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How the American Jeremiad Can Restore the American Soul

One of the country’s greatest rhetorical traditions still has the power to remind us of our founding principles.

THERE ARE TIMES WHEN AMERICA’S PATH appears well marked, its destiny ordained, and its future secure. These are not such times. When America’s future is in doubt, it has often been because its identity is in doubt. It is tempting to yield to fatalistic pessimism and self-doubt, to indulge in a passive belief that our best days are gone forever. We have been through such times before, and we have a mechanism for reinventing ourselves by rediscovering our creed. This reassurance often comes in the form of the American jeremiad—a call to recommit to the American creed, a warning of disaster if we continue to stray, and a promise of redemption if we can find the strength and faith to save ourselves.

From our early history to the present, the American character has been expressed in the form of the American jeremiad. It articulates the existential and ethical imperative of American identity and purpose. The language of the jeremiad has been the instrument for insisting that America must live up to its ideals—what Jon Meacham calls “the soul of America.”

The biblical Jeremiah foretold misery and catastrophe for those who failed to adhere to the demands of their covenant with God, but offered the hope of redemption and renewal for those who returned to the practice of their faith. Jeremiah spoke of making “a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”

Parallel to the prophesying of the biblical Jeremiah, the American jeremiad is a message to the nation. It excoriates and condemns for moral and ethical decline, but also promises regeneration and renewal for those seeking redemption. At its core, the American jeremiad broadcasts the danger to America and the world of ending the epoch-defining experiment in freedom and self-government.

CLOSE READERS AND SERIOUS SCHOLARS of the Hebrew Bible, the Puritans emulated the Prophets in their writing and thinking. John Winthrop’s sermon of 1630, “A Model of Christian Charity,” allegedly composed aboard the Arbella that was sailing toward America’s shores, marks the origin of the American jeremiad. Winthrop’s words resonate powerfully today: “wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” That phrase has become a seminal statement of America as a beacon to the world. Ronald Reagan famously added the adjective “shining” to “city on a hill,” thereby reaffirming and emphasizing the example America has been, is, and must be to all humanity.