Expiation of Sins
Johnson assumes that taking possession of the North American continent proceeded through injustice to its indigenous inhabitants. He also assumes that American self-sufficiency was rendered possible through the suffering of enslaved labor. These assumptions are well-supported historical generalizations, although some balk at their expression. In a dissenting opinion, for example, Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist deployed the moniker “revisionist history” as a pejorative description of specific allegations of injustice towards the Lakota and other Native peoples of the northern Plains.
I think the Court today rejects that conclusion largely on the basis of a view of the settlement of the American West which is not universally shared. There were undoubtedly greed, cupidity, and other less-than-admirable tactics employed by the Government … but the Indians did not lack their share of villainy either. It seems to me quite unfair to judge by the light of “revisionist” historians or the mores of another era actions that were taken under pressure of time more than a century ago.
U.S.v. Sioux Nation 448 371, at 435 U. S.
More recently, Michael Medved has suggested that there was little out of the ordinary in the American institution of slavery, expiating the sins (as Johnson would have it) by noting that all have sinned. Medved’s distortions are well enough exposed by Timothy Burke that there is no need to rehash them here.
The point is that such exceptions as Rehnquist and Medved stem from a handful of ideologues that cling to a peculiar conservatism; these do not negate Johnson’s assumption in his first question. Has the
Moral Ideals and Practical Realities
Johnson’s first question, he suggests, logically leads to the second. Has the
Johnson seems to suggest that if the balance is right, the sins of dispossession and slavery are expiated.
The third question ties together the first two. Has the “republic of the people,” rooted in “an other worldly ‘City on a Hill’,” proven “to be a model for the entire planet” (3)? The notion of racism as a national sin reveals a secular application of religious themes. The third question reveals the heart of this trope. From its origins in Puritan New England, as expressed by Cotton Mather (quoted in “From Chiasmus to
The Puritan settlers that debarked from the Arbella in 1630 began in congregation as hearers of John Winthrop’s seminal sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” In this sermon,
Every President, from George Washington to Lyndon B. Johnson, has included in his inaugural address one or more references to his and the nation’s dependence upon God. These statements have become the documented and lasting records of the religious expressions of our presidents.
Benjamin Weiss, God in American History, 47.
Johnson was President when Weiss published his book in 1966, but subsequent Presidents have not deviated from the pattern. Some, to be certain, sound more like preachers than others. Historiann pointed out in reply to my article “A City on Hill” in January that Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Speech must be remembered in this context.
The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the "shining city upon a hill." The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the
Reagan, “Farewell Address”
Despite the omnipresence of God in such rhetoric, the question Johnson asks assumes that this sense of mission became secular. It has not become thus without considerable resistance from true believers, so some confusion remains. Earlier in his address, Reagan emphasized the core values.
Countries across the globe are turning to free markets and free speech and turning away from ideologies of the past. For them, the great rediscovery of the 1980s has been that, lo and behold, the moral way of government is the practical way of government: Democracy, the profoundly good, is also the profoundly productive.
Reagan, “Farewell Address”
One gets the impression from