The rise of a sermon phrase – “a city on a hill” – to explain American exceptionalism

An English professor describes how a sermon by John Winthrop in 1630 came to describe the United States:

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In 1630, John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay, declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” When President Ronald Reagan used Winthrop’s words to describe America, he helped transform “A Model of Christian Charity” into a foundational text of American culture. In its own day, Winthrop’s sermon went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed. It was found and first published in 1838—at which point it continued to be ignored for another century…

Winthrop’s sermon is a communal statement of love—a “model of Christian charity,” exactly as it is called. The question behind his sermon is simple: What do we owe each other? And Winthrop’s answer is the same as Paul’s: whatever redemptive love requires…

The phrase “city on a hill” also has a fascinating and largely unknown 17th century context. The phrase comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (specifically Matthew 5:14), and in the 1600s, it was Roman Catholics, not Puritans, who loved it most. They used Matthew 5:14 to prove Protestantism false and Catholicism true. The Catholic Church, they said, was the only one visible church since the time of Christ (Jesus “set it on a hill”). Protestants, in contrast, described the true church as small or hidden, turning to Luke 12:32 and Revelation 12. When it came to Matthew 5:14, they had to reinterpret this verse to pry it from Catholic hands. Instead of the universal church being a “city on a hill,” Protestants like Winthrop claimed that “city on a hill” applied locally, to this place or that, wherever the true light of the gospel shone. Because the phrase did not refer to one universal church, it could be reapplied to individual congregations, towns, cities, and eventually—as we have come to see—a nation…

My book moves from the 1600s through the American Revolution and the making of the first national history textbooks in the 1800s to the claims and impact of the influential German sociologist Max Weber in the early 1900s. But for me, the most enjoyable chapters to write were on Perry Miller, a Harvard scholar who had a giant influence on the way we understand the Pilgrims and Puritans today. It was Perry Miller, an atheist, who above all made John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon central to the American story. He did so not just to set the US apart from the USSR, but also to challenge American society, which he saw as having fallen from its Puritan origins. Just a few years before Miller died, the Harvard-educated John F. Kennedy became the first president to use Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon in a speech. When Reagan picked it up, it became famous—a linchpin in larger narratives of American exceptionalism.

Another example of how civil religion develops: several centuries after a sermon is given, it is picked up and interpreted by political leaders and others who want to tie several strands of social life together. Implied above is that another politician in another time period – say Grover Cleveland in the late 1800s – may not have been able to prompt the spread of this connection in American life. Ronald Reagan, who tried to be optimistic about American life, helps give the quote, which had some public airing because of John F. Kennedy, new life in a particular context.

The 17th century context of the meaning of a “city on a hill” is fascinating given what the phrase came to represent. If Winthrop meant to use the phrase in contrast to Catholic interpretations, the fact that the phrase came to represent a powerful America is a twist. The Protestant interpretation discussed above applied to a small context. When Americans use the phrase today, they tend to mean a powerful city on the hill, casting light on the countryside below or holding a fortified position or occupying the high ground. The American bastion of freedom and Christendom has replaced the prior holders of this title.

This phrase also gives more credence to cities than Americans have over the course of their history. Even with some important cities on a global stage, Americans are generally anti-urban and instead embrace suburban life. Updating the phrase, perhaps Americans would rather say “the suburban megachurch on the hill” or the “quiet yet stately suburb on the hill.”

New publication: Christian Colleges in the Locational Wilderness

Christian Higher Education just published online an article from co-author Ben Norquist and I titled “Christian Colleges in the Locational Wilderness: The Locations of CCCU Institutions.” Here is the abstract:

This article examines the locations of the 111 governing members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) and consider how these locations hinder evangelical Protestants from reaching their goal of engaging American society. We found that CCCU institutions cluster in cities in mid-sized metropolitan regions in the South and Midwest, are more likely than the United States population as a whole to be in rural areas, and have a limited presence in the largest metropolitan regions in the United States, particularly their central cities. In comparison to the top 102 liberal arts institutions and top 101 national universities, CCCU governing members were on average founded later and they have locations more similar to liberal arts schools than research universities. We argue that these patterns are physical manifestations of the modernist-fundamentalist debate, suburbanization pressure and anti-urban sentiment, and concentrations of evangelical residents. We conclude that CCCU members’ locations limit their ability to help students and constituents engage society with locations away from the largest cities and their power, resources, and networks

This project began several years ago amidst a search for data on where evangelicals in the United States are located. Given that Ben and I are in a particular location and working for a CCCU member institution, we dug into this data (with the help of my TA Rebecca Carlson) to uncover the patterns of where CCCU schools are located, particularly in comparisons to other kinds of schools and where Americans live more broadly. The last two sentences of the abstract sum up our findings and the implications: with many locations away from the biggest cities and metropolitan regions in the United States, CCCU institutions may only be able to do so much in engaging a country (and globe) dominated by cities and their metropolitan areas. More broadly, if evangelicals are not present or active in these global cities and regions, their opportunities to engage American society are limited.

Aiming “to bring spiritual richness to corporate America”

Spiritual consultants look to bring spiritual practices and approaches to the American workplace:

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In simpler times, divinity schools sent their graduates out to lead congregations or conduct academic research. Now there is a more office-bound calling: the spiritual consultant. Those who have chosen this path have founded agencies — some for-profit, some not — with similar-sounding names: Sacred Design Lab, Ritual Design Lab, Ritualist. They blend the obscure language of the sacred with the also obscure language of management consulting to provide clients with a range of spiritually inflected services, from architecture to employee training to ritual design.

Their larger goal is to soften cruel capitalism, making space for the soul, and to encourage employees to ask if what they are doing is good in a higher sense. Having watched social justice get readily absorbed into corporate culture, they want to see if more American businesses are ready for faith…

Before the pandemic, these agencies got their footing helping companies with design — refining their products, physical spaces and branding. They also consulted on strategy, workflow and staff management. With digital workers stuck at home since March, a new opportunity has emerged. Employers are finding their workers atomized and agitated, and are looking for guidance to bring them back together. Now the sacred consultants are helping to usher in new rituals for shapeless workdays, and trying to give employees routines that are imbued with meaning…

The Sacred Design Lab trio use the language of faith and church to talk about their efforts. They talk about organized religion as a technology for delivering meaning.

Perhaps this is common elsewhere but this strikes me as uniquely American for multiple reasons:

-The interest in unbundling religion and spirituality from traditional religious practices

-Combining spirituality and work. Perhaps this hints the true religion in America is capitalism?

-Assuming there is a common religiosity that can work across a potentially diverse workforce. Kind of like civil religion, which attempts to unite religion and nationalism, but for the office.

-Religion being less about transcendence or encountering the divine and more about pragmatism: helping corporations succeed and individuals find or interact with their soul.

-The entrepreneurial nature of bringing religion to the workplace. This article profiles consultants and firms bringing it in. (It would be interesting to see how this interacts with more top-down approaches from CEOs or other corporate leaders who bring a strong faith or spiritual elements to their practices and aims.)

I will be curious to see (1) what kind of traction this approach gets – does it have staying power? What kinds of spirituality in the office catch on and which do not? – and (2) what the reaction might be among a range of firms and sectors – is this something limited to educated, managerial suites in particular locations?

Celebrating ordinary work in a hymn

I know wading into opinions of hymns, worship songs, and other church music can be thorny. But, here on Labor Day, I am reminded of verse 4 of the hymn “Earth and All Stars”:

The hymn presents different aspects of Creation and the fourth verse specifically addresses workers, particularly those devoted to building. There are not too many church songs I know of that address how work can be part of worship and devotion. Indeed, many songs could give the impression that Christian activity should primarily consist of sacred duties. Of course, there is a long history of Christians wrestling with work and how ordinary tasks contribute or connect to faith. Adding more music that highlights work, something that occupies many hours and engages the minds, bodies, and talents of many, could go a long way to connecting laboring and faith.

(As a musician and educator, I also notice verse three and five and the ways they connect these activities to religious expression. And in what other setting can you sing about “loud boiling test tubes”? At the same time, there is room in this song to celebrate other forms of work and labor.)

The role of religious buildings in combating global sameness in architecture

A look at the spread of the same architecture around the world – “glass-and-steel” – leaves out religious architecture:

Some time ago, I woke up in a hotel room unable to determine where I was in the world. The room was like any other these days, with its neutral bedding, uncomfortable bouclé lounge chair, and wood-veneer accent wall—tasteful, but purgatorial. The eerie uniformity extended well beyond the interior design too: The building itself felt like it could’ve been located in any number of metropolises across the globe. From the window, I saw only the signs of ubiquitous brands, such as Subway, Starbucks, and McDonald’s. I thought about phoning down to reception to get my bearings, but it felt too much like the beginning of an episode of The Twilight Zone. I travel a lot, so it was not the first or the last time that I would wake up in a state of placelessness or the accompanying feeling of déjà vu.

The primary focus of this article appears to be architectural wonders in business districts. These buildings both reflect the primary values of today’s world – capitalism, finance, power – and dominate modern skylines. They promote a particular global order.

In contrast, religious buildings often refer to other values: transcendence, community, beauty or sacredness. They can be part of hegemony or empire or the spread of a global order. But, they can also signal space that resists oppression or injustice. And, religious buildings can both reflect international styles and/or local religious interpretations.

In the book Building Faith Bob Brenneman and I wrote, we tackle some of these issues. There are modernist religious buildings. There are international structures influenced by the architecture of Las Vegas or glitzy cities. But, there are also small congregations building humble structures, others mixing indigenous architecture and common forms of architecture in particular religious traditions, others converting one kind of structure to another, and others worshiping in more secular structures. Many of these buildings are the opposite of these international symbols of affluence and starchitects. At least in form, they present an alternative vision and with the actions of the congregation within, may actively counter hegemonic order.

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/building-faith-9780190883447?cc=us&lang=en&

Some of the issue may be that the stature of religious buildings have diminished in the center of many global cities. Whereas once religious structures sat at the middle of the city, office buildings and structures devoted came to dominate the central spaces. In Chicago, the central churches moved to quieter neighborhoods near residents and where property values were lower as business came to dominate the Loop. Even the tallest religious buildings are no match for the biggest office buildings or residential structures.

Building Faith, COVID-19, and staying away from religious buildings

When sociologist Ben Brenneman and I went through the final stages of writing Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, COVID-19 was just starting to spread widely in the United States. We did not have a chance to consider the role of religious buildings within a pandemic. And there is a lot that could be said – and that others have already said well. Thus, just a few thoughts on studying religious buildings amid COVID-19:

One reason we started this project was because sociologists of religion, other observers, and religious participants themselves often paid little attention to the influence of religious buildings. Instead of focusing on the physical structure, people emphasized clergy, the congregation, the surrounding community, the religious tradition, the service, and other social dimensions of religious life.

All of these are important – yet, COVID-19 helped expose the importance of buildings. With people not able to worship in religious buildings for weeks and months, it highlights the role of the physical structure. In today’s networked world, religious services and interaction can still go on through Zoom, social media, email, and smartphones. Some might even say that the “essential” activity continued.

Our book focuses more on the construction and/or adaptation of religious buildings. While one chapter emphasizes how congregations present aged religious buildings, we do not consider what happens when congregations cannot meet in their regular building (which could happen for a variety of reasons). COVID-19 provides an opportunity to consider what happens religious groups cannot utilize their buildings as they wish for an extended period. While people need to stay away, the building does not go away: congregations will still need to preform maintenance, pay mortgages, and think about how their physical grounds can best serve their needs. And all of this while giving might be down and congregants cannot experience the benefits of the building.

The lack of gathering together and/or regularly in religious spaces has consequences. The experience of worshiping near others, singing together, talking in person, experiencing the collective effervescence of the congregation or the experience of the divine are essential parts of religiosity. Religious activity is embodied, enacted by people in physical settings. Worshipers and congregants are not “brains on sticks” but creatures who breathe and move and fidget and more. Many religious traditions emphasize collective activity and worship and this takes place within

Once COVID-19 abates, this could lead to more appreciation for religious buildings. Being away so long might make congregations more fond of the actual structures in which they gather. When they return to the places they know so well – and maybe are so familiar with that they do not recognize much – they may appreciate it more fully. Or, the time spent away from a religious building and experiencing religion from afar might prove alluring. Some religious people may have found alternative sacred spaces of their own and without the constrictions of having others around. With technology enabling dropping in to religious gatherings, the temptation might be to stay away from religious buildings.

Religious buildings have affected millions of people around the world and will continue to do so after COVID-19. How they shape religious experiences and groups will continue to matter and provide ongoing opportunities for scholars to explore further.

 

McMansions, SUVs, and megachurches

I recently reviewed the book The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry by sociologists Mark Mulder and Gerardo Martí. As the authors describe Schuller’s emphasis on growth, they include this line on page four:

TheGlassChurchP4

As I studied the use of the term McMansion in the first decade of the twenty-first century, I found people regularly linked McMansions to SUVs. As the cited passage above suggests, McMansions and SUVs came about at the same time. Perhaps some would go even further and say McMansion owners are likely to be SUV owners or the two consumer goods are likely to be found in the same communities or kinds of places. And, like the passage above, the comparisons could go further than SUVs to include large food items.

Rarely have I seen the growth of McMansions and the growth of single-family homes in the United States connected to megachurches. A similar argument could be made: in a period of growth as Americans liked to consume bigger items in bigger settings with providers happy to produce larger goods, McMansions and megachurches came about or became widely recognized at roughly the same time (McMansions built in the closing decades of the 1900s and as a term widely used by the early 2000s; megachurch as a phenomenon known by the 1980s). As everything grew and appetites expanded, so did churches. And maybe megachurches were likely to spring up in or near McMansion filled suburban communities flush with money, family life, and access to highways.

At least in this study, Robert Schuller was enamored with growth decades before McMansions became a thing. Mulder and Martí suggest Schuller pushed for growth in order to encourage more growth; previous accomplishments became evidence for pursuing and fulfilling future accomplishments (until it could no longer hold together). Yet, Schuller was well-positioned in a booming suburban area: he arrived in Orange County in the 1950s and capitalized on the growing population and appetite for large churches in a way that few other religious leaders could match.

Now, linking these multiple phenomena together would take some more work. Were Orange County McMansion owners more likely to attend a megachurch? Is this a pattern throughout the United States? Did an ideology of growth pervade many sectors at the same time and mutually reinforce each other or explicitly intersect at points?

Publication online in Journal of Urban History: “From “God Will Begin a Healing in this City” to “Jungles of Terror”: Billy Graham and Evangelicals on Cities and Suburbs”

Yesterday, the Journal of Urban History published online an article I had worked on for a few years:

BillyGrahamArticleJul20Online

This project began when I became aware of an online archive of Billy Graham’s messages through the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Given Graham’s popularity and influence while thinking as a sociologist about how religion and place are connected, I wanted to see how he addressed the substantial social change brought about by suburbanization during his post-World War II evangelistic career. Here is a summary of the findings from the abstract:

Graham discussed numerous urban problems and suggested solutions should begin with individual spiritual renewal. Graham proclaimed heaven as the ultimate city and did not encourage listeners to stay in cities or challenge white flight. As a respected pastor and leader, Graham’s messages highlight how evangelicals could consider cities in need of spiritual renewal but not require structural responses or living in cities as well as the limited power evangelical religious leaders have regarding contentious social issues.

The anti-urbanism common among white evangelicals has numerous roots. Graham exemplified several of these: a focus on individual action and salvation, consistent reminders of urban problems (meant to help prompt a spiritual response), and a focus on heaven. At the same time, his evangelistic efforts required holding events in major cities and meeting and talking with numerous influential leaders found in cities. I hope this study can help contribute to an ongoing scholarly conversation about the mixing of religion and place and its consequences for American society.

Divided By Faith, race, and religion

When I teach Introduction to Sociology, one of the texts I use is Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s 2000 book Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Here are parts of Chapter Four (“Color Blind: Evangelicals Speak on the “Race Problem””) that seem very pertinent:

The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical tool kit are “accountable freewill individualism,” “relationalism” (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences). (76)

But, these perspectives are not just tied to race:

Unlike progressives, for them individuals exist independent of structures and institutions, have freewill, and are individually accountable for their own actions. This view is directed rooted in theological understanding… (76-77)

A summary later in the chapter:

On careful reflection, we can see that it is a necessity for evangelicals to interpret the problem at the individual level. To do otherwise would challenge the very basis of their world, both their faith and the American way of life. They accept and support individualism, relationalism, and anti-structuralism. Suggesting social causes of the race problem challenges the cultural elements with which they construct their lives. This is the radical limitation of the white evangelical tool kit. This is why anyone, any group, or any program that challenges their accountable freewill individualist perspectives comes itself to be seen as a cause of the race problem. (89)

And back to race:

But white evangelicals’ cultural tools and racial isolation curtail their ability to fully assess why people of different races do not get along, the lack of equal opportunity, and the extent to which race matters in America. Although honest and well intentioned, their perspective is a powerful means to reproduce contemporary racialization…

This perspective misses the racialized patterns that transcend and encompass individuals, and are therefore often institutional and systemic. It misses that whites can move to most any neighborhood, eat at most any restaurant, walk down most any street, or shop at most any store without having to worry or find out that they are not wanted, whereas African Americans often cannot. This perspective misses that white Americans can be almost certain that when stopped by the police it has nothing to do with race, whereas African Americans cannot… (89-90)

The book is twenty years old and has led to productive listening, conversations, action, and scholarship. Yet, the intersection of race and religion, the deeply embedded assumptions in faith and other spheres of life, still matters today.

(See this 2016 post titled “How white evangelicals define themselves – and what is missing” for an earlier discussion involving Divided By Faith.)

Addressing race at Wheaton College and in Wheaton, Illinois

In late 2015, Solidarity Cabinet at Wheaton College asked me to give an evening talk alongside one of my colleagues, David Malone, then Associate Professor of Library Science and head of Special Collections at Wheaton College (and now Dean of University & Seminary Library at Calvin College). We gave talks about the history of race at Wheaton College and in Wheaton, Illinois. Afterward, we discussed how even though these had been independent projects, the data and patterns we had uncovered across the two communities appeared to overlap.

In late 2019, the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society published our article titled “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race.”

RaceTownandGown2019FirstPage

The synopsis from the journal’s website:

Our final article traces the trajectory of racial attitudes and policies in an affluent Chicago suburb. In “Race, Town, and Gown: A White Christian College and a White Suburb Address Race,” Brian J. Miller and David B. Malone summarize the evolution of Wheaton College and the larger community of Wheaton, Illinois on matters of race. Before the Civil War both college and town were well-known for abolitionism and relatively enlightened racial views. By the late nineteenth century, however, that earlier openness to African American uplift was waning fast. At the college, the reform ferment of the antebellum era gave way to evangelical fundamentalism, steering the college in more conservative directions. Meanwhile, as the town of Wheaton suburbanized after World War II, the new affluence it residents enjoyed corresponded with a more conservative approach to racial integration at the heart of the postwar Civil Rights Movement. The history of racial tolerance that had defined both college and town at their founding, while remaining a point of pride to be remembered, seemed only that, a distant memory. Miller and Malone, however, point to this history to make an important point–that structural economic and social change, coupled with new ideas, profoundly influence institutional and cultural change over time. Wheaton College and the larger suburb of which it is a part can, and no doubt will, continue to evolve, perhaps in surprising directions.

In certain ways, these communities exemplify broader trends in American society: how white evangelicals and white and wealthy suburbs address race. What is more unique in these two particular cases is that at certain points in their history, they were welcoming toward Blacks and minorities, particularly compared to some of their counterparts. Then, a combination of internal decisions and larger societal pressures which then shaped subsequent actions and experiences led to them being less welcoming. The character of places and communities is malleable even as a certain inertia takes hold over time. As as we note (and the editor notes in the paragraph above), communities and institutions can change again.