Matthew 5:14 Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
Just one verse of perhaps the most stream-of-consciousness-what-it-means-to-follow-Christ passages offered straight from the-Son-of-God’s lips to man’s ears.
This thought was foundational to the birth of the American colonies (I have edited the text for easier reading):
…for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; 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, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God’s sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into Curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whether we are going…
Unfortunately, America has taken to the form of only one tidbit from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and none of the substance. In any case, who is John Winthrop?
John Winthrop (12 January 1587/88 – 26 March 1649) was an English Puritan lawyer and one of the leading figures in founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the second major settlement in New England, following Plymouth Colony. Winthrop led the first large wave of immigrants from England in 1630 and served as governor for 12 of the colony's first 20 years. His writings and vision of the colony as a Puritan "city upon a hill" dominated New England colonial development, influencing the governments and religions of neighboring colonies.
Over the course of several months, I have listened to a series of interviews of Michael Vlahos by John Batchelor; Vlahos speaks of this idea of the United States as the redeemer nation. Who is Michael Vlahos?
Michael Vlahos, PhD, has taught in the Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences since 2011. He is a professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the US Naval War College, a position he has held since 2010.
A recent interview of Vlahos by Batchelor offers an excellent summary of Vlahos’ view. I find his arguments to be compelling. I will offer only a few brief snippets here. As there is no transcript, what I offer is not an attempt to capture his words – more like a summary; I suggest listening to the entire interview, it will take less than 20 minutes of your time.
Key points include:
The United States has always held onto the narrative of the redeemer nation; the story Americans tell themselves about the purpose of their nation.
Certainly since the end of World War Two it has taken on this role internationally – after a failed attempt by Woodrow Wilson to do the same after the Great War. Harry Truman is the one who successfully implemented this global role, as the indispensable nation. He successfully turned the religious mission of World War Two into a narrative that continued through the Cold War.
The narrative has existed from the beginning; it has only evolved and increased, but it has never changed. America is God’s hand in world affairs.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has gradually been losing this narrative. America’s narrative of completing God’s mission was achieved. George H.W. Bush offered a coda, a ceremonial war against Iraq, as demonstrating America’s achievement.
There are now competing narratives – both within and outside of the United States. Actual people in actual places have become restless.
The narrative power has been lost; the narrative is being pushed by others: China, Russia, Muslims, even Europeans…but not Americans.
Does America drift for a while, or do we accept that we are no longer exceptional? For the US to cease to see itself as something exceptional will take something like what Japan and Germany realized in World War Two.
A concrete example is happening now in the South China Sea: as America is challenged, there is no story about what the US needs to do. There is no longer a narrative that allows the US to intervene.
As an aside, Vlahos points to Japan’s aggressions in China in the early 1930s; Japan acted with US support to have an army in China. (I have commented on this history in the past.)
Let’s hope Vlahos is wrong about America not going down quietly. Observation tells me, unfortunately, that my hope is misplaced.