Samuel T. Logan, Jr.
President and Professor of Church History
One of the passages from the speeches of former President Reagan quoted most often during his funeral earlier this year was his allusion to John Winthrop's famous sermon, "A Modell of Christian Charity." In Reagan's words, "America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere."
In addition to Reagan, politicians as diverse as John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton have made direct reference to that sermon. In this year's run-up to the presidential election, Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, and John Kerry have laid specific claim to the Winthrop vision.
Perhaps it would be good to hear Winthrop directly. Writing on board the Arbella in 1630 enroute to what we now know as New England, Winthrop set forth this vision of the purpose of the colony which he would serve as governor for much of the next half-century:
Now the onely way to avoyde . . . shipwracke and to provide for our posterity is to followe the Counsell of Micah, to doe Justly, to love mercy, to walke humbly with our God . . . that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake; wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going:
Here is a genuine Christian political vision, one that puts to biblical shame many of its later, pale imitations. Why? And how might this vision help to guide Christians as we make crucial decisions at the polls this fall?
First of all, Winthrop's sermon builds upon the foundation of essential Reformed commitments. In that tradition, first priority is always given to absolute obedience to Scripture in both church and state. Never in historic Reformed orthodoxy did "freedom" (political or religious) assume precedence over obedience to the Word of God. Admittedly, this interpretation of the Puritan vision runs contrary to the views of many secular critics and historians. Those who take issue with the actions of the colony which Winthrop governed often argue that he and those he led were among the most inconsistent and hypocritical of men-they came to the New World for religious freedom but, as soon as they arrived here, they began denying that very freedom to others (like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams).
But this depressingly common interpretation simply misses the primary reason for the emigration to the New World. Winthrop and most of those who emigrated with him were always far more concerned about what God deserved than about what man needed or desired. To the degree that issues of political and religious freedom were addressed at all, they were addressed by Winthrop, both in his "Modell" sermon and later in his political leadership of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as a means to an end, the end always being a "Holy Commonwealth" which brought honor to God. When, therefore, values of "freedom" or "liberty" came into conflict with values of holiness and righteousness before God, the latter values always took precedence.
So what might this mean for Christians struggling to make biblical sense of political options today? Here are a few possibilities:
1) Adams, Lincoln, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and Kerry are all correct at least in this: the United States should seek to set an example to the world. Of course, Winthrop would add, so should every nation. But "example-setting" is certainly a laudable political goal for our country. The question is, an example of what?
2) If Winthrop was correct (and I believe he was), the answer must be taken from Scripture. More specifically, the answer must be taken from the character of God. That is, who God is and what God says must be the source of any definition of political virtue, just they are the source of all definitions of all kinds of virtue. Romans 13 teaches that good rulers "hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong" (v. 3). And the only place we find trustworthy definitions of right and wrong is Scripture. God, not man, is the measure of all things, and this is precisely the point at which many (most?, all??) of the above-mentioned politicians would probably begin to turn away from the actual goal intended by Winthrop.
3) In Winthrop's day, as in our own era, Christian leaders faced specific forms of "wrong" which required specific "right" responses. Absolute right and wrong never change, but the cultural forms which they take do change, and therefore the specific shape of governments must adapt to deal with those rights and wrongs. It is the wise Christian politician who can sense cultural shifts and bring biblical values to bear on those shifts. And it is the astute Christian voter who can identify those politicians, Christian or not, who most consistently bring biblical definitions of right and wrong to bear upon the culture. This is a crucial point: while most of the time, it would seem likely that professed Christians would be the most consistent in applying biblical values to cultural situations, sometimes, because we are all fallible sinners, non-Christians may act more biblically than Christians. In the political arena, what really counts is the product. Just as a non-Christian novelist may write a novel which better embodies biblical truth than does a given novel by a professed Christian, so in politics, what matters in the end is more WHAT shines from the city on the hill than WHO built the city.
4) So far, so general. How does all of this shape my voting this fall? Here are a few specific suggestions regarding what Christians should consider before going to the polls:
A. What are the major cultural issues facing our society? How might we summarize essential “wrongs” (as defined by Scripture) that we need our leaders to address? Hedonism? Injustice? Physical danger? Materialism? Even more difficult, how would we rank the degree to which each of the many wrongs we identify contradicts the very nature of God? The more clarity we achieve here, the better will be our specific action below.
B. If our “city” is to “shine” glory back to God, what kinds of political responses should be made to those wrongs identified above?
C. What candidates seem most likely actually to make the sorts of responses identified in “B” above? And which of the candidates is likely to provide the best (most biblical) answers to the wrongs (identified in “A” above) that most directly contradict the very nature of God? Those are the candidates for whom we should vote.
These are not four steps to political salvation. They are not even four steps to certain political agreement with our Christian neighbor. But they are four possible considerations for those Christians who would like to put some good Puritan (biblical) meat on the skeletal bones of the oft-repeated political dream that the United States of America should be “a shining city on a hill.”
NOTE: The sermon quoted above is reprinted in full in Sermons That Shaped America edited by Dr. Logan and Professor Emeritus Will Barker. The book is available through Westminster Bookstore.