Winthrop Colony fleet arriving in Massachusetts 12 June 1630Part 1.
The 3-1/2 hour program for Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally can be viewed in its entirety at C-SPAN's website, which also provides a list of the program speakers as well as their opening remarks. And Wikipedia does a reasonable job summarizing the program.
Taken as a whole the program for the Restoring Honor rally pointed to the true founding principles of the American nation. At the same time the program revealed what I consider a contradiction or error in Glenn Beck's ideas, which he's been hashing out in full view of his television audience for many months.
He had fixed on good character and faith in God as the guiding principles of America, and he'd interpreted the views of the U.S. Constitution's Framers, and the Constitution itself, as the foundation of the principles. In this, I think Glenn is in the right church but the wrong pew, so to speak. It wasn't the Framers who laid down those principles; it was a Puritan named John Winthrop. Yet this central fact of the American experience got downplayed and finally fell by the wayside when the Constitution and Bill of Rights came to represent the centerpiece of American ideals.
It's easy to see why this came about. John Winthrop was not a terribly nice man. He had none of the appeal of the heroes of the American Revolution and the most famous Framers of the Constitution, nor of Abraham Lincoln. Nor did Winthrop and the other Puritans intend to revolt against the British monarchy.
The Restoring Honor rally never mentioned Winthrop or the Puritans but I venture that Glenn Beck and for that matter, all of America, will have to come to terms with Winthrop and the metaphor of the City Upon a Hill. The metaphor informs a key American concept, American Exceptionalism, which views Americans as having a divine purpose to lead the rest of the world. One needs to understand the metaphor, how it was used by John Winthrop, and how it was eventually debased, in order to intuit how a nation founded on noble and transcendent ideals came to be equated in the minds of many with the rankest hypocrisy.
A City Upon the Hill
In 1630 the Englishman John Winthrop, while still aboard the good ship Arbella, flagship of the Winthrop Colony Fleet, penned injunctions to 700 fellow Puritan passengers about the Model for Christian Charity, the conduct required of them in the New World. Borrowing a phrase from Jesus's parable of Salt and Light ("You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden."), Winthrop warned the future Massachusetts Bay community: ... "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... we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God. ... We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a-going."
By the latter part of the 20th Century the simple metaphor that Jesus had created, and which Winthrop had applied in straightforward fashion, had been twisted out of recognition.
In his January 9, 1961 address President-Elect John F. Kennedy interpreted Winthrop's emphasis on good character and Christian principles as a call for bigger and better government:
"... Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us -- and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony."Almost 30 years later President Ronald Reagan delivered his idea of the metaphor. In his farewell address to the nation on January 11, 1989 he said:
I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still."Thus, the Democrat's idea of the way to make the City Upon the Hill shine more brightly (better bureaucracy and smarter diplomacy) and the Republican's (free markets and unrestricted immigration).
And so within 380 years of the Arbella's arrival in Salem, Americans had so greatly politicized what had been a simple instruction for the colonists to conduct themselves as decent Christians that the fantastical City Upon The Hill collapsed from the sheer weight of incoherence.
Jesus could just as well have said, 'Like the sun on a clear day' to convey something that couldn't be hidden. His point was that the people who'd gathered to listen to him were to carry forward his teachings but to do this through exemplifying his teachings. He had showered Grace on them, to give them strength; now it was up to them to practice his teachings. If they did this, then the greatness of God would be plainly visible to all, as something that couldn't be hidden, in the manner of a city perched atop a hill.
But little more than a decade after Reagan's speech, Americans found the city they'd reconstructed with the bricks of a financial system and the mortar of bureaucracy crumbling about them, and yet they were unable to find their way to the guidewire of America's founding principles. The way back had been blocked by interpretations of the Constitution and Bill of Rights that with the best of intentions had transformed America from a Christian nation that tolerated many viewpoints and religions into one that sought to offend no one.
The upshot was a people with the character of taffy, a people who found nothing strange about spending themselves into debt to China's Communist Party, a people who for all their talk of freedom and human rights had fulfilled John Winthrop's grim prophecy that if they dealt falsely with their God they would be made "a story and a byword throughout the world." In other words, their name would be mud.
It's a cop-out to say that American Exceptionalism is a myth and that there are no 'chosen people'. Being chosen is not the issue. By every measure of the meaning, the people in the Winthrop Colony were exceptional, and so were the heroes of the Revolution and the Framers. But exceptionalism must be earned; it's not something that can be bestowed or inherited, and Winthrop's injunctions to his fellow Puritans very clearly asserted this.
Near the end of his keynote address Glenn Beck alluded to the sorry state of the American character:
America is at a crossroad. And this is the point of choice. You must choose whether we wallow in our scars. Countries make mistakes. We have made more than our fair share but it is what you do with those mistakes. We choose to wallow in them or we learn from the past and ask for redemption. For tomorrow, yesterday is gone. Tomorrow may never come. But we have today to make a difference....Then Glenn spoke of John Newton, the author of the poem that once set to music became one of the most beloved Christian hymns. His account of Newton's epiphany had some inaccuracies. (Glenn's habit of going off script and writing his own notes for speeches has repeatedly flummoxed his research team's fact-checkers.) He recounted that Newton fell on his knees and begged God's mercy when he was in danger during a storm at sea, then embraced God and renounced slavery.
Not then did Newton embrace God, nor did he denounce slavery at that time; it was to be many years after that incident at sea that he publicly denounced slavery. And Newton was not the kneeling type, especially not in that period of his life.
It could be that Glenn was compressing the earlier and later periods in Newton's life to get across his point about the saving power of divine grace. But because Newton's life story is so deeply imprinted on Amazing Grace here's a little about him, which I've taken from Wikipedia's biography.
A sailor since his childhood who'd grown into a terribly profane and cynical man, he was on the ship Greyhound in March 1748 when it was beset with the worst storm he'd ever encountered: "After hours of the crew emptying water from the ship and expecting to be capsized, he offered a desperate suggestion to the captain, who ordered it so. Newton turned and said, 'If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!'
He returned to the pump where he and another mate tied themselves to it to keep from being washed overboard. After an hour's rest, an exhausted Newton returned to the deck to steer for the next 11 hours, where he pondered what he had said [his asking for God's mercy]."
But Newton was no pushover. It was not until eight years later that he embraced religion; his ordeal on the Greyhound had been part of "a pattern of coming very close to death, examining his relationship with God, then relapsing into bad habits."
When he finally did become a minister, in 1764, his seafaring life and roughhewn personality infused his poems, including Amazing Grace, with a bluntness which conveyed that living the Christian life was not something for the lily-livered.
Alas, Amazing Grace was to suffer the same fate as John Winthrop's Model for Christian Charity. From Wikipedia's history of the hymn:
In recent years, the words of the hymn have been changed in some religious publications to downplay a sense of imposed self-loathing by its singers.It also had a clearer meaning for Glenn, who himself was a terribly profane and cynical man at one time and who had to reach rock-bottom in his life before he turned to God to save him.
The second line, "That saved a wretch like me!" has been rewritten as "That saved and strengthened me", "save a soul like me", or "that saved and set me free". ...
Part of the reason for this change has been the altered interpretations of what wretchedness and grace means. Newton saw himself as a sinner so vile that he was unable to change his life or be redeemed without God's help. Yet he also saw himself outcast and miserable, as he was when he was enslaved in Sierra Leone; his own arrogance was matched by how far he had fallen in his life. When Newton allowed his conversion to take place, it was a profound supernatural transformation.
The communal understanding of redemption and human self-worth has changed since Newton's time. Since the 1970s, self-help books, psychology, and some modern expressions of Christianity have viewed this disparity in terms of grace being an innate quality within all people who must be inspired or strong enough to find it: something to achieve.
In contrast to Newton's vision of wretchedness as his willful sin and distance from God, wretchedness has instead come to mean an obstacle of physical, social, or spiritual nature to overcome in order to achieve a state of grace, happiness, or contentment.
Since its immense popularity and iconic nature, "grace" and the meaning behind the words of Amazing Grace have become as individual as the singer or listener.
Bruce Hindmarsh suggests that the secular popularity of Amazing Grace is due to the absence of any mention about God in the lyrics until the fourth verse (by Excell's version, the fourth verse begins "When we've been there ten thousand years"), and that the song represents the ability of humanity to transform itself instead of a transformation taking place at the hands of God.
"Grace", however, for John Newton, had a clearer meaning, as he used the word to represent God or the power of God.
Glenn finished his tale about Newton's life with the words, "He wrote the best song for the bagpipes, Amazing Grace. For once he was blind but now he can see. If you are blind yesterday, you were blind ten minutes ago, you're blind ten minutes in the future. See! See what the Lord is putting in front of you now!"
There was silence, then the shrill wail of a bagpipe. As the bagpiper came into view in front of the Lincoln Memorial the strains of Amazing Grace emitted from that most otherworldly-sounding of musical instruments, a sound of the door between life and death.
Haltingly, the audience that was close enough to the stage or the giant loudspeakers to hear the tune began to sing what they could remember of the lyrics. Then one of the singers in a gospel group stepped forward on the stage and added his voice, deep, assured --
More bagpipers came into view and began their skirl --
And as more gospel singers joined the first, their voices joyfully calling out the words of the hymn of deliverance . . .
. . . the voices in the crowd strengthened and soared until those standing near the Washington Monument, almost a mile from the stage at the Lincoln Memorial, heard the song and joined in, until 600,000-strong were singing:
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
As to how I came up with the attendance figure of 600,000 -- I got it from an out-of-towner I ran into after the rally ended. She and many thousands of others had been hours late getting to the Mall because of the delays in public transportation and the huge crowds trying to use the Metro system; she was among those who were almost a mile from the stage.
When I asked if she'd been able to gauge the size of the rally she replied that she'd struck up a conversation with a U.S. park ranger and asked if he could give her an estimate. After stressing that the park police didn't provide official estimates of rallies on the Mall, he told her that based on the crowd density and number of people that could fit into the different sections of the Mall, the size of the gathering was about 600,000.
I'll give Glenn the last word, and with many thanks to him and to all those who made the rally possible.
From his keynote speech:
... We have a choice today. We have a choice. We can either look at our scars, look at the scars of the nation. Let's be honest. If you look at history, America has been both terribly good and terribly bad. It has been both, but we concentrate on the bad instead of learning from the bad and repairing the bad and then looking to the good that is still out in front of us within our reach.
We have a choice today to either let those scars crush us or redeem us. We are gathered here today in a hallowed spot. Here Abraham Lincoln, a giant of an American, casting a shadow on all of us. We look to a giant for answers. Behind you, in front of me the Washington Monument, alone, tall, straight. If you look at the Washington Monument you might notice its scars, but nobody talks about that. Nobody says look to it now. Nobody says yeah I don't know, but a quarter of the way up it changes color. Did you know that it did?
Look at it. Look at its scars. How did the scar get there? They stopped building it in the Civil War and when the war was over they began again. No one sees the scars of the Washington Memorial, the Washington Monument. We see what it stands for. No one also talks about what's on top, facing east, just two words, "Laus Deo" -- "Praise be to God."
I asked not only if you would pray on your knees but pray on your knees with the door open for your children to see. Not only pray with them but let them see their father or their mother humbled by God in prayer. That which they gaze upon, they will become. ...