Around the year 1640, Peter Bulkeley preached a sermon to fellow Puritans in Boston entitled “The Gospel-Covenant.” He claimed a particular mission for these settlers in the Americas, saying that “for ourselves here, the people of New England, we should in a special manner labor to shine forth in holiness above other people; we have that plenty and abundance of ordinances and means of grace, as few people enjoy the like. We are as a city set upon an hill, in the open view of all the earth; the eyes of the world are upon us because we profess ourselves to be a people in covenant with God.”
Bulkeley, like other Puritan settlers, deliberately used Christian language to describe the settlement of the Americas. The phrase “a city set upon an hill” comes from the gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells his followers: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14). Nor was this the first time that Christianity was used as justification for conquest. The Crusades are an obvious example, as men from Christian Europe were recruited to “take back” the Holy Land. In the 1400s, the pope granted explorers the “right” to claim lands occupied by non-Christians for their Christian monarchs, in an enduring philosophy known as the Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine presumed that non-Christians were inferior, so only Christians could truly claim a land.
The notion of the United States as an exceptional nation, “in covenant with God,” has continued throughout our history. After Abraham Lincoln’s presidential election, he called himself “an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people.” More recently, in Ted Cruz’s 2016 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, he frequently cited a Bible verse where God says: “If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14). Our leaders have always espoused the idea that the United States is a nation set apart by God, or by Divine Providence.
A year or two before Bulkeley professed the exceptional nature of his American colonies, the Pequot War on his doorstep wiped out an entire tribe of indigenous people, capturing and enslaving most of the survivors. Twenty years earlier and six hundred miles to the south, the first enslaved Africans were brought in chains to American soil. Yet neither of these acts of violence gave Bulkeley pause to consider whether his people were really acting in God’s name. Similarly, those who claim that the U.S. was chosen by God often do so to obscure or explain away our violent past and present. Just before President Trump left office, his administration issued the 1776 Report highlighting what it saw as problems and solutions with the teaching of U.S. history in schools. The report begins by again citing the claim to be a “city on a hill,” as well as other similar claims from the founding fathers. It goes on to hand-wave away the realities of slavery as a product of its time (“the unfortunate fact is that the institution of slavery has been more the rule than the exception throughout human history”), and to call scholarship about systemic racism “deliberately destructive.” While the report lists oppressive structures such as slavery and fascism as “challenges to America’s principles,” it does not even mention the genocide of Native Americans. With statements like these, political figures trot out the notion of American exceptionalism in an attempt to restore faith in the nation.
Reflecting on the United States, Adrienne Maree Brown compares the nation’s division to suicidal tendencies.
We are a nation not just diverse or divided, but torn — pulled towards life and pulled towards death . . . Under our blustering exceptional patriotism, our nation has a tendency towards its own destruction, a doubt of its right to exist, which is rooted in our foundation. It’s a shame-filled foundation. Can we heal all the way down to the roots of this nation, especially if it’s the only way we will want to go on?Adrienne Maree Brown, We Will Not Cancel Us
Settlers on American soil have leaned on Christian language to justify their existence on this continent from the very beginning. At the same time, those settlers committed, and this nation continues to commit, atrocities. Being in covenant with God, it seems, did not mean they upheld their part of the deal. We see a similar narrative in the Bible as well: though the Israelites enter into covenant with God, they frequently break the covenant, doing what God has told them not to. In each case, they are called to repent, to turn away from their wrongdoings. The covenant does not absolve them when they harm others. So, too, we must not ignore the sins of this country’s founding. Hiding behind a so-called “covenant” or American exceptionalism does not erase the harm done. The way forward is to face up to our shame, confess, and repent. Only then can we heal.