Here’s part two of our Q&A with Sarah Vowell on her book, The Wordy Shipmates. (Part one here.) In this part, she makes several observations which may spark comment. For example, she appears to call up the cliche that the 80s were the decade of greed with Reagan to blame. But really, read on anyway.
6. Where did Ronald Reagan get the phrase “a shining city on a hill,” which became so identified with him? And why do you write that the citizens of the United States not only elected and reelected Ronald Reagan, but that “we are Ronald Reagan”?
Reagan got his pet phrase from Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” in which Winthrop, inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, called for New England to be “as a city on a hill.” Reagan interpreted this idea to mean that the United States is supposed to be a sparkly beacon of hope. But Reagan pretty much ignored the bulk of Winthrop’s sermon—the parts about sharing, about suffering together, the foreboding ending in which Winthrop worries that, come failure, he and his shipmates will suffer the wrath of God, that they’ll be a cautionary tale. Much of Winthrop’s sermon is Christlike and therefore tough—a call for charity and generosity and selflessness. But charity and generosity and selflessness were not what the Reagan years were about. Just the opposite of course. Reagan just chose to ignore the fine print—a very American thing to do. He chose to focus on Winthrop’s pretty, upbeat imagery and more or less ignored Winthrop’s sober call for communal responsibility. Americans tend to accentuate the positive. We get snowed by cheerful advertising.
7. How did the Puritans create the whole notion of American exceptionalism—the idea that we have been specially chosen and favored by God, and that other nations are eager for us to impose our way of life on them?
I think it all goes back to the official seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the one they brought with them from England. It depicts an Indian saying, “Come over and help us.” That’s comically arrogant, ironic, and sad. Still, they meant well. We still do. The thing the United States got from Massachusetts Bay is the sleep of the just—however undeserved. For better or worse, we inherited the idea of ourselves as saviors and rescuers.
8. A continuing theme in your work is the way that we learn so much of our history from popular art. To wit, a lot of sitcoms have had episodes set in seventeenth-century New England. In fact, one inspired the first epiphany you ever had about colonial New England. Which one was that? And which was the only sitcom set entirely in Puritan New England?
It was a Thanksgiving episode of Happy Days I saw when I was around eight. There was a joke about the teenage daughter showing too much ankle or something which made the Pilgrims seem ludicrous. I hadn’t learned about critical thinking. I hadn’t learned to question historical figures. I was in elementary school. All we learned about seventeenth-century New England was that the winters were hard and the Pilgrims and Indians got along. As for the sitcom set in New England, that would be the short-lived CBS show Thanks about the Winthrop family’s first winter in New England. All the jokes were about how cold and hungry and crabby all the settlers were, and there was one guy named Winthrop spouting really hopeful ideals and all the other colonists thought he was insane. I thought it was brilliant.
9. Who were John Winthrop and John Cotton, and why do you devote so much attention to them?
I think of them as the architects of American exceptionalism. The notion that the English Puritans were divinely destined to save the world was floating around the British Isles in the early seventeenth century, but these two delivered two landmark sermons devoted to this idea, very possibly on the same occasion in 1630—Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and Cotton’s “God’s Promise to His Plantation.” Plus, with Winthrop being the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s on-again, off-again governor and Cotton as the minister of the Boston church, they are the two most influential, powerful men in early New England.
10. How did Roger Williams come up with the idea of a “wall of separation” between church and state, long before Thomas Jefferson?
Williams was the most purist of New England Puritans. He didn’t want the state (with its accompanying state-sponsored violence) to corrupt the purity of Christianity, which is the exact opposite of Jefferson, who was worried about religion corrupting government. Williams also noticed how conflict was inherent in religion.* Even though he was fanatical in his beliefs, he recognized others’ fanaticism and thought the only way for human beings to live together in peace was to allow freedom of worship. He thought people who disagreed with him were bound for hell, which he saw as punishment enough. He loved arguing about religion but he wanted wars of words, not bloodshed.
11. Why was Williams banished from Massachusetts?
For questioning the authority of the king of England and the magistrates of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He ranted that the king had no right to New England because he hadn’t received permission from the natives. Williams also condemned the Massachusetts government for punishing offenders who had broken those of the ten commandments involving worship. He believed an earthly government should have control over crimes against persons and property but had no right to regulate church attendance and the like.
12. How did Rhode Island become the first colony—in fact, the first place in the English-speaking world—with complete freedom of religion?
Williams established Providence and then the later colony of Rhode Island as a religious refuge. Ultimately, freedom of religion was codified by a charter from Charles II.