Not simply the oldest American dead white European male, nor the authoritarian Puritan patriarch, nor a sainted Pilgrim Father, John Winthrop needs to be rescued from all of those who would paint him either as an American saint or a demon. At the moment, he particularly needs to be rescued from those, making room in their anthologies and surveys for new voices, are tempted to abandon him as irrelevant or as downright harmful.
These current efforts to bring previously marginalized voices into our classes are a healthy movement long overdue. But, as its critics fear, the multicultural challenge to the canon does require, to accommodate the recovery of neglected texts, the replacing of some older chestnuts. Anthologies are already too large to consume entirely in any one course, and undergraduates are reading less not more in our finite fourteen week semesters. Hence, before the new voices overwhelm the old, it may be time to determine within the context of the academic concerns of the present which of the older, traditional texts ought to be retained.
Having dethroned the mainstream WASP tradition with its hegemonic tendencies, we multiculturalists need to concede that this WASP tradition is, if no longer dominant, at least one part of the American multi-ethnic scene, and that it deserves to retain at least a slice of the new multicultural pie. I would like to begin with Winthrop. More specifically, Winthrop’s most anthologized piece of writing, his speech on “Christian Charity,” requires a new reading, one tied to the politics of the 1990s but located within the context of the politics of 1629.
The arguments against any such assumption of a new “true” reading of original authorial intent is first that it is impossible, that any reading is done from a particular perspective and cannot hope to escape the contingencies of race, class, and gender, and second that it is irrelevant since the reading that matters is less that of the author than of the reader.
There is a great deal of truth in both of these. Nevertheless, readers confronting Winthrop’s speech, especially students unfamiliar with the language and the issues of his world, need some guidance through the archaic text. This need not be a case of telling them “what he meant” or of shaping their value judgements, though some implying of these is all but inevitable. At its most dogmatic, it can be positioned as simply one other reading, albeit one that claims with some humility to be informed by a knowledge of at least what historians of the era, themselves fallible and subject to contingency, think may have been going on.
Rather than banish such classics from our anthologies and our surveys because of their origins and our previous assumptions about them, it might be better to reposition them. Winthrop’s authoritarian strain, one that increased as he got older, has certainly justified a reading of his texts that emphasizes the ways in which he tried to enforce conformity and to perpetuate a traditional patriarchal culture. That he ultimately presided over the expulsion of the radical antinomian dissenter, Anne Hutchinson, stands as an almost irresistible model of male patriarchy oppressing female and “other” minority voices. Such readings set the stage at the beginnings of the traditional survey of American literature for an expose of the oppressive forces that continue to dominate American culture. These deconstructive readings can lead to a deeper understanding of the problems we face, especially for those who because of their own political choices tend to read American literature somewhat as a morality play which positions evil white males against virtuous others. In the end such readings can tear down the old establishment and make a way in the wilderness for the coming of something better, but as the philosopher Richard Rorty has said, they cannot empower. They can tear down the traditional icons and institute a radical questioning of assumptions, but they cannot provide the basis for new assumptions and new beginnings.
The opening up of the canon is one way in which such new beginnings are being successfully accomplished. New texts from marginalized communities do provide new voices which can be the basis for renewal. But some of the old white male icons, like Winthrop, we will have always with us. The best strategy for dealing with them, then, for turning them from a destructive to a constructive force, may be first to point out the ways in which their discourse perpetuated self-serving concepts and images, to acknowledge the radical critique, but then to emphasize the positive and constructive aspects of their discourse, to turn them from villains of a repressive consciousness to harbingers of the new. As the challenges to the traditional canon mount, those of us who would teach some of the older “classics” need to mount a convincing defense of those texts which we believe ought to remain in whatever new canon emerges from the present turmoil.
The politics behind some of these attacks on the traditional canon are by now quite familiar. They serve not the search for some objective “Truth.” We have all but abandoned the illusion that any such thing is attainable. Yet, instead of facing the void honestly and accepting a mutual contingency in which no voice can be verified, there are those who use the deconstructive technique selectively, who would tear down the assumptions of those groups they do not like and try to privilege texts of groups they would like to empower. As Roland Barthes said with amazingly naked honesty: “reality is nothing but a meaning, and so can be changed to meet the needs of history, when history demands the subversion of the foundations of civilization as we know it.” Hence, Moby Dick is torn down into the meaningless syllables that constitute it, while previously marginalized texts are preferred. That the theory which deconstructs Moby Dick also deconstructs all texts is a dilemma too often ignored. This is politics, after all. Whose side are you on, anyway?
Is this then what academia is to be reduced to, the squabbling tribalism of a bunch of Balkan clans? Sometimes it seems so, that there is only self-interest and group interest. Women fight for women’s texts, gays for gay, blacks for black, white males for theirs. Since the old unifying generalities with their assumption of a “metanarrative” themselves are seen to serve the interests the dominant interest groups, what we are left with is what John Higham recently called “America as a federation of minorities,” competing and increasingly hostile minorities I might add. This Balkanization of our discipline and to some extent our culture into cultures is where our theories have led. And why? Because post-structuralism leaves us two options, nihilism or tribalism. Either no text has any meaning and no reading is valid and only silence has any verity, or we are free to make whatever we want of whatever text we want in the name of empowering our own preferred group.
Since talking and writing is our thing in life, silence is clearly not an option. So here we are, as Faulkner said, still talking. I would propose that before we go to the Balkan option and turn academia into a war zone of murderous tribes, we consider that since all texts are open to multiple readings that instead of reading the worst in our enemies and the best in our friends, we teach those texts that offer the best opportunities for constructive empowerment. Instead of fighting against the habits and traditions of our own academic culture, let us when possible accept those canonical, mainstream, WASP, male texts that can be read constructively and use them, not to tear down and belittle any group, white, black, lavender, or red, nor to perpetuate the hegemony of any one interest group, but to create a constructive alternative.
Nor, at least with John Winthrop’s “Christian Charity,” is this a hard thing to do. For Winthrop’s speech, despite its pleas for unity and conformity, contains elements that are at the heart of modern progressive politics from Martin Luther King, Jr.s “I Have a Dream” speech which quite deliberately echoes it to the post- structural movement itself. Indeed, the very fact that in the presidential election of 1984, both Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan used radically different readings of that speech in their opposing campaigns shows both the importance of the speech as an American icon and the susceptibility of the speech to variant readings.
The occasion of the speech itself is part of the drama. Given on board the Arbella as the main body of English Puritans sailed to Boston in 1630 by the man who had been chosen to lead the expedition, it has been taken as one of the first attempts to structure the European American experience before that experience had even begun. It has therefore more of the quality of myth than of the hard reality of power politics. It is one of the first attempts to define what we have since come to call rather loosely “the American dream.” It is for this reason that it has been anthologized and taught so often, and it is for this reason that our presidential candidates still quote it.
Given the occasion of the speech, actually a lay sermon since Winthrop was not a clergyman, the opening theme seems peculiarly abstract and not clearly relevant to the task he had immediately at hand. Winthrop without any preliminary explanation asks the question why it is that human society, “the condition of mankind,” is divided into rich and poor, powerful and weak. The “Reason Hereof” is then presented.
To those who see in public discourse only the reinforcement of and occasionally the resistance to political and social power, the purpose of this discourse at this time by this man is blatantly apparent. That the Honorable John Winthrop Esquire, son of a prosperous lawyer with an estate inherited from Henry VIII, and the chosen leader of the expedition, should want to remind his subjects that there is a divinely ordained reason for his being in power and for their being subservient to that power needs no further clarification. This reading satisfies the interpretation of the Puritans as essentially extensions of the patriarchal hierarchy of English society. Furthermore, it provides autocratic villains against whom later champions of freedom and justice, such as Anne Hutchinson, can rebel. The presentation of early Anglo-American culture as one of oppression from which more liberated spirits are still trying to escape provides a sound foundation for the morality play of oppression/resistance, immoral authority/moral minority that is a familiar approach to American history. From this approach, the pretensions and hypocrisies of Winthrop’s rhetoric are easy to debunk.
But this is far too easy. There is more going on here than a simple act of power reasserting itself. To begin with, in the context of early seventeenth-century England, the colonists on the Arbella were on the extreme left wing of English politics and society. They represented a revolutionary potential that would break out into bloody civil war back in England ten years later. In a work that itself deserves a new reading in the light of new circumstances, Michael Walzer’s The Revolution of the Saints positions the Puritan radicals as the predecessors of Lenin. To say that the leader of this rebellious group was simply another English aristocrat defending the privileges of his station would be to ignore that political reality. It would also serve to obscure the very important elements of that rebellion which were embedded in this discourse. Only on the surface, on a first superficial reading, is this a conservative document. In its own context, it is in fact a radical document trying to establish the basis upon which a radical experiment in social and power relations might be established in the laboratory of the new world. It is an important document that needs to be understood in the context of the English Reformation and beyond that in the European Reformation’s attempt to bring down the establishments of Europe and to recreate the world.
Early readers have pointed out to me that to think of Winthrop and the passengers of the Arbella as carrying the seeds of a later flowering of pluralism if not multiculturalism is to ignore the historic reality that the passengers were all white, all English, lead by authoritarian “racist” males, and showed little tolerance of native American culture upon their arrival. Of course, this is true. Nevertheless, there were seeds in that dungheap, ideological seeds which over the course of the next 200 years grew into mighty oaks. We see what we want to see. If we want tribal warfare, we can continue to expose the dung. But if we want to construct a mutual tolerance and understanding, it would be better to acknowledge the dung but then point out the healthy seeds within it. Nor is this a case of inventing a usable past and pretending that the dung really smells like a rose. There is a strong historical argument for asserting that much of modern American equalitarianism had its roots in the ideology of the Reformation and can be found clearly articulated in Winthrop’s speech.
Briefly, when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg, he initiated a movement the results of which are still being felt today. His fundamental insight was simply that authority flows not from the top down through structure and intellect, but from the bottom up, from the hearts of ordinary believers. Sola Fides, faith alone, the slogan of the Reformation, was not a concept bound within the limits of theological abstraction. It was a radical new idea that struck at the structures of politics, of the church, of the social order, and at the embedded assumptions of the mind. The old idea that authority came from the top down, from God through the hierarchy of the church and the state, reinforced the role of structure. Those on the bottom looked to their social superiors to explain the world to them. Those superior beings looked in turn to tradition and to authority. Authority was thus not just from the top down in terms of the structures of the state but also in terms of the structures of the mind. Tradition was interpreted by intellect. It was a rational system. Power was rationalized in a central authority in church and state and in the rational processes of intellect, giving a double degree of power to education and the intellectual elite. To be a gentleman and to be educated was to have power. These were inseparable. That the educated elite of church and state throughout Europe communicated with each other in Latin was a perfect symbol of their separation from the peasants of their varying nations who spoke only in their vulgar tongues and did not read or write at all.
Sola Fides attacked all of the assumptions of this ordering of authority. Faith alone was a slogan intended to attack the notion that intellect or learning or birth were important. It led to the corresponding notion of “the priesthood of all believers” in which any person, regardless of birth or wealth or learning, could partake. Belief, in the Lutheran formulation, was not an act of intellect but of emotion; it was mystical. And mysticism is not dependent upon knowing Latin or being able to read or being well- born; in fact, it is hampered by them.
The social and political implications of Luther’s reformed theology were obvious to the leaders of Europe at the time. They were also obvious to much of the peasantry, who were empowered by these notions. Indeed, some of the first fruits of the reformation were exactly what the elite feared, bloody peasant rebellions in the name of the indwelling spirit. The most notorious of these was the rebellion led by John of Leidan at the city of Munster in 1533- 34. Declaring themselves beyond the law, these antinomians abolished not only the institutions of the state but such social institutions as marriage. John of Leiden had himself declared King of this New Zion and presided over a flamboyant anarchy until the surrounding princes, with Luther’s blessing, attacked the city and slaughtered the inhabitants. Here was a clear example of just what the new reformed theology, with its emphasis on individual conscience and its rejection of temporal authority, could lead to.
The arguments over the attempts of English Protestants to purify the English church one hundred years later were made, as Winthrop’s Arbella sermon was, in the shadow of Munster. The Anglican bishops and their royal allies well knew that the doctrines of the Reformation threatened their power and the stability of their states. The puritan reformers looked not to Luther, whose theological writings offered no way to unite the City of God and the City of Man, but to John Calvin whose Institutes of the Christian Religion, put into practice in Geneva, seemed to offer a compromise that allowed for the freedom of the spirit without the anarchy of Munster. But the problems of translating the theological vision of the reformers into the institutions of public life remained unsolved. How can there be a priesthood of all believers in a stable society? How can society tolerate the freedom which the gospel seemed to require without falling into anarchy and ultimate dissolution? Just how free can the individual members of a community be and still survive as a community? These were the questions that Winthrop faced and tried to answer.
As such, they are still some of the central questions of American public life. Are we a nation of 265 million individuals each pursuing a private agenda? Or are we one nation united? Are we pluribus or a unum? How much freedom can we tolerate before we destroy ourselves? Can we allow people to use drugs? to be educated in different tongues? to pursue unlimited profit? to publish pornography? to pollute the planet? to openly live gay lifestyles? to own and carry guns? Both Republicans and Democrats continue to wrestle with these questions, believing in theory in allowing as much freedom as possible but fearing in practice that too much freedom can lead to anarchy and destroy us.
In 1630, on the Arbella, Winthrop faced the problem of trying to hold together his community of some 5000 radical individualists, each of whom believed in the supremacy of the spirit and the need to follow individual conscience. He had no police force. He knew he could not rely upon the accumulated authority of centuries of social hierarchy embedded in the persons of respected gentlemen. He feared that the very pursuit of spiritual freedom and individualism that had driven these people from England would also drive them apart from each other and doom their experiment to failure, to starvation or destruction by marauding Spanish or hostile indians. It is with the example of Munster looming in the background that the Arbella Sermon must be read.
Winthrop begins his sermon by listing three main reasons why God made people different. Despite Higham’s assumption that the ideal of pluralism was “molded by the Enlightenment,” Winthrop’s explanations of these reasons contain the seeds of an older and more deeply ingrained origin of American pluralism and multiculturalism. The Enlightenment, after all, was but a brief fad in the colonies, popular mainly among a small educated elite; Christianity for good or ill was then and remains our dominant discourse. First, Winthrop writes, God made people different “to hold conformity with the rest of His works, being delighted to show forth the glory of His wisdom in the variety and difference of the creatures.” Here, to begin with, Reality, Existence-in-General, I AM, that which Winthrop called “God,” is defined not as a uniformity but as a complexity. Reality prefers a mosaic to a single color. There is, writes Winthrop, an essential preference for multiplicity and difference, over singularity and uniformity. Here is the beginning of the American tolerance of diversity. The theory, of course, is still being put into practice. To say that Winthrop and his society failed to live up to the implications of his own words is not to dismiss him as a hypocrite but to recognize the problems we all still face living up to those ideals. If American society has not yet fully welcomed the entire range of variety of human possibility with a warm embrace, that is because we are still trying to live up to the vision first enunciated on the Arbella. The line from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr. is a direct one and not just a coincidence of name. But it is important to point out that at the very beginning of what we call American culture there was embedded in one of the most important founding documents of that culture the assertion that variety is a positive value, and that diversity makes us stronger not weaker.
The second reason that God made people different, says Winthrop, is that “He might have the more occasion to manifest the work of His Spirit: first upon the wicked in moderating and restraining them, so that the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor, nor the poor and despised rise up against their superiors and shake off their yoke.” It is important to note that this is a two-edged sword. God wants the rich to show love and mercy for the poor, but he also wants the poor to show respect and “obedience” to the rich. It would be easy to read this as primarily a reinforcement of existing power relationships, but it would be unfair to the historical record. That the rich have used such doctrines as excuses for preaching obedience to the poor while not exercising love towards them cannot be questioned. But Winthrop’s dream was of a society in which there was mutual respect within differences. His own actions as Governor attest to his efforts to live up to these ideals. The Puritan leaders of the first generation restricted the activities of eager entrepreneurs which they thought harmful. They believed in the medieval theory of the “just price” and regulated business as strictly as they regulated behavior on the sabbath. When a poor man was caught stealing from his woodpile and was dragged before the Governor, Winthrop’s solution was to give the man permission to take whatever wood he needed so he would not have to steal again. By the end, Winthrop had spent his inherited fortune on behalf of his community. However hypocritical others have been, Winthrop himself appears to have been sincere in his vision of a society in which the rich love and help the poor and the poor in turn respect their betters.
The third reason is perhaps the most interesting. Here Winthrop says that God made people different so that all would have need of each other that “they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.” This is the heart of his message and the purpose of this sermon. What, in short, is going to hold the community of free individuals together in the new world wilderness? What is going to bind these different people into community so that they are not scattered and destroyed? Without the external forces of law and tradition or the negative forces of fear or hardship, what can hold people together in what Calvin had called the “Kingdom of Liberty?” Winthrop’s answer to this question is “brotherly affection,” an idea he later simplifies to the one word “love.” Implicit in this is the idea that a free community cannot survive unless the members of the community love each other. Freedom cannot exist in Eastern Europe where hatred of others is the dominant emotion. It cannot exist in a pluralistic stew like Los Angeles unless the different elements of that stew blend harmoniously together. People must either “get along” as Rodney King said because they want to or ultimately they will be forced to. It is not the formulation of the idea that one might find in social science textbooks, but it is a basic one to American life, that freedom cannot exist in a pluralistic culture unless there is love. Certainly, Winthrop did not intend to include Rodney King in his “community.” But only the stubbornest hostility to the Puritan tradition can refuse to see in his formulation of the need for white male English Puritans to live together in harmony the beginnings of what eventually expanded into today’s multiculturalism.
In support of his assumptions, Winthrop argues that “hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy, etc. out of any particular and singular respect to himself but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man.” In other words, no one individual owes his or her station in life to his or her own virtues or accomplishments. We are all contingent. We are all shaped by circumstance. That ultimate reality Winthrop called God created us; we did not create ourselves. The poor need to realize this as much as do the rich, that our conditions are not owing to our own worth or worthlessness but to that larger set of circumstances over which we have no control. Hence, any pride in the rich is arrogant and false, and any sense of shame in the poor is equally misplaced. Once people realize that they were made rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight by God for God’s purposes, pride and prejudice both are removed. This is a radical social revolution at the heart of European social assumptions. It is exactly here that the true social radicalism of the Reformation attacks all of the assumptions of power that kept the aristocratic traditions of Europe intact. Once the assumption of some sort of inherent virtue on the part of the aristocracy is removed, the basis of the old social and political order crumbles. There is a direct line from this Puritan belief to the American Revolution to say nothing of the social revolutions of our own century.
It bears taking a moment to spell out the importance of this. The Calvinist emphasis on what the Puritans called predestination was in fact very similar to the current theoretical emphasis on the contingency of structured identity. There are new signifiers but not new signifieds, new bottles but a classic wine. That all of our human beliefs are in fact not based in any essential reality within us but are structured by the contingencies of our worldly contexts is exactly what the Calvinists saw signified in Solomon’s lament in Ecclesiastes, “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” They used the term “worldliness” to express their disgust with their own constructed personalities. They also used the word “sin.” These terms pointed to an undermining of all human knowing. They exposed reason as mere rationalizing. They turned self-confident souls into bewildered, terrified wretches. The decentering realization that all of our beliefs are ultimately undone, deconstructed, was what they called the fear of God, and the central symbols of their religion, the Children of Israel in the wilderness and Christ on the cross, were types of this “spiritual” reality. Their theology was thus a theology of absence, not presence. As Solomon said, “In the multitude of dreams and many words there are also diverse vanities: but fear thou God.” Belief in presence, in an indwelling God, came later with the romantics and what historians call “Romantic Christianity.” Those who see only this immanent, romantic form of religion are ignoring the most significance aspects of historical theological discourse. If one reads Winthrop as an early Jimmy Swaggert, one cannot hope to make sense of the Arbella sermon. But if one can understand how the doctrine of predestination basically foreshadows modern notions of conditioning or the contingent nature of social structuring, another reading becomes possible.
In the next portion of the sermon, Winthrop leads up to his argument that Christians are required to help one another in ways which they may not be required to help strangers. In this, he is urging on his followers their responsibility as members of a community of professed Christians. The emphasis here is squarely on what the members of the community owe to the community and not on some unspoken treatment of “others.” But even the formation of an ideology of inclusion must begin with a defined core which then enlarges; a community hostile to its own members is not ready to begin including “others.” Winthrop knows his fellow Englishmen and anticipates their objections frequently. Hence, he says we must help our Christian brother “rather then tempt God, in putting him upon help by miraculous or extraordinary means.” In this, he rebukes that evasion by which the comfortable may avoid any actual sacrifice by offering prayers for the afflicted but nothing else. And so he cites in detail just what is required, stating the question, answering it, stating objections, then answering them all in an effort to “persuade to liberality.” He acknowledges the conservative fear that by being liberal to the poor one might risk becoming one of them, that we each have a responsibility to ourselves and immediate family first. He agrees, but makes an effort to keep such concerns from becoming excuses for not helping the poor at all, citing appropriate Biblical texts for his explanations and ending with the question that most concerns him, “What rule must we observe and walk by in cause of community in peril?” His answer, “The same as before, but with more enlargement towards others and less respect towards our selves,” underlines his concern for the survival of the community they are about to found.
All of this scriptural quotation and refutation of objections, however, is a throwback to the older form of disputation, reflecting more of the style of Thomas Aquinas. It is logical, emphasizing and empowering the head. Ultimately, such use of logic can only end up serving structure and not spirit. So Winthrop acknowledges that there is a problem with and a need to “lay open the grounds” from which this “affection” which is the cause of the acts of mercy might arise. Logic, he says, cannot do it, but there is a deeper source that sets “all the facilities on work in the outward exercise of this duty.” It is this inner motivation and not the outward duties that needs to be addressed. And this is so because the way to draw men to acts of mercy is not by logic or argument, “for though this course may enforce a rational mind to some present act of mercy, as is frequent in experience, yet it cannot work such a habit in a soul, as shall make it prompt upon all occasions to produce the same effect.”
The argument here is based on the reformed concern not for outward duties, for works, but for the inward state of the soul, for grace. To preach duty or political correctness to those who do not feel love in their hearts is to preach hypocrisy. If all Christians are united by being one in the body of Christ, then the ligaments of that body, the tie which binds them all, is love, and until all the members of the community sincerely love each other and are willing to sacrifice for each other, then the perfect community will never come to be.
As Winthrop then writes, “The next consideration is how this love comes to be wrought,” how people can be brought to love each other, the means of attaining this goal if not through the use of argument and logic. Because of Adam’s fall, all humans are born without true love in their hearts. They love themselves only. And they continue with a selfish heart “till Christ comes and takes possession of the soul and infuseth another principle, love to God and our brother.” Hence, this love “is the fruit of the new birth.”
Here is the source of the narrow belief of many on the Christian right that democracy cannot exist without Christianity, that seemingly fanatic insistence that if God or prayer or any form of Christian reference is taken out of the classroom, the republic will collapse in ruin. If one assumes, as Winthrop probably did, that only the true Christian ritual of conversion could produce true love, then this belief is at least understandable. But the idea can also be turned around. If he were to say that any conversion from selfishness to true love is what is called Christian conversion, then the experience will control the language rather than vice versa. We can speak today of rituals of transformation as being part of many different religious traditions. In this way, we can still read Winthrop without stumbling over the explicitly Christian forms he uses.
But the most important consideration here for us in this text is the emphasis on experience over intellect, the empowering of emotion over words. Knowing that rational intellect was the bulwark of the control of traditional structures of authority over the body and ultimately over the community, the theologians of the Reformation insisted that a decentering, destabilizing, deconstructive experience had to precede any true change from old corruptions to new constructions. “Force of argument,” as Winthrop writes, “may enforce a rational mind to some present act of mercy,” but it cannot touch the heart, what we might call the subconscious fortress of our cultural constructions. Hence, the religious ritual of conversion, of being “born again,” was an attempt to undercut the hold of rational, socially constructed orderings of reality, or words and texts and interpretations, in the hope that out of such deconstructions of the old would arise newer constructions based on a sincere sense of communal love. This is the purpose of all those hell-fire and damnation sermons from Thomas Hooker to Jonathan Edwards, not to scare people into obedience to a patriarchal elite but to convert them from their socially constructed old world prejudices to a new vision of new possibilities of community in the new American Zion.
If much of what Winthrop and his Puritan colleagues believed anticipates modern post-structural concerns, here is the point at which an important distinction must be drawn. Implicit in the post- structural argument is the belief that structured identity is fluid and flexible, able to be changed by force of argument and reason, by new definitions and new words, by a change in external circumstances, as if change could come after all from the top down from the head, from logic, from reason, from without. If the world answers to the constructions of it in our minds, then a change in those constructions should change the world. The Puritans also believed that worldly personalities were constructions and not essential, but they had no illusions that “force of argument” could do any more than possibly “enforce a rational mind to some present act of mercy,” a temporary change out of expedience, not a change of heart. This change had to come from the bottom up. Some still cling to the Marxist faith, coming out of the Enlightenment and Rousseau’s metaphor of the noble savage, that human beings are if not essentially virtuous at least a blank slate upon which personality can be constructed and reconstructed. This was the basis for the Leninist attempt to create “the new Soviet man.” And yet, as the Soviet Union crumbled, after four generations of complete control of education and media and verbal constructs, of often brutal alterations of the old circumstances, the old constructed personalities, the original nationalist identities, have all re-emerged as if the twentieth century had never happened. The President of Turkmenistan, once a loyal Soviet apparatvchik, recently said, “For seventy years we had to forget our national character. Now it is starting to grow again.” Clearly, the older constructed personality based on nationalism had never been truly forgotten. It was persistent, surviving even the Leninists. Our constructions have a deeper hold on us than is often acknowledged. If in fact the head can only rationalize the structures of the heart, true change therefore has to come not through the head, not through structure, not from the top down, but from the bottom up. For Winthrop that meant what he called the “new birth.” The existence of some equally empowering new birth experience in post- structuralist theory has yet to be shown.
In his application of his sermon to his contemporaries, Winthrop makes points that retain their sharpness today. In arguing that “under a due form of government” the good of the public “must oversway all private respects,” he demonstrates how far the “Puritan Fathers” were from that laissez-faire politics which arose in reaction against Puritan communalism. Winthrop’s claim that “particular estates cannot exist in the ruin of the public” remains as good a guide as any against a politics of greed. Even Donald Trump will be unable to enjoy freely his millions if Manhattan and Atlantic City are in flames. Moreover, Winthrop warns that “if we shall neglect the observation of these articles” and “embrace the present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us.” Of the many variants of what is called the “American Dream,” here is a challenge from the spiritual to the material, from the dream of the new American Zion as a “Kingdom of Liberty” to the vision of America as a land of opportunities for wealth and power. As such, this challenge speaks directly to us today.
To leave Winthrop to those who would cling to the old interpretation is to leave his famous image of a city on a hill to Ronald Reagan’s interpretation of it. It is to yield America’s traditional canonical icons to a conservative reading. This is for the proponents of a multicultural vision of the U.S. as politically dangerous as to yield the symbolism of the American flag to the religious right. Once one yields the established symbols of the culture, and the canon, to any particular political interpretations, one has yielded not just the symbols but the culture and the country itself. Winthrop’s attempt to construct a unifying vision, as so much of his sermon, remains as an uncompleted task today. If the construct that developed out of his vision failed to be inclusive, that is an argument not against the need for a unifying vision but for a better vision or a better articulation of the vision. We still need to imagine an unam of our pluribus.
Let us not Balkanize our reading of the American experience. Instead let us search for constructive readings of old and new and rediscovered texts that are constructive and not divisive. As Winthrop ended up his sermon:
“We must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”