The City upon the Hill in an Age of Donald Trump

Colonial New England has given America the tradition of election sermons. On the day of the annual elections for office, the representatives gathered in the colonial capitols. Each year, a minister was chosen to preach to the retiring and newly elected officials. The clergy had to connect whatever text the lectionary called for with a reflection on the foundations of government.

While I was in Germany last week, watching the American election from afar, the Lutheran lectionary called for Micah 6:6-8 as text:

"With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

Micah is one of the social prophets of the Hebrew Bible. In this passage, he is rejecting the practice of sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem. He is harshly criticizing all the attention paid to the excesses of worship, while people are numb towards the social injustices in front of them. In the history of Israel, Micah, like the prophets Amos and Isaiah, stepped to the fore while the political and religious institutions steered towards crisis. The social prophets reminded the rich and powerful of their responsibilities, called for repentance and contemplation, and urged all citizens to live according to the principles spelled out in the covenant between God and Israel at Mount Sinai. In the Bible, those prophets become God's voice to correct a society out of whack. Jesus of Nazareth, too, is one of those biblical prophets standing up for social justice and responsibility. And six hundred years after him, Muhammad will renew their call on the Arab Peninsula.

The last verse of this passage in Micah 6:6-8 also happens to be a key verse in the history of religion in America. The verse plays an important role in America's self-perception. It leads back to the year 1630, when a group of pious Calvinists sailed from England to North America. Guided by their flagship Arbella, these pious Pilgrim fathers and mothers left England with the intention to freely live their faith in the new world. Boxed in between state church and English monarchy, they longed for more space to truly follow their religion. The Pilgrims wanted to build a society centered around the word and rules of the God of the Bible. They decided to leave the European world and its institutions behind to become American immigrants. They were desperate to start over again. No walls could have stopped them.

The famous sermon delivered on deck of the Arbella by John Winthrop, who later became governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, shaped these immigrants' imaginations and intentions, and provided moral language as they forged their new model community. In this sermon, Winthrop used the verse from Micah 6:8 to qualify two other verses from the Bible: Ephesians 4:3 ("keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace") and Matthew 5:14 in which Jesus approaches his followers as "light of the world" that shines like "a city that is set on a hill." For Winthrop, the Puritan Pilgrims are that light of the world. His phrase, "for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill," became one of the most influential biblical quotations in the American political vocabulary.

The sermon laid out the moral ground work of a society organized around responsibility, justice, and community. The Pilgrims were called to "do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God" - just like Micah had once urged. Winthrop also reminded the people aboard the Arbella that they had to be "knit together in this work as one man," and had to "hold each other in brotherly affection." Faith, Winthrop assured his congregation, had immediate social consequences by shaping the believers' sentiments and their attitude towards each other. So the Pilgrims work in the new world had to be based on "meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality." They were supposed to strive together in the spirit of peaceful commonality to "make others' conditions our own and rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together." The people sought to become one exemplary community "always having before our eyes our commission and common work, our community as members of the same body."

Though the Puritans themselves fell short of this "liberality" and "brotherly affection" towards other dissenters, the biblical imagery and this sketch of a Christian social utopia stuck. Generations of Americans have drew on the sermon in an attempt to shape society according to ideas of social justice, tolerance, and community. Winthrop's sermon soon became an obligatory read in many school curricula. Scores of Americans have pointed to Winthrop's sermon to maintain an exceptional role of the United States among the nations. As stated by Harvard literary scholar Sacvan Bercovitch, Winthrop's sermon is a "cultural key-text" from "colonial times to our own" and through "all forms of discourse."

In the 20th century, the phrase "city upon the hill" became a popular image to remind Americans of that uniqueness. The image no longer described a small group of pious people, but it became common coinage for the pluralistic melting pot. John F. Kennedy used it in his farewell address to the State Legislature of Massachusetts in 1961. Bill Clinton drew on it in his commencement address at Portland State University in 1998. But it was Ronald Reagan especially who repeatedly worked with the image in his speeches and directly related it to the diverse American nation. For Ronald Reagan, adding some more glitz, America was now the "shining" city upon a hill, "where people of all kinds lived in harmony and peace" as he reminded his fellow citizens in his farewell address of 1989.

Yet curiously, while the image of a "city upon the hill" has enjoyed a vibrant career in American political rhetoric, its preceding and qualifying passages from Micah are almost but forgotten. Micah's prophetic admonition has disappeared from America's collective memory.

In the age of Donald Trump, America still strives to look like a shining city. But with the republican candidate for president, the emphasis is on theatrics, deal making, and deal breaking, while "meekness," "gentleness," "patience," and "liberality," invite withering scorn and condescension. As Trump explained in his The Art of the Deal, "people want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular." For the master of hyperbole and bravado, everything is about the façade of greatness. Yet the closer one looks, the more one realizes that goodness is often better than greatness, certainly when it comes to be an exemplary city worthy of the world's appreciation and admiration.

One is left to wonder why such amnesia has taken place. No doubt, reflection about the principles of a just society fits poorly with the expansionist idea of a global superpower. No doubt, America's haves do not like to hear too often that their wealth and security are not only built on but also breaking the backs of the increasing rolls of have nots. And, no doubt, the cancer of racism keeps too many willing or able to see that gross inequities along racial and ethnic lines call America's democratic institutions into question.

In this election season in America, high idealism has gone missing. Hillary Clinton cannot muster it while fighting against an opponent who lacks empathy and thinks this makes him a "winner." Instead of idealism, America gets an airspace filled with boasts of sexually assaulting women, and mockery--when not hate speech--against immigrants, Muslims, and people with disabilities. Where is Winthrop's prophetic voice audible over the shrieks and vitriol in an age of Trump?

It's high time to reinstate the election sermon tradition in the spirit of early America. Maybe then America's pastors, rabbis, and imams can remind the candidates for political office of the high moral ideals at America's beginning, and help them find ways to be realized in our 21st-century world. It's the moral idea of an America that transcended material abundance and power. It's the idea of an America that is strengthened by its diversity, social justice, and tolerance. A gilded city with a flashing "Trump" sign towering over its inhabitants is a far cry from the city upon a hill that once inspired Winthrop, countless school kids, and political leaders on both ends of the political spectrum.

Once the elections are over, Americans should think very hard about the ways they intend to live together and with the rest of the world in the years to come. Winthrop's interpretation of Micah can offer helpful advice. Even if Americans are no longer a pious community on voyage to another world, they are still called by the prophetical voice of its beginnings. They are called to imagine themselves anew with humility and patience as one community that practices tolerance and social justice. They are called to remember that the Pilgrim settlers came as immigrants who aimed to build a society around a moral center.

Winthrop's sermon is still as lively as it was aboard the Arbella. His rendering of Micah still calls on Americans to reach out to one another as members of one great community. Though this message does not provide too much glitz and shine, such message is sorely needed during this election season and after.