Mark Tooley shared these remarks to a class at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, on February 26, 2020.

America was founded initially by British Protestants, many of whom saw Britain as a specially called out nation to champion true religion and liberty against continental Catholicism. The spirit of England’s Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 transmitted through them. Britain was a refuge for religiously persecuted refugees, especially fleeing Protestants like the Huguenots. 

Many of the earliest Americans saw themselves as a covenantal nation, perhaps an almost New Israel, directly accountable to God, judged by God, and set apart specially by Him to exemplify high standards to the world. Days of prayer and fasting were declared by the earliest even heterodox presidents. They saw America having a global mission to exemplify and even promote democracy, which it connected to Christianity, the Bible and Protestantism.

Puritan leader John Winthrop preached “A Model of Christian Charity” in 1630 at Holyrood Church in Southampton before his Massachusetts Bay colonists embarked on the ship Arbella to settle Boston. Winthrop warned his fellow Puritans that their new community would be “as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” based on Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

If the Puritans failed to uphold their covenant with God, then their sins and errors would be exposed for all the world to see: “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.”

Mid-twentieth-century historian Perry Miller helped popularize Winthrop’s warning. But it was further popularized when JFK cited it in his 1961 speech at The State House in Boston:

But I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill – the eyes of all people are upon us. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us – and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill – constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.  For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arabella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan referred to the same event and image in his Election Eve Address “A Vision for America:”

I have quoted John Winthrop’s words more than once on the campaign trail this year—for I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining “city on a hill,” as were those long ago settlers… These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still… a shining city on a hill.

And in his 1989 farewell speech to the nation Reagan again cited Winthrop: 

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.

“City on a Hill” is commonly associated with American Exceptionalism, which in recent years has been often derided by the Left and championed by the Right. It has become popular for segments of US Christianity to denounce Exceptionalism as idolatrous, without understanding that Exceptionalism, properly understood, especially if tied to “City on a Hill,” is not about arrogant self-exaltation but a call to embody inspirationally high standards ultimately rooted in the Gospel. Typically critics of Exceptionalism are themselves unconsciously Exceptionalist, having expectations and standards for America not levied on any other nation.

It’s fair to say that America’s DNA from the start was Exceptionalist, based on its religious self-understanding, which was central to its foreign policy, especially as it pursued Manifest Destiny in seeking a transcontinental United States. 

Some critics of Exceptionalism, which they construe to mean interventionism, like to cite John Quincy Adams on July 4, 1821:

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

But Adams clearly was an Exceptionalist as he portrayed the “eternal truths” of the Declaration of Independence as a spiritual apotheosis for the whole world:

It stands, and must forever stand alone, a beacon on the summit of the mountain, to which all the inhabitants of the earth may turn their eyes for a genial and saving light, till time shall be lost in eternity, and this globe itself dissolve, nor leave a wreck behind. It stands forever, a light of admonition to the rulers of men; a light of salvation and redemption to the oppressed. So long as this planet shall be inhabited by human beings, so long as man shall be of social nature, so long as government shall be necessary to the great moral purposes of society, and so long as it shall be abused to the purposes of oppression, so long shall this declaration hold out to the sovereign and to the subject the extent and the boundaries of their respective rights and duties; founded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God.

So this very lofty religious conception of America as unique and holy in its liberties and democracy was paramount although it did not necessarily mandate non-interventionism. Adams obviously conceived the Monroe Doctrine and supported Andrew Jackson’s incursion into Spanish Florida.

Several decades later religious concepts and rhetoric backed the Mexican–American War as an opportunity for Anglo-Protestant democracy to prevail against what was viewed as Latin Catholic tyranny and superstition.

Most US Protestants saw the Mexican regime as autocratic and beholden to Catholic superstition. Its defeat would open Mexico to Protestant evangelism along with democratic republican principles.

An official northern Methodist periodical in 1846 noted that wars “come of man’s lust, his inordinate desire of power, distinction, and wealth,” but also God could force the “wrath of man to praise him” by making wars “subservient to his great and ultimate purposes of mercy to the family of man.” As with the Opium Wars, God could use an “unjust war” to reach souls “heretofore shut up in heathen darkness, and the grossest and most demoralizing superstition.” The church journal opined that through war “God [had] designs of mercy toward the people of Mexico and its dependencies,” with uplift from “a religious, as well as civil point of view,” so that the “blessings of civil and religious liberty may be diffused over the provinces conquered by our armies.” 

An 1846 northern Methodist sermon admitted that the war was terrible but prosecuted with an “enlightened, humane and liberal policy of our government” and would “bring the great body of the Mexican People under the influence and training of American Institutions.” Similarly, an official southern Methodist journal argued in 1847 that God was using the war for “the advancement of Society and the ultimate benefit of the world.” Another southern Methodist article in 1848 argued, “the present war of the two republics will end in a toleration of Protestantism throughout the land of the Aztecs.”

These religious arguments from church leaders and politicians were again deployed for the Spanish–American War, when America was again portrayed as God’s instrument in peace. Similar to the Mexican–American War, many American Protestants saw the corrupt Spanish Empire as barbarous and superstitious and believed that American intervention would save lives and open the doors for social progress, including conversion to Protestantism.

William McKinley was America’s most devout Methodist president, and Protestant thinking no doubt influenced his seizure of the Philippines at least as he explained to visiting clergy in 1899. After praying in the White House, he resolved that “there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.”

After McKinley’s assassination, McKinley was hailed at the northern Methodist General Conference for having “commanded armies, declared wars, overthrown kingdoms, crushed tyrants, and lifted up the downtrodden,” while celebrating that war globally was “becoming unpopular” thanks to spreading “Christian civilization.”

This reference to war becoming unpopular was a harbinger in that US Protestantism in the early twentieth century began to shift toward pacifism and skepticism about American expansionism and interventionism. William Jennings Bryan, the outspokenly Protestant populist politician and three times Democratic presidential candidate, embodied this shift. The territories procured by the Spanish–American War amplified concerns about empire, occupation and colonial wars. Christian opinion largely upheld Wilson’s long refusal to enter WWI. Wilson himself was a Presbyterian, the son of a minister, who saw his politics as the Gospel transfigured into statecraft.

A penchant for interventionism and universalism is now described as Wilsonian. But he synthesized and articulated what was already long in the American religious and political bloodstream, which was the vision for a Christianized largely Protestantized global order of rules, peace, and equity, in which America would be leader. It was Presbyterianism on a global scale. The League of Nations was already a topic of conversation before America entered the war.

The 1916 General Conference of northern Methodism endorsed a League of Nations that would “protect weak peoples from outrage and oppression and restrain strong peoples from breaking the peace of the world.” They intoned, “If America should now seek to save her life by withholding her service, she would lose her life, and deserve to lose it. Under the inspiration of leadership of the Christian host within its borders, this nation should stand for the righteousness of the Sermon on the Mount in all national and international affairs.”

WWI was the last conflict in which American religion was enthusiastically pro-war and patriotic, with even self-professed Christian pacifists justifying force of arms.

Methodist Bishop R.J. Cooke of Montana said, “We are in the war in order that righteousness shall prevail upon God’s earth.” Minnesota Bishop Charles Baird Mitchell announced, “I am a pacifist, but I have suspended my pacifism until we get the Kaiser. I am opposed to war, but I am not opposed to this war.” Moreover, Methodism, like other Protestant denominations, supported Wilson’s proposed League of Nations. Georgia Bishop Warren A. Candler asserted in 1919 that church opposition to it “would be treason to their Lord.” Churches are not pacifists, he readily admitted. But they must “lend all their influence to any reasonable plan to make as nearly impossible as may be the repetition of such a hideous chapter in human history.”

The horrors of the war fueled a more robust pacifism and a de facto isolationism that echoed and reinforced wider American opinion. Protestants in the 1920s supported disarmament treaties and the Kellogg–Briand Pact banning all war. But during the 1930s these peace initiatives collapsed amid the rise of Nazi Germany and militarist Japan. Protestants represented much of American opinion in continuing to reject war.

In 1936, the northern Methodist General Conference declared, “The threats of war in the world today are so grave that we feel called upon to restate our convictions,” which were that Methodism “does not endorse, support, or purpose to participate in war,” hoping for “non-violent methods of overcoming evil.” The northern bishops admitted the League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, among other anti-war measures, had “shattered.” But they still insisted that “advocates of war” are “on the defensive, as never before.” They asserted, “Idealism dwells with the pacifists,” and surmised that any “militarist” who quits Methodism because of its “peace pronouncements” has “none other refuge” within Protestantism. They lamented an increase in US military spending. And they warned that another world war would fuel “communistic experiments and bullying dictatorships.”

In 1940, Methodism’s bishops predicted the war in Europe would bankrupt the “so-called Western civilizations.” And they faulted the war on the basis of the “intensity and extent of this twentieth-century nationalism,” without naming any ideologies like Nazism. The bishops denounced the “war system,” which entails “atheism, materialism, barbarism, and diabolism.” They observed approvingly that more Christians were becoming conscientious objectors, with support from Methodism for their “exaltation of a Christian value.” The bishops wondered if a “world-federation” would ensure future world peace, even if opposed by “jingoistic” and “self-centered patriotism.”

The 1940 Methodist General Conference resolved that the US “should remain out of the present conflicts in Europe and in the Far East,” and that Methodism not endorse, support, or participate in war,” as church members are “divided” over “what a Christian should do when his own nation becomes involved in war.” Delegates also endorsed a “moral embargo” against “aggressor nations,” primarily aimed at Japan.

Pearl Harbor obviously suffocated isolationism and pacifism, although the churches did operate supportive ministries for conscientious objectors. The 1944 General Conference of Methodism only very narrowly affirmed US participation in the war.

“We are well within the Christian position when we assert the necessity of the use of military forces to resist an aggression which would overthrow every right which is held sacred by civilized men,” read the pro-war minority report passed at the General Conference by 373 to 300. The clergy had voted for it by only 170 to 169, but the laity by 203 to 131. Delegates also approved a follow-up resolution declaring, “Christianity cannot be nationalistic” and that the “methods of Jesus and the methods of war belong to different worlds.” It concluded, “The church must rise in its might and demand an international organization which will make another war impossible.”

Methodism’s bishops told the 1944 General Conference, “Multiplied thousands of the bravest young men and women of our Church are on battlefields in the ends of the earth struggling to preserve our liberty and protect our Christian ideals. By their suffering and sacrifice they are maintaining the principles of democracy and preserving the freedom of mankind. They are writing another golden page in the book of patriotism.”

Reference to an international organization was important. Churches made support for the UN central mission after WWII and often attached to it messianic hopes. In the late 1940s and 1950s, they largely backed US Cold War policies including the Korean War, and especially lamented the collapse of China and the consequent ouster of all US missionaries and closure of churches.

In the 1960s the Mainline churches radicalized and began to abandon their longtime role as pillars of American civic life, as they also began their over 50-year membership implosion. What began as opposition to the Vietnam War became ultimately sympathy if not support for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, leading to support for other Marxist liberationist movements around the world, and the demonization of American influence in the world. By the late 1980s, the only governments whose human rights abuses interested the Mainline churches were the US and Israel. In the 1990s the Mainline churches supported a World Council of Churches ongoing investigation of human rights abuses in the US, citing the 1994 election as evidence for the need.

By that time, Mainline was no longer mainstream, and Evangelicalism had largely displaced it as the primary form of religious expression in America. Starting in the 1960s, Evangelicals began replacing Mainliners as the main pillars of civil religion and Americanism, which included strong support for America’s Cold War leadership, Evangelicals having abandoned their previous strains of pacifism and political quietism. It was to the National Association of Evangelicals that Reagan gave his famous Evil Empire speech. And as Mainliners and more carefully Catholic bishops were renouncing nuclear weapons, the NAE hosted careful arguments in favor of deterrence. The Religious Right, beyond NAE, was arguably a key political pillar in the coalition facilitating the Reagan era rearmament of the 1980s and the robust policies that helped bring the Cold War to a close with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

Formal religious adherence is declining, but America’s longtime religious self-identity as a lodestar of democratic responsibility in the world continues unabashed. Across the spectrum, Americans, even the religiously agnostic, still operate off spiritual assumptions about America’s unique duties to model charity and virtue, repent of sins real and imagined, and provide goods and services to the globe as no other nation does. These expectations and demands are not always expressed coherently. A large segment of religious elites, including Evangelicals, now say they reject “empire” which they equate with America. And yet they still demand endless services from and exalted standards by this lamented empire, echoing “City on the Hill” expectations, if unconsciously.

American Exceptionalism, synthesized by New England Puritans, who carried its embers from post-Reformation Britain, continues as a spiritual enterprise. And American self-identity and foreign policy are inevitably deeply sharped by it, as they will be for countless generations to come. The intrinsic character of nations is the sum total of each nation’s culture, spirituality, and historical experiences. In this sense, America’s progression is always momentous but never very surprising.