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Sarah Palin and John Winthrop

The conception of America as the "city upon a hill" was not the handiwork of Ronald Reagan, or indeed of any other paladin of the Republican Party.
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"But even more important is that world view that I share with John McCain. That world view that says that America is a nation of exceptionalism. And we are to be that shining city on a hill, as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope and that we are unapologetic here. We are not perfect as a nation. But together, we represent a perfect ideal. And that is democracy and tolerance and freedom and equal rights."

-- Governor Sarah Palin, October 2, 2008

In a debate filled with eminently forgettable blather, here we have a statement of genuine importance -- a text that demands analysis. Where to begin?

Perhaps by noting the origins of this world view to which Governor Palin refers. The conception of America as the "city upon a hill" was not the handiwork of Ronald Reagan, or indeed of any other paladin of the Republican Party. Rather, John Winthrop, founding governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, first voiced the conviction that God had summoned the people of the New World - or at least those settling in New England - to serve as a model for all humankind.

Speaking in Boston Harbor to a small assembly of Puritans preparing to disembark from the ship Arabella in 1630, Winthrop announced that "The eyes of all people are upon us." Should the members of his community fail in their anointed mission, a dire fate awaited them: "we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world."

Winthrop described the core of that mission with great specificity. It had little to do with values such as tolerance and equal rights, in which Winthrop had little interest. It had everything to do with forging a covenant with God, who had summoned the Puritans to create a Christian commonwealth. Mindful of that imperative, Winthrop explained

[W]e must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another's burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren... We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others' necessities. ... We must delight in each other; make others' conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.

To violate the terms of this covenant was to invite catastrophe: "[If] we shall neglect the observation of these articles," Winthrop continued,

and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.

Now there are three possibilities.

The first possibility is that God does not exist. In that case, the concept of American Exceptionalism first articulated by Winthrop, employed with great political effect by Ronald Reagan, and now endorsed by Sarah Palin, is simply nonsense - a fairy tale that may once have had a certain utility, but that in our own day has become simply pernicious. To persist in this nonsense is to make it impossible either to see ourselves as we really are or to see the world as it actually is.

The second possibility is that God exists, but that he has not singled out Americans as his new Chosen People. Indeed, consult Scripture and it becomes apparent that God himself has not spoken directly on the matter. In that case, Winthrop, Reagan, and Palin are remarkably presumptuous in claiming to interpret God's purposes and will. Further investigation might be in order - perhaps consulting with priests, ministers, rabbis, imams to see what they have to say on the matter.

The third possibility is that God exists and has indeed singled out America as his New Israel. In that event, John Winthrop's charge of 1630 demands urgent attention - not least of all his warning of what will befall America should it be seduced by earthly concerns and carnal desires and tend too much to superfluities.

Today no doubt, the eyes of all people are indeed on the United States - what happens here affects the world. Yet many of those who observe us don't like what they see. The question for Governor Palin and for other believers committed to the concept of American exceptionalism is this: have we kept the Lord's covenant? If not, perhaps the time has come to mend our ways before it's too late.

Who knows? The sound you hear even now on Wall Street may be God's wrath breaking out against us.

Andrew J. Bacevich is the author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.