Sarah Palin has recently taken to referring to America as a nation of “exceptionalism”. To those listening casually, it sounds as if Sarah Palin is merely saying that the USA is a spiffy place to live.
Others, who know something about the history of the use of religion in politics, know that there’s a particular reason that Sarah Palin is using the word “exceptionalism” instead of just calling America “exceptional”. They know that there’s an important distinction. They know that American exceptionalism is a particular religious ideology that goes all the way back to the time of the early colonization of the North America by the British.
Way back then, the first leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, inaugurated the colony with a sermon entitled A Model of Christian Charity. That’s a pleasant sounding title, but the sermon actually established a rather sinister program of violence and repression for the New World. That vision included strict theocratic control instead of freedom, and a harsh separation of rich and poor.
Winthrop’s program of American exceptionalism also included genocide. Yes, John Winthrop’s idea of “Christian charity” included wars with the divine purpose of wiping out entire populations of nonChristians.
In Winthrop’s sermon, he refers to a particularly dark episode from the Old Testament as a model for the religious fervor which he seeks to establish through his government in the New World. It is the story of Saul and Amalek.
Winthrop declared that his government in America had been established through a special covenant with God, just like the covenant with ancient Israel. Such a covenant required absolute obedience, said Winthrop. He wrote, “When God gives a special commission he looks to have it strictly observed in every article. When he gave Saul a commission to destroy Amalek, he indented with him upon certain articles, and because he failed in one of the least, and that upon a fair pretense, it lost him the kingdom which should have been his reward if he had observed his commission. Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with him for this work, we have taken out a commission.”
The divine order to destroy Amalek to which John Winthrop referred is written about in a few places in the Christian Bible. In the book of Deuteronomy, it is claimed that the slaughter of the Amalek people was a holy act because God had promised the people of Israel that they could have the land of Amalek. “In the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it.”
John Winthrop and his followers believed that North America had been promised to them by God, just as Amalek had been promised to the people of Israel. That’s where American exceptionalism starts – with the belief that God had a plan for European peoples to settle North America, and take the land from the native peoples by any means necessary – including genocide.
Consider what the first book of Samuel in the Bible says about God’s command to the people of Israel. The book quotes God as saying, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
Slay both infant and suckling? That’s not very pro-life, is it?
Let’s go back to that passage from John Winthrop’s sermon, in which he talks about this sacred murder of all the people of Amalek. Winthrop writes of King Saul and his covenant from God, “he failed in one of the least, and that upon a fair pretense, it lost him the kingdom which should have been his reward if he had observed his commission.” What does this mean?
In the biblical story of Saul and the genocide of Amalek, Saul is ordered by God to kill every last living thing in Amalek, even the camels, and even the human babies as they suck at their mothers’ breasts. But, Saul was said to have spared the life of the Amalek king, and some sheep and oxen. Saul had the babies killed, and God approved of that, but because Saul did not kill absolutely every last living thing in Amalek, God decided to punish Saul. Let me be clear about that: God punished Saul for not making the genocide absolutely complete. The moral lesson from this bloody Bible story is clear: When God gives you a piece of land, and you fail to kill every last person currently occupying that land that God says is yours, you are a sinner and shall be punished.
John Winthrop saw himself as in the role of King Saul, and the native people he would encounter in Massachusetts as in the role of the people of Amalek. American exceptionalism started with this: The holy mission of killing every last native American living near the Massachusetts Bay Colony in order to establish the “city on a hill”.
These weren’t just empty words. As Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop sent out his followers to massacre the native Pequot people. Historian Howard Zinn quotes a firsthand account of such a massacre, given by settler William Bradford:
“Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword, some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived that they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.”
“They gave the praise thereof to God” because they believed that their genocide was part of a mission given to them by God, a plan for America in which they and their descendants would rule the continent, and create a nation that would be a special example to all the world, a divinely-sanctioned nation just as with the Israel of old, never faltering in the slaughter of those people who were not so lucky as to be the new select people of God. That is what American exceptionalism means.
The leaders of the American Religious Right have never abandoned this vision of a violently righteous special divine plan for America. To them, Sarah Palin sends a clear signal when she refers to the exceptionalism of America. When Palin uses the phrase from John Winthrop’s sermon, referring to the entire United States of America as a “city on a hill”, she is sending a signal that, as President, she would be right in line with the most extremist, violent theocratic elements of American political history – a history that includes shameless genocide in the name of God.
It is possible, I suppose, that Sarah Palin doesn’t know that this is the signal she is sending to the Religious Right. I have a hard time believing this, given the number of times that Palin has said in public that she believes that God has a special plan for America, and given her own church’s teachings that God has special plans for the USA, for Alaska, and even for Wasilla in an End Times war of Armageddon. The punishing lake of fire that Palin’s church says all non-Christians are destined for is disturbingly similar to the real fires in which John Winthrop’s followers burned those who stood in the way of his “city on a hill”.
Still, perhaps Sarah Palin has just been repeating the religious terminology of her church without knowing what they mean. Perhaps some cynical Republican speechwriter has inserted the words from John Winthrop’s sermon, and the term exceptionalism, into Palin’s speeches, and she doesn’t realize what they mean.
If that’s the case, I’m even more concerned. It would mean that Sarah Palin is so profoundly ignorant of this history of her own country that she literally doesn’t know what she’s talking about. It would mean that Sarah Palin just says whatever she’s told to say, without thinking about it. It would mean that Sarah Palin is a puppet of political insiders who believe in the brutally violent American exceptionalism of John Winthrop, or are willing to use the religious radicals who do believe in American exceptionalism in order to gain and preserve their power.