warning that Puritans who “deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken […] shall […] be consumed out of the good land whither we are going,” he
had taken a biblical line of encouragement and reworked it into a phrase of high anxiety. […] Break the covenant with themselves and God and the world would never forget their falseness. There was terror beneath the confidence of “A Model of Christian Charity,” and warning beneath its benedictions.
Winthrop’s “true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public” sounds a lot like Senator Elizabeth Warren (of today’s Commonwealth of Massachusetts!) announcing that businesspeople can’t succeed without public investments in infrastructure, education, health care, and, indeed, regulation. But Winthrop’s “public” would be unrecognizable not only to Warren and Bernie Sanders but also to Reagan and Bolton. The Puritan public good (or “weal”) came through covenant-driven submission to God, not through decisions made by autonomous individuals in a liberal-democratic society. Winthrop’s understandings of public good were implicitly anti-capitalist but illiberal, residually medieval, and irreconcilable with love and public good as most on today’s left or right understand them. Try to imagine either Warren or Reagan uttering the opening words of Winthrop’s “Model”: “God almighty in his most holy and wise providence hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich and some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in subjection.” This has no resonance for a republic where “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Writing nearly a century and a half before Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, Winthrop believed that inequality was ordained by God in “conformity with the rest of his works” so “that he might have the more occasion to manifest the work of his spirit […] upon the wicked in moderating and restraining them, so that the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor, nor the poor and despised rise up against their superiors and shake off their yoke.” This ensured “that every man might have need of others and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bond of brotherly affection.”
Winthrop was following the biblical dictum that “there will never cease to be poor in the land; that is why I am commanding you to open wide your hand to your brother and to the poor and needy” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Rodgers notes “the aching tension in the Model’s opening pages between the social fact of inequality and Winthrop’s yearnings for a community rooted in love.” To a liberal democrat, the high-minded claim that “no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy […] out of any particular and singular respect to himself but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man” seems as hypocritical a mystification of injustice as Donald Trump’s erstwhile performances on The Apprentice, which showed millions of Americans how to submit to his judgment in telling them, “You’re fired.” Trump’s directives come from a very ungodly compulsion “to embrace this present world and […] our carnall intentions, seeking greate things for ourselves and our posterity,” as Winthrop put it. The authority of his Massachusetts Puritans became almost as arbitrary and corrupt, but the “greate” irony is that Winthrop warned his fellows that if they normalized such corruption, “the Lord will surely breake out in wrathe against us” and that “the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke […] is to followe the Counsell of Micah, to doe Justly, to love mercy, to walke humbly with our God.” If they could do that, then “tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies.”
Historian Clinton Rossiter, himself a descendant of New England Puritans, offered a civic-republican version of Winthrop’s warning in Seedtime of the Republic: “To men and nations who obey this law come prosperity and happiness; to men and nations who defy it come adversity and sadness. History has a way of punishing those who deny the reality of moral restraints on political power.” By “this law,” Rossiter meant what Brewster and other Puritan legatees did: a zeal to sustain both communal solidarity and love of liberty against daunting odds, through tough-minded extensions of trust that beget a faith in things unseen.
But does “history have a way” of punishing moral insufficiency? Winthrop’s claim that “charity” would forestall economic and political “shipwracke” must have been what market language would call a tough sell to his investors. Certainly it was more demanding than today’s modest suggestions that capitalists make “socially responsible” investments and forgo certain stock options and buybacks in order to protect the long-term good. Rodgers reminds us that, although Winthrop’s investors had “a special degree of tolerance for risk, both for God’s sake and for their own, they had invested sums on which they did anticipate a return.” They had already suffered the near failure of a small community they’d provisioned in Salem, expecting its trade in fish, timber, and beaver skins to repay their investments. It had gone so badly, socially as well as commercially, that John Endecott, an authoritarian Puritan, was sent to discipline Salem’s unruly and dissolute settlers.
Winthrop tried to conform the expectations of “reluctant investors” more closely to God’s by asking them: “[W]hat can you do more honorable for this City, and for the Gospel which you profess, than to deny your own profit, that we may say Londoners can be willing to lose that the Gospel may [be vindicated]?” According to Rodgers, Winthrop assured them
that in sacrificing their claims to full repayment they would reenact, in modern time, the part that God himself had taken when he had fed and clothed the people of Israel as they journeyed into Canaan. You are the “root” of this project, the “family” from which it was derived. […] The emigrants were only a “hopeful plantation.” But with this sacrifice on the investors’ part, the two would be “knit together in a most firm bond of love” and “affection.”
Rodgers also explains why Winthrop made “charity” the “key word” of his text, even though his planning and practices “were saturated with capitalism.” “Charity” denoted not alms or donations that one can part with painlessly in self-celebrating, self-exculpating philanthropy. Winthrop believed that “the rule of love and mutual obligation must take precedence above mere calculus of price and market return,” not just in sermons but also in the marketplace: “debt cases” in “the early records of the Massachusetts General Court” were
etching the economy with complex lines of trust, reputation, and obligation. The rules of lending, repayment, and loan forgiveness that Winthrop outlined […] were […] anything but abstract. To read [his text] seriously is to […] find self-interest in constant tension with the demands of the larger social good […] in a culture in which market relations, though they impinged on every aspect of life, were not to be fully trusted.
Although Rodgers punctures opportunistic or reverential cherry-pickings of Winthrop to serve the cause of crude nationalism, exceptionalism, and corporate profiteering, some of his exegesis is more puzzling than puncturing. For example, despite devoting an entire book to the topic, Rodgers writes that “[t]he disappearance of the Model from the [nation’s] foundational texts would not be a complete loss. It has been overused and its force overstated,” and we should “put it back, more wisely and humbly, into history.” He makes that judgment as an intellectual historian, but most Americans live history “in the raw,” in a cacophony of come-ons that rattle stable premises and venerable narratives that might impart a sense of dignity, public belonging, or higher purposes. Every reading of a text is a reworking of it, as Rodgers acknowledges, and Winthrop reworked biblical texts in composing his appeals. But that makes his Model ripe for what Walter Benjamin called literary “pearl divers,” who plunge into the long-submerged origins of current arrangements to recover remnants that have crystallized in the sediments of time. When such a “pearl” is examined by wise interpreters like Rodgers, it can disclose truths that unsettle us, as Winthrop’s do, but also deepen our understandings of ourselves and our prospects.
Rodgers rightly urges that “a more tempered reckoning with the complex and multiple aspirations that flow from the project of nation making would make us better readers of history than does fixation on an ur-text.” But deconstructing such texts could relegate our already fragmented society to further chaos for want of any anchor amid the casino-like whirling of a market that has become the only common guide to public and private decision-making. Even a liberal “living Constitution” requires the firm constitutive fiction that sovereignty rests with “we the people,” not with demagogues or the anonymous investors who nominally “own” the corporations that dominate public decision-making. Just as there can’t be any serious public life without vigorous contention and change, so there can’t be any without periodic closures. Rodgers may underestimate that necessity in his debunking of bad closures. Winthrop’s work seeded something exceptional — not ideologically exceptionalist — at the heart of the American project, which needn’t have become nationalistic in the ways that Rodgers rightly resists.
He knows that Puritans, sometimes despite themselves, gestated elements of a civic-republican vision — such as “public spirit, respect for learning and popular education, an aesthetic of usefulness and the fitness of objects to their tasks.” These helped Americans to resist the partisan binaries that hobble our civic culture today. The historian R. H. Tawney, writing in 1926, observed that
[t]here was in Puritanism an element which was conservative and traditionalist, and an element which was revolutionary; a collectivism which grasped at an iron discipline, and an individualism which spurned the savorless mess of human ordinances; a sober prudence which would garner the fruits of this world, and a divine recklessness which would make all things new.
In this view, Puritan intimations of individual upward mobility paled next to their yearnings for a salvation that couldn’t be plotted or earned. Although Winthrop never resolved the tension between markets and morals that runs through every society and human heart, he honed a language — and an origin story — that takes account of human folly and yearnings acutely enough to shed light into abysses where liberalism doesn’t go.
Sixty-five years after he and others founded Harvard in 1636, “dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust,” other Puritans founded Yale to counter what they considered Harvard’s lapse from its holy mission toward corrupt worldly works and wealth. The world isn’t flat, Yale’s founders insisted. It has abysses that open unpredictably under our feet and in our own hearts, and the young need a faith and coordinates strong enough to plumb those depths, face down the demons in them and in themselves, and sometimes even defy earthly powers in the name of a Higher One. (The root word in “Protestant” is “protest,” after all.)
Believing that Harvard was sinking into a swamp of slippery contracts and deals, Yale, sanctimonious and inward-turning, produced Jonathan Edwards, Nathan Hale, and other dissenters. It and the other old colleges also produced leaders enlightened enough to give dissenters some breathing room, as Winthrop had done for Roger Williams (by letting him know of his impending imprisonment just in time to escape), and as Brewster did in the 1960s for King and the activist Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin. John Kerry, a 1966 Yale graduate and descendant of Winthrop, joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War before moving into electoral politics in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; he would probably give dissenters more breathing room than Donald Trump does.
But dissent for what end? John Adams, who graduated from a still residually Puritan Harvard 119 years after Winthrop founded it, wrote in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s first constitution under the new American republic that “[t]he body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” Winthrop mightn’t have changed a word (although he’d have added “with God”), and Adams’s passage is still in Massachusetts’s constitution. Although some descendants of Puritans piloted slave ships, other firm carriers of its “mystic chords of memory” such as Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe did much to redeem and extend its covenant.
During the so-called Gilded Age of the 1880s, amid a deluge of immigration, exploitative industrialization, and rank inequality and injustice, some wealthy Americans were moved to revive a semblance of Puritan rigor and rectitude in order to impart gravitas to their pursuits and their children. They founded the Groton School (named after the Massachusetts town that is its home and that in turn is named after Winthrop’s Groton in England), which hired as its first headmaster Endicott Peabody, a descendant of the John Endecott who had disciplined the Salem colony in 1628. The Gilded Age’s faux-Puritanism would be debunked by James Truslow Adams, Van Wyck Brooks, and, most famously, H. L. Mencken, who called it “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
But one night in 1936, at Manhattan’s Union League Club, Groton’s Rector Peabody told a group of his alumni who had been denouncing their fellow alumnus Franklin D. Roosevelt as a traitor to his class and country, that although he had his own disagreements with Roosevelt, he considered him “a gallant gentleman and a friend.” For Peabody, Groton’s motto — Cui Servire Est Regnare, “To Serve Is to Rule” — was less a gloss for rule by the rich than a reminder of his Puritan ancestors’ admonition to, in Winthrop’s words, “‘make others’ Condicions our owne […] allwayes haveing before our eyes our Commission and Community in the worke.”
As Peabody defended Roosevelt, a still and perfect silence descended upon the room. His listeners were struggling to reconcile their filiopietistic respect for the rector who had taught them to play hard and fair with their loathing of a man who had become a tribune for the downtrodden. A liberal capitalist republic sometimes hangs in the balance of silences like that. Winthrop’s Puritanism had something to do with this one.
You wouldn’t have learned this from the sensationalistic marketing of Puritanism in Stacy Schiff’s 2015 best seller The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem. The author and her eight (!) researchers emerged from the Puritan world bearing the self-serving news that their subjects were sanctimonious scourges and prigs. Schiff’s energetically researched, dazzlingly narrated, ideationally empty book was launched with a 500-person Manhattan gala and a book tour rivaling David Niven’s journey in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), including a stop at (drum roll…) Salem, Massachusetts. Schiff “dressed up like a whiskered black cat to play along with the Halloween costume edition of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” enthused USA TODAY, noting that The Witches “was published (cleverly) on Oct. 27 to take advantage of the witchy holiday.”
Soaring to bestsellerdom on the wings of a long excerpt in The New Yorker, the book nabbed four New York Times features in one week, including an interview with the author, a Sunday Review column by Schiff, a laudatory review of “her haunting new book,” and a long (but scathing) assessment by historian Jane Kamensky. Once again, an author and publisher had joined forces to strip-mine American history and civil society for sensation and sales. “It turns out to be eminently useful to have a disgrace in our past,” Schiff wrote. “Salem endures not only as a metaphor but as […] a vaccine against a temptation to disgrace others, a taunt against self-righteousness.” She intensified the rhetoric of compensation that caricatures Puritans (who killed fewer than 20 witches) in order to make us feel better about ourselves.
We needn’t embrace Winthrop’s “civil and ecclesiastical” regime to know that the hole in neoliberalism’s soul won’t be filled either by the mystically creepy authoritarianism that’s emerging these days or by a socially rudderless corporate capitalism. Too many are stranded in an abyss between authoritarianism and market-liberalism, hungering for some righteousness in a culture that’s “timeless,” “sacred,” and provident enough to raise children and bury parents in without asphyxiating personal conscience and autonomy.
Almost despite themselves, but also thanks to something wise and indomitable in themselves, Winthrop’s Puritans illuminated the dialectic between public authority and personal autonomy, between marketing and moralizing. This helped make Americans an exceptional nation that didn’t need ideological “isms,” such as exceptionalism, nationalism, or even capitalism. Rodgers notes that although Alexis de Tocqueville considered the young American nation “exceptional” only in that building it diverted energy and talent from works of art or science, America’s exceptional character was “not a fixed thing,” but “a characteristic in motion,” subject to change in constructive ways. The young republic was exceptional in a world of monarchies and empires and was, for decades after its victories in 1945, a powerful, prospering, and even world-ordering liberal-capitalist republic. Rodgers also notes that it was exceptional in preserving and expanding plantation slavery long after most other nations had abandoned slavery. (American genocides and imperialism were awful, but hardly exceptional.)
If the country’s oscillation between hegemony and dissent began with the Puritans, it has continued in its rise as a nation of immigrants, “the salt of the earth” seeking “the light of the world.” Two and a half centuries after Winthrop adapted those phrases from the Sermon on the Mount, the poet Emma Lazarus seems to have taken something in them for “The New Colossus,” her 1883 poem for the Statue of Liberty — “a mighty woman with a torch” who is “not like the brazen giant of Greek fame” but the “Mother of Exiles” — where it has been read by millions. When Lazarus composed her poem, the country’s labor markets and frontier were still open, but the plutocratic Gilded Age had begun. Only the latter’s implosion, behind a “Golden Door” that had been closed to immigration, would enable Roosevelt’s New Deal and Endicott Peabody’s defense of him before plutocrats. Now we hear cries to build a wall, not to lift a lamp beside a Golden Door.
Rodgers’s insistence that “Winthrop stood at the beginning of American history not as a Founding Father but as a man determined to stave off what America was to become” emphasizes rightly that he has too often been miscast as blessing an empty, idolatrous American nationalism and exceptionalism. But that useful critique doesn’t prove that an exceptional nation must be empty. The late historian Robert Wiebe’s Who We Are: A History of Popular Nationalism (2002) cautions progressive cosmopolitans not to deny the all-too-human, anthropologically deep hunger for “imagined communities” when faced with the vacuities of post-national globalism. Rodgers’s worried emphasis on some Americans’ conscription of Puritanism’s darker, insular, nationalist tendencies limits his and his readers’ appreciation of its protean, creative, and civic bequests to an America that needs something as potent as their evangel now more than ever: watching New York’s violent anti-draft riots from a rooftop in 1863, Herman Melville, ambivalent keeper of the Puritan faith though he was, despaired as “All civil charms / And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe — / Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway / Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve / and man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.” So now, too, with us?
For more on how John Winthrop’s Puritans seeded an American nation without quite intending to and set up the tension between nationalism and communitarianism that’s bedeviled us ever since, see my 2015 essay, “Our Puritan Heritage,” in Democracy Journal. For an account of what Puritans took from biblical Hebrews and how it has influenced American Jews in our time, see my 2009 essay “American Brethren: Hebrews and Puritans,” in the World Affairs Journal. And for more on how American liberal nationalism might avoid both Puritan insularity and statist tyranny, see my “American National Identity in a Post-National Age” in One America? Political Leadership, National Identity, and the Dilemmas of Diversity.
Jim Sleeper, a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics, is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).