In John Winthrop’s sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, Winthrop creates a working model for Christian love (i.e. charity), which will serve as a functional model for the moral moderation of colony life in Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony, a colony of which he lived to be a leading member.
In his sermon, Winthrop expresses a need for communitarian solidarity, saying that “every man might have need of others, and from hence they might all be knitt more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection” (34). This sense of warm togetherness is devoutly Christian, as Winthrop asserts the pertinence of the command which asks one to “love his neighbor as himself,” notably because the neighbor is “the same flesh and image of God,” being “a brother in Christ allsoe” (35).
In Winthrop’s view, the Massachusetts Bay Colony is ordained by God, protected with spiritual essence endowed by a holy covenant, enshrined in Christian love and charity. If a failure is to occur, it is a spiritual one: “but if wee shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends wee have propounded, [we] shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnall intentions” (46). If blight and suffering is to come, it is because “the Lord will surely breake out in wrathe against [them]” (46). For Winthrop, the safety and security of this colony is dependent on the adherence to the Christian ideology of self-less love. In this way, the failure of this ‘Christian experiment,’ properly denoted as the “city upon a hill,” will echo throughout the world, given that the “eies of all people are uppon [them” (47). For Winthrop and his guild, their failure would not only be a failure for themselves, but for Christ and all of Christendom.
In this way, I do not believe that Winthrop was “expressing a faith in American exceptionalism;” rather, I think he was cautiously wary about what might happen in the case of failure. For the colony, Christian ideology works as a binding gel, drawing together the people as one collective force for their mutual survival. Winthrop’s portrayal of a city upon a hill is a collectivist one, united within a Christian moral framework and the sacking of the city on the hill, created and structured by Christian love, would resound throughout the world, Christian or otherwise.
In modern American society, we would like to be united—in the same extent—under our nationality, our statehood, or our Bill of Rights, yet representation, respect, and collectivism is an uphill battle, especially in modern American politics. The use of this phrase within politics, such as Obama’s and Reagan’s application, is an interesting rhetorical choice, given that the political arena has been reduced to a binary: red/blue, conservative/liberal, terms which for some mean right/wrong, good/evil. We are not collectivist, united in Christian charity for our fellow American. In reality, modern politics would have us think the opposite is true.
One comparison to Winthrop, however, has a clarity that is almost crystalline. We are a city upon a hill in that we are still a nation on the world stage: a brave attempt at creating some form of populist democracy—the extents of which are of course debatable. We have made a path towards unity when our nation is defined by difference: geographical, religious, ideological, and cultural. Although we are not a nation binded by the romanticism of Christian charity, we are a nation glued by the shakiest, uncertain form of nationalism ever imagined, and for that, we are a nation on the tallest hill imaginable.