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 In its own day, Winthrop’s sermon went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed.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.”

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?

The current social contract: we get along by leaving each other alone

A Washington D.C. resident says he is leaving the city because social order has broken down. Here is how he describes what made city life work:

time lapse photography of people walking on pedestrian lane

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All I asked in return was relative safety and to be left alone to enjoy the city. City-living in America, for decades, meant tolerating mild inconveniences so that you could be left alone, alongside millions of others. That was the tacit pact…

Gay? Black? Trans? No offense, but, so what? We are city people: we have seen it all—literally, all—our entire lives. You are our neighbors, our friends, the president of our HOAs, our coworkers. The great beauty of the city is that we come from all walks of life and we get along. We accomplish this by leaving each other alone.

This sounds similar to how sociologist M. P. Baumgartner described the “moral minimalism” pervasive in suburban social life:

A kind of moral minimalism pervades the suburbs, in which people prefer the least extreme reactions to offenses and are reluctant to exercise any social control against one another at all. (3)

suburbia is a model of social order. The order is not born, however, of conditions widely perceived to generate social harmony. It does not arise from intimacy and connectedness, but rather from some of the very things more often presumed to bring about conflict and violence – transiency, fragmentation, isolation, atomization, and indifference among people. The suburbs lack social cohesion but they are free of strife. They are, so to speak, disorganized and orderly at the same time. (134)

In both descriptions, residents want to be left alone. They want to live life as they see fit without interference or social control exerted by others. This does not necessarily mean there is no social interaction or residents dislike the local environment; the Washington, D.C. resident describes partaking in and enjoying urban culture and interacting with neighbors. In Baumgartner’s study, suburbanites might know each other or interact; they just do not get too deeply involved or try to pressure others.

At the root of this seems to be a deep seated individualism that provides space for people to make their own choices. Every space or community provides some constraints on what people can do (or can imagine doing) yet Americans often imagine themselves as solitary units. The strains of this are everywhere: as long as it does not hurt other people, people should be free to do it; what people do on their own time or in their own dwelling is none of my business; a man’s home is his castle; you do you and I’ll do me; and so on.

Even though this idea is widespread, it also has limits. If individuals are masters of their own fate and this should not be interfered with, it can be tough to rally people around particular causes that require collective effort. Indeed, I think a good argument could be made that some of our current political conflict is due to the fact that different groups would like to introduce ideas/values/legislation for others to consider and/or follow while wanting to claim that they also support individualism.

More broadly, this is an odd social contract to have considering the sweep of human history and societies. Much of what humans experienced took place in relatively small groups with strong bonds. Today, more of our world is organized around people with whom we have chosen to interact with more tenuous ties to traditional bonding agents like extended family, religious groups, and specific geographic locations and the communities there.

I do not know if this social contract will last. The individualism of the last few centuries has changed much. Yet, it is helpful to keep in mind as we consider how to do anything together.

A long history of violence in American society

From the beginning, the story of the United States of America is a violent one. From violence against indigenous people to slavery to armed rebellion to colonial conquests to the Civil War to vigilante violence to violence-enforced residential segregation military intervention around the Western Hemisphere and then the globe to police brutality to gun violence to celebrating the military to assassinations.

Take vigilante violence as an example. I read Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism at the recommendation of a colleague and having read multiple works by sociologist James Loewen. He argues that a significant number of Northern towns and cities had informal sundown laws that prohibited minorities from being in the community after dark with violence implied if the norms were not followed.

Or, take the example of the role of violence in residential segregation. After violence at a South Shore beach set off moreviolence in Chicago in 1919, residential segregation was enforced not just with restrictive covenants and blockbusting and redlining: actions involved bombings and attacks. Historian Stephen Grant Meyer detailed some of this in his book As Long As They Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods, a book I read for a class paper. In places like Cicero, Illinois and Levittown, Pennsylvania, violence accompanied attempts of blacks to move to the suburbs.

CiceroRiot1951ChicagoTribune

Photo by Chicago Tribune, July 13, 1951

Or, take the last in the list as an example. The book that really brought this to my attention as a student was Philip Agee’s Inside the Company: CIA Diary. This led me to read a lot about the Church Committee’s work in 1975-1976 as well as assassinations in the United States and ones in which the United States played a role abroad. In several papers, I worked with the idea of assassinations, discovered databases of political violence in countries around the world that political scientists have collected for decades, and found that the political violence rates in the United States are high.

All together, the United States is awash in violence. It is part of American history, it is regularly promoted, and it is often excused or justified. Thinking about some of the examples I noted above, I found out about these through reading and research because these stories are widely taught, known, or experienced by significant segments of the population. Yet, violence is antithetical to numerous aspects of American society and ideals, including the religious beliefs of many Americans, particularly when harnessed alongside other destructive ideologies such as white supremacy or colonialism.

Michael Jordan embodied the American value of winning at all costs

An interview with Todd Boyd, featured in ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” included this answer regarding evaluating Michael Jordan’s competitive fire:

I would say it’s American, that’s what I would say. I wouldn’t characterize it as positive or negative, it’s American. I think what Michael represented was an especially American desire to win at all costs, to dominate.

Sports have the ability to both reflect America and lead to social change. Jordan’s example could serve both. He was wildly successful in American terms on and off the court as a winner and earning oodles of money. He helped usher in a new era of global superstars, taking a third-place American sport (behind football and baseball) to global heights, and a lasting brand built around shoes. He is still successful today as an NBA owner.

It can be easy to chalk up his success to his legendary work ethic and a quest to become better when others who had similar skills or athletic gifts took it easier. But, it would also be helpful to place Jordan in his context. He came along at the right time for multiple reasons: he built on the NBA stars of the 1980s, he was around at the spread of hip-hop (also discussed in the interview), he succeeded during an era of capitalist growth (“the end of history” and the demise of communism), and technology helped spread his play and brand (even down to the crying Jordan meme of recent years).

All of this means that Boyd’s answer is two-fold: Jordan exemplifies America (work hard and you will get ahead!) and what it considers success (become a winner and global icon!). Is this what Americans want to promote for their children or in schools or in politics? That is a much bigger debate.

Argument: “the real civic religion of America, business at all costs”

Which values should guide decisions in a time of crisis? Here is one argument regarding how decisions are made in the United States:

These approaches are the horns of America’s corona-dilemma. Every society has reacted to COVID-19 according to its principles or, if no principles were to hand, its habits. It has been America’s misfortune that its principles and habits are ill-suited to managing an epidemic. The federal system, by functioning as it should, prevented the kind of nationwide shutdown that worked in smaller countries like Austria. The real civic religion of America, business at all costs, can accept the redirection of the economy by the Defense Production Act, but it cannot tolerate the suspension of all economic activity. Yet a powerful counter-impulse — averse to risk, trusting of authority, and hence likely to seek out niches in the economy which are immune to booms and busts — prefers to shelter in place.

It is hard to make sweeping claims about cultural values in the midst of significant social change. At the same time, understanding “patterns of meaning-making” (the definition of culture from sociologist Lyn Spillman) is invaluable for analyzing why certain actors respond as they do in such times.

This reminds me of two sociological works that get at the same issue:

1. Emerson and Smiley’s 2018 book Market Cities, People Cities examined cities around the United States and the world to see if they put markets or people first. On the whole, American cities privilege markets with their policies and rhetoric. In American communities, growth – usually measured as economic growth and/or population increases, is always good. (See an earlier post on this book here.)

2. Dobbin’s 1994 book Forging Industrial Policy suggests in the early decades of the railroad the United States pursued a public-private policy regarding develpoment compared to the laissez-faire approach of Britain and the top-down, centralized approach of France. Yet, in the last few decades, a growing chorus of voices argues the United States privileges the interests of corporations over the welfare of all residents.

There could be other contenders for the civic religion of Americans including individualism, the civil religion described by sociologist Robert Bellah, middle-class values, and the importance of private property and private spaces. But, in this particular situation, what exactly should be done regarding businesses and the economy is a particular hot point.

Marketing 101 example: equating pickup trucks to the American way of life

A look at declines in pickup sales for American automakers includes this description of what pickups represent:

“Pickups represent a rugged sense of individualism for many Americans. They are the very definition of America in that they are larger than life like America and can both work and play hard,” said Erich Merkle, U.S. Ford sales analyst.

This is both a concise and bold marketing statement: pickups are the American way of life! The statement ties to multiple big themes that run through American culture: individualism, larger than life, hard work and lots of play. And it is a vehicle that allows the owner to participate in the pervasive driving culture in the United States. And all this just for $35,000 to $50,000 for a new truck!

A truck, like many consumer goods, is not just about functionality but is also a statement about the owners and what they want to be. Buying smartphones, single-family homes, clothing, and more fall into the same process: marketing appeals to our want for what we own to match our personality and/or aspirations. A truck is not just a truck; it is a statement about the driver. It says, “I eat a Prius for lunch” or “I need to do important projects” or “I have the resources to buy a new truck” (among other possible messages).

Then I am reminded that it is just a pickup truck. Vehicles are necessary in many American communities in order to get from Point A to Point B. But, many vehicles may work in order to accomplish regular tasks. If the primary vehicle use is for commuting to work or regular errands such as buying groceries or dropping off and picking up kids, a truck is probably not needed. Some people need trucks for regularly hauling items or for work.

For now, this match between pickups and the American Dream “works.” There are numerous other products that would wish to tie themselves as closely as pickup trucks to the base values of the American Dream. It may not be this way in several decades; perhaps the rugged individualism and freedom will be attached to fleets of electric vehicles that are at everyone’s beck and call. Until something changes, expect to continue to see the marketing pitch that pickups equal the American way of life.

Trying to kick the consumption habit while living in a tiny house

One scholar studying people who lived in tiny houses found that a smaller space did not necessarily mean to having less stuff:

Tiny houses are often put forward as a more sustainable housing option. They are certainly a potential check on the continued pursuit of bigger houses and greater consumption of energy, building materials and so forth. Yet reducing your environmental impact by going tiny is not as simple as some have claimed.

I came across several tiny households that were using external storage spaces for items that wouldn’t fit in the home, for example. Referred to as a “dirty secret” by one interviewee, another explained her desire to keep items from her previous home in case she changed her mind about tiny living.

Over half of my interviewees had a “one in, one out” mentality, where they would throw away or donate one item to make space for something new. As one dweller in her late 30s, who lives in a state-of-the-art home in a caravan park in rural New Hampshire, said, “I have a TJ Maxx addiction. I still go out every couple months and buy a bunch of stuff then come home and decide which things to get rid of.”

Regardless of how tiny living is marketed by the enthusiasts, sustainability was not a major driver for most of the participants in my study. Instead it was almost an afterthought. It seemingly takes more than changing the size of a home to change the mentality of the people who live inside.

One reason (among many) that Americans live in large houses is in order to store all their stuff. Having a smaller dwelling does not necessarily mean that the resident will get rid of all their stuff or reduce their consumption. Because there are so many options for storing stuff, it can be easy to keep all that stuff. (Side note: I could imagine future communities of tiny houses or tiny house living quarters surrounding larger community facilities like kitchens and entertaining spaces that include storage facilities or warehouses on site.)

Furthermore, the American economy needs people to buy things and American culture celebrates buying more (and buying bigger things). There are occasional calls to curb consumption – or at least pare down the number of things one has – yet they put limited dents in the overall patterns

Perhaps the bigger change will come over time. Imagine someone who has lived in a tiny house for a decade or more. Will they still keep their stuff in a storage unit wondering if they will move to a larger dwelling? Will they learn to live without all that stuff and get rid of it? Or, imagine a kid who grows up in a tiny house. Maybe they will be less inclined to have a lot of items around given their familiarity with smaller spaces and the reduced availability of items.

Fox Business defines a McMansion, misses teardowns and broader social patterns

McMansions are still alive and well – or at least in public conversation – if news sources are still trying to define them. Here is a recent definition on the Fox Business web site:

McMansion is a term that refers to a large house — typically in a suburban neighborhood — that looks like every other house in the neighborhood. The style was popularized during the 1980s and 1990s.

Their structures typically follows a similar pattern, as noted by Curbed, including a central core with a multistory entryway, a side wing and a garage wing.

According to real estate website Trulia, they tend to range between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet, or 1.5 to 2.5 times larger than the median-sized new home in 2000…

The word is a play on McDonalds items, indicating the homes are generic and mass-produced.

The definition above cites a Curbed article but it should really point to the author of that piece, Kate Wagner, creator of McMansion Hell. From the beginning of that piece, here is Wagner’s one sentence definition:

The typical McMansion follows a formula: It’s large, cheaply constructed, and architecturally sloppy.

These definitions do indeed get at two traits of McMansions: their size, larger than normal, and their architecture and construction, generally poor quality and mass produced. But, I argue the definitions are missing two important traits:

  1. Some McMansions are teardowns, large homes on relatively small lots within neighborhoods with smaller homes. Here, the absolute size is less important than comparative size. And these kinds of homes could appear in urban, suburban, and more rural settings.
  2. McMansions are connected to broader issues or concerns about American society, including sprawl and excessive consumption. This means that a lot of homes that might not technically fit the definition of a McMansion or might not appear on McMansion Hell could be part of broader patterns of McMansion like homes.

McMansion is a broadly used term but does not necessarily mean or refer to the same thing when different actors use the term. Big house? Yes. But, not the biggest houses and big might be relative. Problematic architecture and construction? Yes. But, not the only homes that might suffer from this (depending on who is examining the homes) and connected to larger American issues.

A nation beholden to cars: a record number of pedestrians die in US in 2019

A new report highlights the dangers to pedestrians in the United States:

Based on data from the first six months of 2019, the Governors Highway Safety Association predicts there were 6,590 pedestrian deaths that year, which would be a 5 percent increase over the 6,227 pedestrian deaths in 2018.

The 2019 figure is the highest number of such deaths in more than 30 years, according to the association…

While there’s been a significant increase in pedestrian deaths over the past decade, the number of all other traffic deaths increased by only 2 percent…

“Following 30 years of declining pedestrian fatalities, there has been a complete reversal of progress,” Retting said in the release. “Pedestrians are at an inherent disadvantage in collisions, and we must continue to take a broad approach to pedestrian safety.”

While there are particular aspects of driving and pedestrian behavior that could be debated and addressed, there is a larger point that can be made with such data: the priority on American roadways goes to vehicles. This has been the case for decades and will continue to be the case for years to come. While efforts to make streets more amenable to walkers and bikers, these efforts are often limited to only a few areas. The goal of roadways in many places, included dense, populated areas, is to move as many vehicles as quickly as possible to where drivers want to go.  Tackling specific issues may help reduce the number of deaths but still leave the larger problem: Americans like cars and driving and our lives are often organized around driving.