The paired posts in this series were developed in connection with a workshop supported by the three-year Luce Foundation funded project “Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad,” directed by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan. Read the introduction to the series here.
This is the first installment in this series of paired essays. Below, Constance Furey and Matthew Scherer have a conversation about American exceptionalism as depicted in John Winthrop’s speech, “A Model of Christian Charity,” and Stanley Cavell’s essay, “Finding and Founding.”
To read the other posts in the series, click here.
For those interested in the theology of American exceptionalism, the relevance of John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” may seem obvious. After all, this lay sermon, presented to posterity as a text preached to English settlers aboard the Arabella in 1630, concludes by describing the Puritans’ proposed settlement in North America as a “City upon the Hill,” an image rivaled only by the Statue of Liberty in its ability to represent America’s claim to be set apart from all the other nations of the world, unique in both responsibility and privilege. We need to understand Winthrop’s text if we are to understand America, historian Sacvan Bercovitch argues, for “A Model of Christian Charity” offers a “formulaic (and unfailingly effective) image of national purpose.” But what is this formula? And why has it been so effective?
According to Bercovitch, the brilliance of Winthrop’s address is evident, first, in its ability to move in two directions at once, affirming worldly hierarchy while aspiring to spiritual unity. In the fallen world, the world Winthrop and his listeners inhabit, there are rich and poor, kings and ministers, the exigencies of commerce and the rightful desire for savings and prosperity. The opening lines of the sermon proclaim that this human inequality is divinely ordained: “God almighty, in his most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the Condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; other mean and in subjection.” No one can or should seek to ameliorate these differences. At the same time, “all are one,” in Christ—the disparate members of the community are “members of one body,” “knit together in love.” Winthrop’s simultaneous emphasis on unity and difference was a sleight of hand, Bercovitch admits, and effective for just this reason because Winthrop manages to identify a particular community “first as a hierarchy in the form of a colonial venture authorized by a royal patent, and then (as it were in the same breath), as a spiritual unity in imitatio Christi.”
This is a familiar combination in Christianity: the move to sanction inequality or gender differences or violence, while at the same time suggesting that a specific community, or institutional church, or some version of Christendom, fulfills a spiritual ideal of unity and peace and harmony. What varies, in different times and places, is how the possibilities of this fulfillment are identified and described. Here then is Winthrop’s second effective move: he made his model uniquely powerful—effective, Bercovitch points out, in a way that rhetoric deployed in Latin American contexts was not—by insisting on the project’s contingency. If the colonists faltered, God’s wrath would “break out” against them. The Lord who “ratified this Covenant and sealed our Commission” expected a “strict performance of the Articles contained in it.” To succeed, the colonists must “uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality.” To ensure that God will “delight to dwell among us,” Winthrop explained, “we must delight in each other, make others Conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, and suffer together.”
Winthrop’s address concludes by reiterating the conditions of success and failure, invoking Moses’s farewell address to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 30 to warn listeners that their community will flourish in the Promised Land if and only if they follow the commandments, especially the commandment to love the Lord and one another. Threatening failure while articulating a vision of success, Winthrop created a communal identity defined by what Bercovitch aptly describes as this “double ‘if.’”
Winthrop’s sermon thereby set the stage for the development that came to fruition some seventy years later, when the identity of “Americans” was applied exclusively to white European settlers, especially those settlers commissioned by a Calvinist God. Speaking not as an ordained minister but as the “honorable” and “Esquire” John Winthrop (terms used in the headnote added by his son, designating Winthrop’s position as a Justice of the Peace, elected by the trustees of the Massachusetts Bay Colony), the future colonial governor embodied a jurisdictional authority detached from feudal geography and customs. By associating the North American settlement not with nostalgic ideal or existing facts on the ground but with the possibilities of what might be, “written into existence by contract and consent,” Bercovitch observes, Winthrop recast Christianity and kingship to legitimate a colonial venture. His sermon put all the pieces in place for something new, what Bercovitch calls “the America-game.”
As Matthew Scherer notes in his remarks on Stanley Cavell’s essay, “Finding and Founding,” Cavell is similarly interested in the idea of America as something new under the sun. Scherer describes Cavell’s project as a continuation of the tradition inaugurated by Winthrop’s address. Following Cavell’s lead, Scherer also differentiates the two by describing the philosopher as not only inheriting but also transfiguring “a distinct spiritual tradition.” Here, Scherer, like Cavell, is playing a variation on a familiar theme by presenting philosophy as a transfigured version of theology. Where Winthrop applied an old covenant to a new settlement, Cavell associates American novelty with philosophy’s capacity to think anew about everyday life and everyday language.
In the same spirit, although Scherer notes that Cavell’s philosophical concerns are “very much a piece” with “central theological motifs,” including Biblical motifs of exception and conversion, and notes that there is more to be said about how Cavell inhabits and evades theology, it is clear that from Scherer’s vantage point, Cavell’s work is theological only insofar as theology can be shaken loose of its association with certainty and aligned with a vision of American exceptionalism that values indeterminacy over divine sovereignty.
Indeed, Scherer highlighted the contrast between Cavell’s thought and Winthrop’s project in oral remarks delivered during the “Theologies of American Exceptionalism” workshop. Carefully delineating twelve figures of exception in Winthrop’s text, ranging from Israelites to Christ, from a community figured as a City on a Hill to the commandments of mercy and love, Scherer registered his own frustration, even anger, about two points: the fact that nothing shakes Winthrop’s presumption of hierarchy, and that all of Winthrop’s figures of exception serve to shore up an exclusivist vision of Christian community.
Scherer’s frustration is an important reminder that the America-game is not an innocent project, even when—or perhaps especially when—articulated in a sermon that proclaims charity its topic and love its favored theme. Moreover, as Cavell’s exploratory method attests, philosophy can and should be an antidote to theological rigidity and authoritarian appeals to God. And yet understanding the enduring appeal of American exceptionalism requires a more nuanced appreciation of Winthrop’s theology than even Bercovitch’s unparalleled assessment and Scherer’s careful response provide. The “double ‘if’” that Bercovitch cites as an encompassing maneuver, ensuring that all conditions are accounted for and contained within the theological purview of the text, is also a site of indeterminacy. By insisting that that the success or failure of the commonweal depends on the conduct of all its members, “A Model of Christian Charity” promotes not just anxious adherence but also careful discernment. And by equating adherence with “affections of love,” Winthrop’s sermon acknowledges the power of emotion while also positing that emotions involve discernment and can be changed. Love holds people in place and excludes many; it also inspires people to interrogate their feelings and redirect their attachments.
The theology of American exceptionalism articulated in Winthrop’s founding document is contingent in all these respects, offering a model that can prompt change as well as stasis, conformity as well as challenge, inclusion as well as exclusion. This theology served the specific aims of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the subsequent needs of America’s national identity not just because it articulated an encompassing logic but also because it was psychologically astute. As Winthrop puts it in a succinct defense of his reasons for focusing on love, the “way to draw men to the works of mercy is not by force of Argument from the goodness or necessity of the work.” The argumentative approach may motivate “a rational mind to some present Act of mercy,” but claims that a course of action is reasonable or useful “cannot work such a habit in a Soul” as to inspire an eager and willing response.
By merging attention to covenantal articles with the command to love, Winthrop’s lay theology makes everything dependent on relationships. Bercovitch rightly identifies Winthrop’s interest in contingency as a crucial reason for the text’s enduring influence. And Scherer emphasizes that Winthrop’s emphasis on spiritual perfection affirmed a minor tradition of American exceptionalism—the tradition more fully elaborated by Cavell’s philosophical project. But understanding the relevance of Winthrop’s text to the question of exceptionalism requires also an appreciation of theology’s relational dynamic.
Where do we find ourselves?
Thus begins Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience.” It’s a good question with respect to the problem of American exceptionalism, and to that of Stanley Cavell’s philosophical writings. In this short piece, I will follow some of Cavell’s writings about American exceptionalism because I think they highlight a minor tradition that deserves consideration but might otherwise be overlooked. Written almost thirty years ago, Cavell’s “Finding as Founding” reads now as a near contemporary entry in a long historical line of texts that refigure and reactivate the problem of American exceptionalism. It can be situated within a tradition that includes John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” reputedly composed and first delivered at sea between old and new worlds, the first of the Federalist Papers—written to sway “the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world,”—many of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, including “Experience,” and Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” It should also be situated within its own historical place and moment, that of literary theory in the late 1980s—more specifically, literary theory in the American academy concerned with a growing rift between Francophonic and Anglophonic philosophical traditions. (Insofar as Cavell suggests that we attend to a variety of minor, every day, ordinary exceptions, this latter, narrower context is actually quite important; while one might not care about the particular points disputed any longer, the question of how one works innovatively within a tradition to produce new kinds of exceptions remains pertinent.)
Among the many possible ways of figuring, interpreting, and receiving the problem of American exceptionalism, Cavell pursues a line of thought discernible in Winthrop, Alexander Hamilton, Emerson, and Lincoln. Putting it plainly, the claim here is not that Americans are an exceptionally blessed, virtuous, or accomplished people. Much to the contrary, the point of these interventions is to spur the American people to transcend their all-too-compromised circumstances. In its basic outlines, the idea is that the people at large must be converted to a new set of values, a new way of life, a new world. The idea is not to praise Americans as an exceptional people, but rather to press Americans to take exception to their present shortcomings in order to begin amending them. As Emerson’s “Experience” puts it, echoing a theology of conversion, the thought is that “I am ready to die out of nature and be born again into this new yet unapproachable America I have found in the West.”
If Emerson is often interpreted as an American triumphalist, Cavell would make American exceptionalism less susceptible to this reading by insisting on the tragic dimension of America’s unapproachability. Cavell suggests an exceptionalism in which the leading notes are those of determined criticism, rather than celebration; aspirational solidarity, rather than historical or ethnic nationalism; dissent and resistance, rather than a self-sacrificing love of country. The exhortation is addressed to Americans not because they are an especially worthy people, but rather because when these authors ask, “Where do we find ourselves?” the answer is that they find themselves in America, among a people who might yet become Americans. This remains an exceptionalism, but it is a severely chastened one such that enacting the American exception is bound up with acknowledging the failure (as yet) to attain America’s promise. Despite the apparent dominance of chauvinistic white nationalisms in the history of American exceptionalisms, Cavell would remind us, there is a minor, though no less American, tradition that takes exception to those dominant forms.
This tradition maintains that ethical, political, and spiritual life depends on cultivating people’s willingness to take exception with their way of life in the name of something better. Taking exception, however, requires a way of thinking, a kind of practice that has to be continually renewed and reinvented; thus it involves a tradition rather than a definitive statement, concept, or origin. To enact American exceptionalism in this sense is to find a new answer to the question, “How does one conceive (think and enact) America’s novelty, and this as an inheritance and transfiguration of a distinct spiritual tradition?” Taking this question from Cavell, rather than Emerson or Winthrop, suggests a bit more clearly that it may yet be a living question, rather than a merely historical artifact. Taking this quite recent form might let us wonder how much resistance to all claims of American exceptionalism are formed by a near-contemporary secularism that obscures, disavows, or otherwise evades the theological resonances of the exception. It may also let us wonder a bit about our contemporary post-secularist context that solicits reconsideration of those resonances.
Cavell suggests that for an American philosopher, serious thinking must pass through the question of how to create an exception, that is to say that to think seriously is to discover how to think creatively within one’s own tradition. To put that another way: Cavell insists upon producing an American exception—in his particular professional and intellectual context, that meant finding in Emerson’s response to Immanuel Kant the path for serious/philosophical thought after Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. That Cavell puts this as a question for philosophy, however, seems a consequence of his own professional formation, or perhaps his effort to find his own voice in turning away from this formation. While Cavell’s focus falls on creating an exception within his own field of “philosophy,” it stands to reason that serious work in a number of fields—literature, the arts, theology, political theory, politics—might also pass through this same question. Throughout his writing, Cavell insists upon the idea that a certain kind of thinking, questioning, criticizing, and writing becomes qualitatively different, in a word, “serious.” In Cavell’s words, there is “an obligation of any writer who takes on, perhaps beyond her or his will, certain, let’s call them scriptural tasks” that include “struggling to keep its moral urgency” through establishing “the right to philosophize, to reconceive reason.” That right must constantly be re-established—it is exceptional.
One of the key questions Cavell poses, then, is how a thinker can create exceptions within the ordinary fabric of the everyday world, and of everyday language. While Cavell hastens to translate these concerns into a “philosophical” register, they clearly draw upon and resonate with key theological motifs and religious practices, and they clearly reach beyond the confines of professional philosophy. (Cavell acknowledges that the production appearance of the exception is a key question in Biblical traditions—in Deuteronomy, for example, and also in the New Testament—and within the traditions of spiritual practice articulated with those texts, including but not limited to conversion. He doesn’t tarry with the possible implications of that, however.) What we are left to contemplate then, are at least two potentially important suggestions made by a serious student of philosophy, political thought, and American culture. One is that we cannot form an adequate idea of America without an idea of the exception, and that we cannot form an adequate idea of the exception without theology. Another is that serious work in any field requires one to find ever new ways of taking exception to the things that we do. In answer to Emerson’s query, this all might suggest that we find ourselves very much still engaged with the question of the American exception, not only because virulent waves of American exceptionalism are coursing through our politics, but also because rethinking the exception remains a task for serious thought.
To read the other posts in the series, click here.