Charles Lucy, “Landing of the Pilgrims Fathers” (1848)
This paper traces the idea of America as a “city on a hill” (along with its variants of American chosenness, and America as a redeemer nation) with particular attention to its prophetic power to inspire a worldcentric dimension of morality and identity within the American imagination. In the course of this developmental narrative, I also want to argue that the variant of America as a redeemer nation is the truest to the moral calling latent in American destiny, and that it offers a viable unity in identity moving forward in our own day.
To make this case, I begin with voices that contain the seeds of a grand moral calling even as they frame that calling within explicitly Christian terms (John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, and Brigham Young). Then I will turn to a mixture of voices spanning the early republic all the way to the later 19th century that give wider scope to America’s moral vocation while continuing to accent notions of American chosenness (Thomas Jefferson, Lyman Beecher, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and Henry Ward Beecher). In conclusion, we will consider some voices from the 20th century, drawing from some eminent examples from the era of the world wars (Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Reinhold Niebuhr), and then turning to a culminating point in the idea of the redeemer nation with Martin Luther King Jr.
John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity” provides the typical starting point for considering themes of American chosenness, since its famous characterization of the puritan errand to be “as a city on a hill” not only provides the initial vocabulary for the theme, but also includes much of the basic genetic code that continues to be reiterated. But for contemporary Americans who hear the phrase, it might come as a surprise that Winthrop does not mention it until the end of his sermon, and at that, after an admonishing jeremiad. The promise of becoming a city on a hill involves a two-way covenant that is conditional on the fulfillment of the puritan errand to live righteously; and Winthrop acknowledges the great difficulty involved in such a responsibility and the higher stakes that come along with it:
Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke and to provide for our posterity is to followe the counsell of Micah, to doe Justly, to love mercy, to walke humbly with our God. For this end, wee must be knitt together in this worke as one man, wee must entertaine each other in brotherly Affeccion, wee must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities…for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are goeing…
Dated 1630, this sermon far precedes anything like an American national consciousness, and circumscribes the puritan errand in fundamentally religious terms. But its moral force is striking and anticipates later renovations of the theme of American destiny that seek to bring its course back in line with its truest moral calling. After all, Winthrop calls us to be a model of Christian charity: to be merciful, humble, affectionate, and attentive to the needs of others. In doing so we must conceive of ourselves as constituting a single body knit together in a bond of love and compact in a shared responsibility to God. And if we do not, the grace of being a chosen people will be compounded into an even harsher judgment from God and the world at large—for when the eyes of all people are upon you, the stakes of your successes and failures become all the more significant.
Despite the spirit of humility that pervades this sermon as well as other jeremiads, it is easy looking back to dismiss the early pretension to chosenness as conceited. At the same time, the perils faced by the early settlers and the audacity required to pull off colonial ventures in the new world incentivized acknowledgement of their exceptional circumstances and affirmation of their exceptional vocation. It is therefore not surprising that leaders of these puritan communities recognized a continuity between biblical prophecy and the discovery of America. In his self-explanatory, “The Latter-Day Glory is Probably to Begin in America,” Jonathan Edwards exemplifies this view by identifying America as the place where God is to initiate a new and glorious spiritual endeavor, “so often foretold in scripture,” for the benefit of the world. As the events of the bible unfolded in the old world, and “Providence observes a kind of equal distribution of things,” Edwards figures that the new world was probably discovered so that “the new and most glorious state of God’s church on earth might commence there,” and “a new world in a spiritual respect” might be brought to fruition. While the “old continent has been the source and original of mankind,” here in New England is the promise of “the most glorious renovation of the world,” a place destined to serve “as the beginning or forerunner of something vastly great.”
Writing later in the 19th century, and at a time when the meaning of the American Revolution and the nation’s founding were being incorporated into a recognizable civil religion, Brigham Young reaffirms the continuity between biblical prophecy and American chosenness. In a more literal sense than even Edwards, Young sees our nation as continuous with a lineage of divinely inspired events going back to the days of the prophets. For Young, the land surrounded by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans “is the land of Zion,” the “land that the Lord gave to Jacob, who bequeathed it to his son Joseph, and his posterity.” America, he continues, will be the Zion “spoken of by the prophets”—the “continent whereon the Lord has commenced his work for the last time, and whereon Jesus will make his appearance the second time, when he comes to gather and save the House of Israel.” At the same time, Young incorporates the American commitment to republican government into God’s plan and frames the major events leading up to America’s founding as divinely inspired events that God set into motion for this precise design:
The general Constitution of our country is good, and a wholesome government could be framed upon it, for it was dictated by the invisible operations of the Almighty; he moved upon Columbus to launch forth upon the trackless deep to discover the American Continent; he moved upon the signers of the Declaration of Independence; and he moved upon Washington to fight and conquer, in the same way as he moved upon ancient and modern Prophets, each being inspired to accomplish the particular work he was called to perform in the times, seasons, and dispensations of the Almighty. God’s purposes, in raising up these men and inspiring them with daring sufficient to surmount every opposing power, was to prepare the way for the formation of a true republican government.
In making America the site of nothing less than a divine prophecy and identifying its mode of governance with a design intended by God, Young builds upon Edwards in forerunning a version of American chosenness that takes on a mission of global proportions. “This government, so formed,” he writes, “has been blessed by the Almighty until she spreads her sails in every sea, and her power is felt in every land.”
But while we must acknowledge that this theme has been harnessed in defense of American imperial ventures and as a warrant for global intervention, it has also inspired conceptions of American destiny that accent global moral responsibility. And as we will see, this moral destiny has a way of transcending the moral scope of its original religious inspirations—of pushing beyond the confines of its initial ethnocentric formulation to take on not merely a worldwide ambition (which might involve imposition) but a truly worldcentric ethic with American ideals at its teleological center.
Consider as transitionary examples the views of Thomas Jefferson and Lyman Beecher. In his characterization of America’s republican experiment as “the world’s best hope” and “a chosen country,” Jefferson prefigures Young by fusing American and biblical history. While his “First Inaugural Address” dials back on biblical language in favor a more secular enumeration of “the essential principles of our Government,” Jefferson had suggested that the American seal portray a representation of the Israelites in the wilderness on one side, and Anglo-Saxon chiefs on the other—thereby identifying America with the biblical Israelites and its political exigence with God’s divine plan. Like Young, he draws inspiration from biblical myth and in so doing divinizes the American political project as an example to the world. At the same time, however, Jefferson’s worldcentric morality (as crystallized in the Declaration of Independence) remains couched in its ethnocentric origins insofar as it constitutes for him an exclusively Anglo-Saxon affair. This dynamic is prevalent throughout most iterations of American chosenness and forms a central point of concern for critics who view the ideology of chosenness as an impediment on the maturation of American civilization. As it is worth explicating in broad conceptual terms and will continue to reappear in later examples, I will quote Eddie Glaude’s excellent synopsis of the matter:
The American nation, or people, were the defenders of liberty and equality, which in turn defined the contours of the nation. Thus, the use of nation in the United States stressed the equality and liberty of individuals…But…the community, or common good, was also established with the ideology of chosenness. As the common good was articulated, as disparate groups of individuals saw themselves in common cause, a stronger claim of difference was made. The colonists accounted for the true difference between them and the mother country by turning to the legacy of the Puritans and the rhetoric of errand. England represented the Old World and America the New Canaan…The ideology of chosenness also allowed the leaders of the American nation to sidestep the Enlightenment rhetoric of “the people.” White males were the chosen people. All others were merely ordinary individuals…
What we therefore have is a situation where the universal values of liberty and equality—those that animate the worldcentric aspirations of the American nation—become entangled in a narrower constellation of identity that stifles their fuller liberation in national life. In turn, each generation of Americans faces the difficult task of disentangling these competing notions and working through the felt tension between the scope of America’s moral promise and the reality of its often exclusionary and anti-democratic politics. For Glaude, this situation follows from the basic logic of chosenness, which implies that only those within the in-group possess the requisite dignity, virtue or status to serve as the vanguard of the nation’s destiny.
Another example of this incredible envelopment of worldcentric values within ethnocentric circumscriptions can be found in the thought of Lyman Beecher, who forwards a rich and capacious conception of America’s moral calling even as he excludes Catholics from it. In “A Plea for the West,” Beecher calls for the proliferation of educational and religious institutions in the west in order to inoculate westerners from the dubious influence of settling Catholics. But while Beecher’s exclusion of Catholicism from the religious calling of America is clear in this plea, it exists alongside an incredibly hopeful and broad-minded conception of America’s moral destiny in the world at large, even if it retains an exclusively Protestant framing. For Beecher, our “experimental knowledge of free institutions” grants us the opportunity to introduce new moral advancements in world civilization that transcend the methods of violence that have prevailed in the past. “The government of force will cease, and that of intelligence and virtue will take its place; and nation after nation cheered by our example, will follow in our footsteps, till the whole earth is free.” Nevertheless, like Winthrop and Edwards, Beecher frames America’s moral calling as subsidiary to its role as a prophetic center for Protestantism; and like Young, who fuses America’s political creed with prophetic history, Beecher characterizes American political principles as means to the more important task of spreading Christianity worldwide. “But as all great eras of prosperity to the church have been aided by the civil condition of the world,” he writes, “and accomplished by the regular operation of moral causes, I consider the text as a prediction of the rapid and universal extension of civil and religious liberty, introductory to the triumphs of universal Christianity.” By leading the world towards an embrace of republican principles, America will serve the higher aim of overturning those despotic and feudal institutions that contradict the state of affairs predicted to unfold in “the peaceful reign of Jesus Christ on the earth.”
With Walt Whitman’s poetic exaltation of American destiny we see the preservation of many Christian archetypes but at the same time a generalization of their meaning—so much so that the spiritual promise of America begins to take on an autonomy and significance beyond its initial articulation as a means towards universal Christianity. Moreover, the reality of America’s burgeoning economic, industrial, and technological power in the 19th century called for an articulation of American exceptionalism that could integrate its diverse enterprises into a compelling vision of the future. This move was admittedly anticipated by Winthrop, who integrated the economic dimensions of colonial life within a broader religious interpretation of the puritan errand. For Whitman, however, the scale of America’s proliferating culture, ingenuity and power calls for a rendering of America’s promise that is manifold and colossal in a way never before conceived:
Yet soul be sure the first intent remains, and shall be carried out, perhaps even now the time has arrived. After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,) after the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work, after the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist, finally shall come the poet worthy that name, the true son of God shall come singing his songs. Then not your deeds only O voyagers, O scientists and inventors, shall be justified, all these hearts as of fretted children shall be sooth’d, all affection shall be fully responded to, the secret shall be told, all these separations and gaps shall be taken up and hook’d and link’d together, the whole earth, this cold, impassive, voiceless earth, shall be completely justified…Nature and Man shall be disjoin’d and diffused no more, the true son of God shall absolutely fuse them.
America is imbued with not only the prospect of becoming a geographically extensive and technologically formidable national power, but also with a moral and spiritual destiny befitting the grandeur of a world-historical civilization. Its promise offers nothing less than the reconciliation of the fallenness of humankind in the world and its severance from nature. All initiative hitherto, from the work of our enterprising voyagers, to the designs of our inventors and the discoveries of our scientists, has been an attempt to answer the “cold, impassive, voiceless earth” in which we dwell as unsatisfied phantoms and shades, but ultimately without success. But now we begin to outline the “rondure” whence these trials and initiatives proceed, and discern some “inscrutable purpose, some hidden prophetic intention” that could consummate these efforts and vindicate their partiality retrospectively—thus bringing the arc of the rondure full circle. This “first intent” is the liberation of a spiritual sensibility, at once young and old, through the intervention of a divine literatus, whose mediation as “the true son of God” at once taps into the millennial expectation of Christ’s return and generalizes its meaning to include the entirety of America’s cultural and religious promise.
By the time of Whitman’s “Passage to India,” the theme of America as a redeemer nation had already come to the fore in Lincoln’s treatment of the meaning of the Civil War. In his “Second Inaugural Address,” Lincoln acknowledges that the entire nation is to blame for the carnage of the war, and sketches the task of global moral responsibility that that sacrifice now warrants. He does this by enacting what Harry Stout calls a “unique jeremiad.” In contrast to the tendency to employ the jeremiad as an assurance of one’s own righteousness and eventual victory, Lincoln insists on the inscrutability of God’s purpose and denies the presumption underlying these sorts of claims to chosenness. Since both the North and the South offended God because “both sides were implicated in the sin of slavery,” neither could claim a monopoly on God’s chosenness. Moreover, the degree of destruction and carnage raises for Lincoln the sobering possibility that some higher purpose, divined by neither side, may have been working itself out through the otherwise incomprehensible catastrophe—a purpose as mysterious as Whitman’s rondure, but potentially more inscrutable and contrary to human justice than he might imagine. “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
Couched in this deference to God’s inscrutable purpose is a compelling appeal to humility and charity, for if both sides are implicated then one should not be too quick to deal in judgement, and should cast aside any “self-righteous assurance.” “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” we are called “to finish the work we are in.” In outlining this work, Lincoln brings his jeremiad full circle, expanding its circumference to include a wider moral calling that elevates the meaning of America as a redeemer nation. Instead of insisting on the irrefutable rectitude of the Union cause and taking on a spirit of vengeance rooted in “pride and revenge,” Americans from this point on are to embody a responsibility of global dimensions: “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” America remains a redeemer nation, but one whose “destiny for itself” and “burden for the world” is “an honorable peace.” By way of humility before God’s purpose, and the spirit of openness and charity consequent upon it, God’s “last best hope” redeems itself by integrating in its identity a worldcentric dimension.
In a move that proves complementary both to Lincoln’s sense of America’s global responsibility and to Whitman’s embrace of diverse initiatives within America’s spiritual vocation, Henry Ward Beecher’s sermon, “The Tendencies of American Progress,” forwards the view that an ethic of individual wealth accumulation can be congruent with the fulfillment of America’s worldcentric responsibilities. He identifies the accumulation of wealth as a necessary support for the development of America’s morality, intelligence, religion, and manners; and thereby finds a place for material advancement within the spiritual teleology adumbrated by Young. For “it is impossible,” he exclaims,
to civilize a community without riches. I boldly affirm that no nation ever yet rose from a barbarous state except through the mediation of wealth earned. I affirm that the preaching of the Gospel to the heathen will be invalid and void if it does not make them active workmen, and teach them how to make money. And although the evidences of the conversion of the individual are not that he knows how to make money; yet in a nation no religion is a good religion that does not teach industry, and the thrift which comes from industry.
Beecher is careful not to reduce religious liberation to economic facility, but he does forward two essential principles that have arguably had a decisive, and perhaps controversial, effect on the formation of American values. First, he establishes a developmental narrative in which wealth is affirmed as a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of civilization and evangelical progress. Second, he intertwines the value of religion with its ability to cultivate economic virtue by making the latter both a partial indicator and a measure of the former. In consequence, while religion and economics remain formally distinct, their inseparability implies that religion is to a certain extent dependent on its economic fruits, both as a condition for its fruition and as a mark of its value.
Like his predecessors, Henry Beecher’s vision of Christian evangelism retains a large measure of ethnocentric exclusivity insofar as it presumes that the in-group possesses the one-true gospel and must therefore impart it on barbarous heathens in order to civilize them. Even so, his “Tendencies of American Progress” evinces a broadening of religious outlook in a less literalist and more cosmopolitan direction, perhaps in response to the increasingly multi-religious canvas of 19th century American life. My “faith in religion,” he owns, “is not in the church, and not in doctrines, and not in books, and not in ministers, nor in anything external to man, but in that nature which God created, and which makes religion indispensable to man.” Furthermore, “it is very noticeable that the different sects of religion are softening, and that men are coming together in conference who only a few years ago thought it their duty to hate and club one another. This growing spirit of love and fellowship in differing churches is one of the signs of the growth of religion”—not its decline.
For Henry Beecher, wealth accumulation can be conducive to this broadening of sympathy and spiritual magnanimity as long as it continues to play its proper formative role in the hierarchy of human needs and priorities. “For material welfare, although it be an indispensable element of national prosperity, is the lowest, and is to be subordinated to all the others.” It remains productive insofar as it “is working toward the social and toward the spiritual,” and “lies in the line of intelligence, of real virtue” and “moral principle.” And as our prosperity grows we are meant to remember the global significance of America’s calling as a beacon of hope for all of the world’s poor, who would also seek a better life. In his closing passages, Beecher (echoing Young, Whitman, and his father Lyman) acknowledges a unique American destiny to be a vessel for the liberation of new principles, yet in a spirit of charity that recalls Winthrop’s moving sincerity and magnanimity even as it extends the circle of consideration to a much wider burden of humanity:
And now, I have but one word to say more: as we have been put in the van among nations to develop principles in their practical forms that were only known as seed-corn in other lands, my heart’s ambition is, first, for the welfare of this whole land, for the sake of the burden of the population which it carries. God bless America. Not because I was born in it…but because the continent carries such a burden of humanity that its weal or woe will be like an eternal weal or woe, infinite, endless. May God, for the sake of neighboring peoples, bless this land…that we may stand frowning on our shores against no foreign people; that we may be no band of robbers to filch and to steal from the feeble and the poor. May God gives us magnanimity and power and riches, that we may throw the shadow of our example upon the poor, the perishing, and the ready-to-be-destroyed, for their protection…Let kings war; let aristocrats war; but the common people of a great republic should own the brotherhood of man.
The stakes of America’s global example and mission intensify in the periods surrounding the world wars, when global conflict puts ideals of American responsibility to the test. Initially in World War I, talk of American chosenness retains much of the idealism that was seen in many of the voices from the 19th century. As Cherry points out, “American engagement in war could be for no paltry purpose of merely defending American interests. It had to be a war to end war, a war to make the whole world safe for democracy.” We see this, for example, in the view of Woodrow Wilson, who argues in a 1919 address to the Senate that “America has entered the war to promote no private or peculiar interest of her own but only as the champion of rights which she was glad to share with free men and lovers of justice everywhere.” That America is a friend to fellow nations and their rights had been demonstrated by the example of our troops, who “made America and all that she stood for a living reality in the thoughts not only of the people of France but also of tens of millions of men and women throughout all the toiling nations of the world”—a world “standing everywhere in peril of its freedom and the loss of everything it held dear.” And moreover, America was to continue defending the rights and freedoms of the world’s peoples after the war and wield its new global power responsibly by taking on a more robust commitment to international moral leadership. Towards this end, Wilson points to the League of Nations as an opportunity for America to accept “the confidence of the world” and the “moral leadership that is offered us.” We have only to carry forward what we have already committed ourselves to, and follow “the hand of God:”
Our participation in the war established our position among the nations and nothing but our mistaken action can alter it…We answered to the call of duty in a way so spirited…that the whole world saw at last, in the flesh, in noble action, a great ideal asserted and vindicated, by a Nation they had deemed material and now found to be compact of the spiritual forces that must free men of every nation from every unworthy bondage. It is thus that a new role and a new responsibility have come to this great Nation…The stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God, who led us into this way.
While Wilson does speak of “the hand of God,” his image of incarnating a liberating ideal crystallizes in less overtly religious terms what figures like Edwards and Young are on about when they speak of America as a manifestation of a latent spiritual possibility. And like Lincoln, Whitman, and both Lyman and Henry Ward Beecher, this possibility involves not only a glorious display of power and wealth, but also a heightened register of moral imagination whose future bears the mark of a divine inevitability. “The stage is set, the destiny disclosed,” and we have only to go forward confident in the favor that God has placed upon us.
This hopeful idealism about America’s global mission would to a certain extent get tempered by the disillusionment that followed World War I, as well as the unprecedented violence that would ensue during World War II—so much so that while patriotic energy still affirmed America’s role as a bulwark against political oppression, it no longer retained the air of confidence and moral redemption that was prevalent during the Great War. This shift appears in the rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt, who in the midst of war in 1942 articulates familiar religious themes even as he forwards a sobering account of the war’s aims. To be sure, these aims are not entirely devoid of an idealistic and reconstructive element. Roosevelt reminds us that we “are not making all this sacrifice of human effort and human lives to return to the kind of world we had after the last world war.” Rather, we “are fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills.” And furthermore, we retain in our efforts a living link to both our founding religious creeds and our role as a global exemplar of republican and democratic values. “Our enemies are guided by a brutal cynicism,” whereas we are “inspired by a faith which goes back through all the years to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis: “God created man in His own image.” “We on our side are striving to be true to that divine heritage,” and insofar as we do good on that task, we remain on the side of freedom, democracy, and religion.
Nevertheless, there is in Roosevelt’s message more of the gravitas of a wartime general than there is in Wilson’s, whose expressive moral teleology rings more in the key of a gracious and scholarly diplomat. For Roosevelt, our involvement is not so much necessitated by a unique calling to end all war as it is to neutralize a particular enemy that cannot be compromised with. His attitude is animated more by a sense of military necessity than by a belief in the inevitable victory of God’s chosen; and while he entertains little doubt that the Allies fight for the morally just cause, he does not invoke the hand of God as a guarantee of divine favor that can be counted on—for whatever the status of American chosenness might mean, it is clear that such extreme circumstances compel us to fully own the burdens of war. Speaking of the threat of suicide planes, for instance, Roosevelt stands firm in the insistence that our “people are not afraid,” and acknowledges “that we may have to pay a heavy price for freedom.” “We will pay this price with a will,” and no matter “what our enemies in their desperation may attempt to do to us, we will say as the people of London have said, “We can take it.” And what’s more, we can give it back—and we will give it back—with compound interest.”
Writing in the midst of World War II, and aware that the dangers associated with America’s growing economic and military prowess necessitated a reevaluation of its moral vocation, Reinhold Niebuhr articulated a position of “Christian realism” that both affirmed American chosenness while tempering it with a due dose of moral humility and responsibility. America is in “a position of destiny” that “carries with it tremendous responsibilities”— responsibilities that, for Niebuhr, require a religious interpretation if they are to avoid the corruptions of “pride and the lust of power.” America’s exceptional status proceeds from grace, from the circumstances of its history and the real opportunities that have been proffered to it as a potential vehicle for international justice, and not by virtue of our own moral righteousness. It must therefore be careful to avoid the conceit that it can do no wrong or that its chosenness is perpetual and inviolable, keeping its own capacity for failure and hegemonic domination clear in view. “This partnership between the English-speaking peoples can of course,” he writes, “become a new menace to international justice and peace if it stands alone. The world cannot be organized by an Anglo-Saxon hegemony.” “The democratic traditions of the Anglo-Saxon world” may indeed serve as “the potential basis of a just world order,” but to do good on this possibility it must acknowledge that “the historical achievements of this world are full of violations and contradictions of these principles.” We like any other people are liable to the persuasions of Thrasymachus in The Republic: that power “is the sole source of eminence,” and carries its own “amoral sense of destiny.” To counteract this tendency and defend a moral sense of destiny, Niebuhr revives the admonishment inherent in the jeremiad by insisting on the responsibility that comes along with a destiny of religious import:
If we know that we have been chosen beyond our deserts, we must also begin to realize that we have not been chosen for our particular task in order that our own life may be aggrandized. We ought not derive either special security or special advantages from our high historical mission. The real fact is that we are placed in a precarious moral and historical position by our special mission. It can be justified only if it results in good for the whole community of mankind. Woe unto us if we fail. For our failure will bring judgment upon both us and the world.
Up until this point we have been considering voices for whom there was no question regarding their inclusion in the circle of American destiny. But the limits of that circle throughout our history have afforded occasions for perceived outsiders to negotiate their own responses to American chosenness, and often by leveraging its own logic. Some, like David Walker, Maria Stewart, and Frances Willard, forward jeremiads that at once critique the American project while framing it within an underlying affirmation of its promise. Others, like Henry Highland Garnet and Malcolm X, seem more cynical about the ultimate feasibility of America and level their critiques from more of an outsider’s position over and against it. This dichotomy raises an essential question for would-be reformers of America’s future: whether to embrace Bercovitch’s all-encompassing American consensus, and permit it to transmute one’s revolutionary fervor; or, to attempt a stand outside of that consensus and address the malaises of America from the outside. For some, this can seem like a choice between stultifying conformity and ineffective isolation.
So far I have been trying to convey the uncontainable power inherent in the ideals that animate America’s sense of destiny, and their capacity to liberate worldcentric insights that, at their noblest, transcend their ethnocentric enframings. It should therefore come as no surprise that I endorse the former alternative of affirming the American consensus, and view it less as a stultifying ubiquity and more as a liberatory imaginary that channels and enhances the revolutionary spirit by mediating it through an element of conservatism. Defending this view thoroughly would of course necessitate further consideration of the many critics of American chosenness. But for now I will offer in closing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as a counterexample to those skeptics who might see in the American consensus a suffocating reality that denies the possibility of genuine reform.
King’s letter is striking in its rhetorical force and high degree of erudition. Finding occasion to invoke the Apostle Paul, Socrates, Aquinas, Augustine, Tillich, Buber, and Martin Luther, and weaving them into the spirit of America’s founding documents, King impresses on the reader a compelling moral consensus that carries the weight of the Greek and Christian traditions while affirming the moral promise of America. In articulating his defense of nonviolent protest and his indictment of the white southern clergy within the matrix of the America errand, King’s intervention proves far more effective than it would have been had it been articulated in opposition to the national consensus—for it attains through this consensus the gravitas of a long and meaningful historical development, and can no longer be dismissed as a recalcitrant call for agitation. Consider for example King’s response to the charge of being an extremist, which he takes as an opportunity to remind us of some eminent examples of conviction, passion and fortitude that animate our heritage. “Was not Jesus,” he asks,
an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”…Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.”…And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?
Furthermore, King’s exigence of speaking for a people that have long been kept outside of the circle of American identity, as well as his call for a recognition of our intertwining destinies, succeeds in wedding subversion and redemption. He subverts the moral order by invoking a more fundamental moral order that forms the philosophical and religious foundations of the American project as a whole. It is both truly progressive and truly conservative; simultaneously provocative in its affirmation, and affirmative in its provocation. Mirroring his own formulation of civil disobedience, King’s subversive intervention on behalf of America’s promise takes a step forward in redeeming that promise even as it challenges it:
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
This at once subversive and unifying gesture hinges on the primacy of conscience as the ennobling center of the free human being. Though embedded in the opacities of history, wherein the will of God is uncertain and often inscrutable, our conscience provides a window into that underlying law that requires occasional subversion for its own redemption. Those who abide by the law must, when called by conscience, become law-breakers. But by willingly facing the consequences for such disobedience, one accepts the opacity of the present and in turn acknowledges the transcendent nature of this law—that one cannot fully discern the trajectory of its rondure,and must work within the limitations of the historical present, leaving ultimate judgment to God.
By affirming individual conscience as a vehicle of redemption when directed in a spirit of love, King culminates the idea of America as a redeemer nation in a way that crystallizes the worldcentric aspirations of his predecessors while integrating an element of self-reflection and moral humility. Its circle of consideration is universal, yet fueled by the power of a particular array of national traditions. Its aims are fundamentally American in their formulation, yet point to a moral register beyond this particular national scope. Its view is teleological and hopeful, yet aware of the opacities of our historical condition, both within ourselves and without in the world of social relations.
For someone like Bercovitch, this development is a case in point for the dynamics of the American consensus. In his view, America offers “a civic identity rooted in a prophetic view of history,” and at that, one which unites “nationality and universality, civic and spiritual selfhood, secular and redemptive history, the country’s past and paradise to be, in a single synthetic ideal.” It does this in part by mediating individual and collective values through a third term—the national errand—and by permitting each to thrive vicariously through the other. Beneath the bedrock of the self lives the national spirit; and in the advancements of the community, the self attains its due enlargement. In consequence, the radical energies of the individual become subsumed in such a way that their subversive power gets channeled back into an affirmation of the national spirit. And as American destiny unfolds, it continues to inspire a revolutionary fervor that proves at once subversive and affirmative— “because individualism, the people, and revolution, considered in their highest aspect, political and spiritual, correspond to America.” Speaking of our classic writers, Bercovitch concludes that to be an American
was by definition to be radical—to turn against the past, to defy the status quo and become an agent of change. And at the same time to be radical as an American was to transmute the revolutionary impulse in some basic sense: by spiritualizing it (as in Walden), by diffusing or deflecting it (as in Leaves of Grass), by translating it into a choice between blasphemy and regeneration (as in Moby-Dick), or most generally by accommodating it to society (as in “Fortune of the Republic”). In every case, “America” resolved a conflict of values by reconciling personal, national, and cultural ideals.
In the idea of America as a redeemer nation, best exemplified by King’s challenge, we see precisely this spiritualizing process at work. It involves a destiny that calls on the liberation of the individual for the redemption of its transgenerational promise, and insists on the inseparability of the two. It is animated by a law that calls for its own disruption in order to be renewed, and a unity in identity that stakes its highest moral aspirations on the depths of individual conscience and the creative buoyancy of its citizens. If a worldcentric possibility is to be cultivated in a way that draws on the moral distinctions of national peoples, I have yet to find a more viable ideal that can carry it forward sustainably in an uncertain future.
Beecher, Henry Ward, “The Tendencies of American Progress,”in Cherry, God’s New Israel.
Beecher, Lyman, “A Plea for the West,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel.
Bercovitch, Sacvan, The American Jeremiad.
Edwards, Jonathan, “The Latter-Day Glory is Probably to Begin in America,” in Cherry, God’s
Glaude, Eddie, Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America.
Jefferson, Thomas, “First Inaugural Address,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel.
King Jr., Martin Luther, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel.
Lincoln, Abraham, “Second Inaugural Address,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel.
Niebuhr, Reinhold, “Anglo-Saxon Destiny and Responsibility,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel.
Roosevelt, Franklin, “Annual Message to Congress,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel.
Stout, Harry, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War.
Whitman, Walt, “Passage to India,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel.
Wilson, Woodrow, “Presenting the Treaty for Ratification,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel.
Winthrop, John, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel.
Young, Brigham, “Discourses,” in Cherry, God’s New Israel.