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 In its own day, Winthrop’s sermon went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed.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

Can Americans elect a non-Christian president?

On President’s Day, Pew Research highlighted the religious faith of America’s presidents:

With the exception of Democrat Bernie Sanders (who is Jewish), all of the presidential hopefuls are Christians and most are Protestants.

In addition, all of the current presidential candidates have spoken openly about the importance of faith in their lives (again, with the exception of Sanders, who describes himself as “not particularly religious”). Our recent survey shows that many Americans care about their leaders’ faith. For instance, half of all American adults say that it’s important for a president to share their religious beliefs. And more people now say there is “too little” religious discussion by their political leaders (40%) than say there is “too much” (27%).

Historically, about a quarter of the presidents – including some of the nation’s most famous leaders, like George Washington, James Madison and Franklin Roosevelt – were members of the Episcopal Church, the American successor to the Church of England.

The next largest group of presidents were affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, which has roots in Scotland. Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, all of whom had Scots-Irish ancestry, were among the commanders in chief who belonged to the denomination.

Protestants have dominated the office yet just two denominations – Episcopalians and Presbyterians – have supplied nearly half (19 out of 43) of the presidents. Arguably, Americans might not care exactly what denomination or particular doctrinal beliefs a president has as long as they identify as a Christian. This may be part of American civil religion where particularities are not encouraged but a general Christian faith is helpful.

In a continuing trend, a sizable number of Americans say they are unwilling to vote for atheists for president though more younger voters are open to it:

As the 2016 presidential election field takes shape, more than nine in 10 Americans say they would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who is Catholic, a woman, black, Hispanic or Jewish. Less than half of Americans would vote for a candidate who is a socialist…

Among religious identities, while the large majority of Americans would vote for a Catholic or Jewish presidential candidate, smaller majorities say they would vote for a candidate who is Mormon (81%), an evangelical Christian (73%), Muslim (60%) or an atheist (58%)…

At least two-thirds of adults younger than 30 say they are willing to vote for a candidate with any of the characteristics included in the survey.

How this influences the 2016 election remains to be seen.

The quick rise and fall of “Pray for Boston” on social media

One early response to the Boston bombings on social media, “Pray for Boston,” quickly increased and then quickly faded. Here is one reaction and possible explanation:

It was jarring. There was the weirdness of seeing so many references to the divine in spaces normally reserved for vacation photos and article links and quips about the news. It was tempting to think that all the social-media-fueled “prayers for Boston” somehow degraded the idea of prayer. As one Facebook commenter wrote on the Pray for Boston page: “Do you want me to DEFINE prayer? A solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship. Prayer is solemn. Not a ‘like’ on facebook.”

It was also strange to see so many non-religious friends talking about prayer. The majority of my Facebook friends who wrote about praying aren’t especially observant. Maybe they go to church or synagogue on holidays, but not regularly—and they certainly don’t post about prayer under normal circumstances…

But I’m not sure that’s really what’s going on here. I don’t think the outpouring of post-Boston social-media prayer was fueled by a bunch of people who, in the face of tragedy, are suddenly eager to seek God. As Elizabeth Drescher writes in a well-done piece at Religion Dispatches, it didn’t take long for the “pray for Boston” meme to die; it was soon replaced by other, more practical sentiments. I noticed that, too. Here it is in graph form—check out how quickly the phrase “pray for Boston” surged on Twitter on Monday, and then how quickly it fell…

Drescher believes #PrayforBoston rose and fell so quickly because the prayers were never really about religion in the first place. They were more reflections of temporary anxiety and sadness than a lasting call to pursue belief:

I’ll throw out two related ideas:

1. Perhaps expressing prayer for victims of tragedy is an updated feature of civil religion in the United States. After tragic events, particularly deaths, it is common for politicians, media figures, and others to say something like “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” This is a shorthand for saying we care about the victims and are hoping for the best for them. Invoking prayer is a generic idea (such phrases are not explicitly about praying to “the Christian God” or Jesus) and works pretty well in a society where 80-90% still believe in God or a higher power. In other words, it is like saying “God bless America” at the end of major political speeches – it is a reference to religion but runs little risk of offending people and taps into some transcendent ideas about ourselves and the United States.

2. It is relatively rare to see sustained expressions of religious faith on social media. While most Americans still have some sort of religious or spiritual belief, social media tends to frown on such expressions. Perhaps this is related to the idea of Moral Therapeutic Deism as found and defined by sociologist Christian Smith – what may work religiously for you is fine as long as you don’t impose your values on me and “force” me to see this on my Facebook or Twitter feed may simply be too much. At the same time, just the fact that this social media meme even started at all indicates some kind of religious background of the users.

Sociologist: seasonal or occasional church attenders will decide the fate of organized religion in Canada

A Canadian sociologist argues that the fate of organized religion in Canada will be decided those who attend church occasionally:

Indeed, a new report finds rumours of the death of religion have been greatly exaggerated, with national data suggesting about 12 million Canadians will attend church this long weekend. And it’s the unfamiliar faces — the 30 per cent who attend either monthly or seasonally — who will have the biggest influence on organized religion going forward, according to Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociologist.

“Numerically-speaking, they will determine who constitutes a majority: people who embrace faith, or those who reject it,” said Bibby, who’s been studying religious trends since the mid-1970s.

“At this point in time, about 60 per cent say they’re open to greater involvement if they can find it worthwhile for themselves and their families. Which direction they go will depend largely on whether or not religious groups can demonstrate the value of greater involvement.”

National data, released by Statistics Canada’s general social survey and analyzed by Bibby, suggests the core 20 per cent of weekly church attendees will be joined this Easter by many of the 10 per cent of monthly attendees and a good number of the 20 per cent of seasonal attendees.

Interesting argument: these occasional attendees are like swing voters, capable of creating a majority if they continue to attend occasionally. Presumably, if this group stopped attending at all, religion could lose some social influence.

I’m intrigued by this statement: the “direction they go will depend largely on whether or not religious groups can demonstrate the value of greater involvement.” Are religious groups prepared to tackle this question? Which church approach works the best in addressing this group of occasional attendees.

How much does this describe the situation in the United States? Depending on what figures you look at, roughly 30-40% of Americans regularly attend church even as many more claim to be “spiritual” or “believe in God.” Generally, how willing are non-church attending yet spiritual Americans willing to talk about and/or defend religion in the public sphere?

My thoughts about Tim Tebow in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos get set to play the Pittsburgh Steelers later today, I’m cited in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discussing why Tebow has gotten so much attention:

The faith of most players and coaches doesn’t get the attention that Mr. Tebow’s has, however. What is it about him that has drawn so much attention and controversy?

One thing may be how visible Mr. Tebow is, said Brian Miller, an assistant professor of sociology at Wheaton College, a well-known evangelical school in Illinois. His practice of singing gospel songs while on the sidelines, taking a knee in prayer at the conclusion of the game, thanking Jesus Christ in postgame interviews and telling reporters “God bless,” before leaving all are hard to ignore.

“I think that ties to his outspokenness,” Mr. Miller said. “Any time someone talks about religion that strongly, people will react strongly.”

By contrast, players like Mr. Polamalu are quieter in the way they signal their faith or discuss it.

“When he crosses himself, he isn’t really talking to anybody, he’s not necessarily on camera,” said Mr. Miller.

The concept of “civil religion” helps explain the reaction to Mr. Tebow, Mr. Miller said. Civil religion is a term used in the sociology of religion field, he said, in which “you can invoke God sort of vaguely in American life” without spurring many objections. Examples would be a politician saying “God bless America” at the end of the speech or the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

But “when you get to specifics, like mentioning Jesus,” you have crossed a boundary from the socially acceptable “generic Christian culture” and into the realm where people become uncomfortable, or angry, Mr. Miller said.

Here are several additional thoughts about why Tebow has gotten so much attention:

1. Tebow is a young player and no one quite knows what to make of him: is he legit NFL quarterback? Can he win consistently? Can he replicate or even come close to the success he had in college at Florida? Do the Denver Broncos even want him to start next year or two years down the road? I would guess that since he is young and unproven, other players and some fans might take offense at his outspokenness because he hasn’t earned the right to do this yet. The social norms in professional sports are that younger players have to earn respect. He is not the first to be outspoken about his faith: Kurt Warner said some similar things and yet, while people did complain about him as well, Warner was a Super Bowl MVP and Super Bowl winner.

2. He is the star of the moment. Sports today are driven by stars and in particularly by quarterbacks in the NFL. Since Tebow was winning at one point, he got a lot of attention just as any new quarterback might. The fact that ESPN wanted to dedicate an entire Sportscenter to him says something about Tebow but also indicative of how sports journalism works these days.

Put it all together and it is a perfect storm of sports celebrity. And depending on the outcome of today’s game, the Tebow craze will either intensify (meaning the Broncos win) or slowly fade away (as other teams get more attention moving forward in the playoffs).

The Presidents who can’t go to church

Much has been made of American’s desire for the President to have religious faith and/or attend church. But what happens if the hoopla that comes with the President going anywhere means that they can’t go to church?

It’s hard to imagine any future President being able to attend church–much less teach Sunday School–without an attendant hullabaloo. And that’s too bad. The men and women we put in that office will confront serious questions on life-and-death issues and find themselves under enormous amounts of stress. For those for whom religion has been important, it could be helpful to have the outlet of a congregation where they could reflect and be renewed. The individuals who serve as President give up many personal freedoms in order to do so. A community of worship shouldn’t have to be one of them.

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Tracking President Obama’s “God talk”

Decades after the sociologist Robert Bellah introduced the term “civil religion,” academics are continuing to track how politicians talk about religion in the public sphere. Here is an overview of how President Obama is increasing his use of religious language in recent days:

President Obama is “ramping up his ‘God talk’ for the re-election campaign,” says political scientist John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life.

But Green and two other experts who track religious rhetoric in presidential politics speculate this strategy to connect with evangelical voters may not work for Obama…

These kinds of God mentions won’t move the dial for conservative evangelicals but, Green says, they could be just right for ambivalent voters who “don’t want a hard-edged faith shaping national politics.”…

Questioning someone’s religious sincerity is totally a factor of whether you already like that person. Baylor University sociologist Paul Froese says,

If Obama held a prayer rally, it would never work. People who don’t like him won’t believe him.

I wonder how the average American would react to this article. On one hand, the argument here is that appealing to audiences with the “right” religious language matters for votes. On the other hand, is this simply ammunition to make some people more cynical about the use of religious language in election seasons? Politicians have to walk a fine line of appearing sincere but not too exclusive so as to alienate potential voters.

More seriously, this will continue to matter in the months ahead as Americans get longer looks at Republican challengers (and the article contrasts Rick Perry’s approach to religious language). I hope we will continue to get updates on this from these same academics.

Interview with sociologist Robert Bellah about faith, evolution, and religion

Here is an interesting conversation with sociologist of religion Robert Bellah in advance of a new book.

A few little tidbits:

  • On his popular work regarding civil religion in America:

I wrote an article on religious evolution which was published in 1964, but I got hijacked by America. That was the problem with my “Civil Religion in America” essay—it got such an enormous response at a time when things were pretty critical, towards the end of the Vietnam War. I never intended to work on America but then I got hauled into America for decades…

  • On play and how this plays out in his own experiences:

Play is a very elusive idea because it comes in so many forms. It’s hard entirely to put them all under one category. Johan Huizinga’s work was a great help to me, because he makes a strong argument that ritual emerges out of play. I’m a practicing Episcopalian and they call Sunday School “holy play,” which seems to me a little bit cuckoo but there’s some sense to it; in a sense what we’re doing in the liturgy is a kind of play, a profound play.

  • On his philosophical approach:

I respect Nietzsche—he’s a genius—but the last thing in the world I am is a Nietzschean. If you want to place me philosophically I would be in the tradition of Kant and Hegel and perhaps in contemporary life, the two first blurbs on the back of my book: Jurgen Habermas is a Kantian and Charles Taylor was a Hegelian. That would be where I stand.

  • On looking to the future:

If you look at the conclusion you’ll know I end on a fairly somber note, the “sixth great extinction,” and so on. I think our cultural change has sped up to the point where it really is surpassing our evolutionary capacities for dealing with it. We need to be aware of where we came from, because that tells us who we are. And there are things that don’t change, there are things we need to hold on to. We think, criticize, reapply, but we can’t imagine that the latest technological development is going to solve everything. We need to understand the past out of which we came and in particular the great Axial traditions which are still alive to us. Good philosophers read Plato not as historical texts of the past but as words that speak to them and have something to say to them. Aristotle’s ethics are taken seriously as one of the great alternatives to philosophical ethics today. So these Axial figures are still around and may help us. We certainly need help, as we don’t seem to be doing very well. So this book is again a plea for rooting ourselves in an understanding of the deep past.

Based on this short conversation, this new book sounds like Bellah is taking the chance to take a broad overview of religion and step up an analytical level from the earlier work he has done.

A sociologist assesses the Canadian religious landscape

A Canadian sociologist discusses whether Canadian religion has gone down the path of European secularization or has charted a different course:

For years, almost everyone has assumed that religion in Canada has been in a participation free fall. In the mid-1940s, our national weekly attendance level of 60 per cent was higher than that of the United States. When it dipped to 25 per cent in the mid-1980s, many felt it was en route to European-like levels of under 10 per cent.

Actually, that active core of 20 per cent to 25 per cent has not changed very much. The participation losses of mainline Protestants and Quebec Catholics have been offset by the gains of Catholics elsewhere, evangelical Protestants, and other groups, led by Muslims…

These mixed findings about the stability and decline of religion are best summed up as polarization rather than relentless secularization. Simultaneously, the percentage of Canadians who value religion remains sizable and stable, while growing numbers are living life without the gods…

Religion is important for many but, as we all know, large numbers of Canadians are spiritual but not religious.

The research does suggest, however, that growing polarization will produce two casualties. First, while people obviously can be “good without God,” belief in God helps. Religion typically tries to instill interpersonal values such as compassion, honesty, civility and forgiveness. In its absence, we will need to find some effective functional options. Second, religion frequently provides people with a unique sense of hope as they confront death. To the extent Canadians say goodbye to the gods, most will say goodbye to such hope – an admirable decision if the gods are an illusion, an unnecessary and costly choice if the reverse is true.

I must admit that I don’t know much about religion north of the US border. But in some sense, these conclusions don’t sound too different from recent thoughts from Mark Chaves about American religion: some religious decline over time but still a sizable amount of people practicing religion or spirituality.

While both of the possible consequences of religious polarization are at the individual level, it would be interesting to hear about the changing role of religion in Canadian public life. It is suggested in the first paragraph that religion is barely playing a role in a national election. If more individual Canadians are not religious or spiritual, what does this mean for public discourse or values? Is there a Canadian civil religion similar to American civil religion?