We’ve all heard Ronald Reagan describe the U.S. as a “shining city on a hill,” a nation like none other, with a special mission to bring liberty everywhere, etc. That phrase, minus the “shining,” comes from the Bible, of course, as mediated through John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay and his lay sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.” In the course of reviewing Richard Gamble’s recent book In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth, I recently wrote about how Winthrop’s statement was transformed into the iconic image of an imperial America.
American exceptionalism is a bipartisan phenomenon, and in modern America its most potent expression is the “city on a hill,” a biblical image employed by John Winthrop in “A Model of Christian Charity,” the lay sermon he composed in 1630 on his way to New England. In fact, so iconic has that image become that Americans no doubt assume it has been invoked and appealed to in an unbroken tradition from its 17th-century drafting down to the present day….
For over two centuries after Winthrop composed the “Model,” it was altogether unknown to the American public. Only in 1838 was the manuscript published, and in the ensuing years it was cited and discussed only sparingly. And even then, the “city upon a hill” imagery was almost never emphasized as the document’s rhetorical or philosophical crescendo. For the most part, Winthrop’s remarks were described as an admirable exposition of the demands of Christian charity, and that was that….
The John Winthrop who told his wife that God would “provide a shelter and a hiding place for us and ours” had a finite goal, namely a place of asylum for the Puritans and the establishment of proper Christian worship and civil government as called for in the Bible. For him, that meant worship expunged of popish superstition, churches emancipated from the authority of bishops, the Word of God as the central focus of the church service, and a political society in which sin was to be punished and Christian charity promoted. Ambitious, to be sure, but finite.
This new Christian community of New England, said Winthrop, ought to imagine itself as a city upon a hill, with the eyes of the world upon it. The Puritans had to be faithful to their covenant with God in order not to bring shame on the cause of the Gospel. God would surely bless them if they remained faithful, but he would just as surely withdraw those blessings and punish them if they failed.
Winthrop held that the mission of the Puritans was do to service for the Lord, to build up the body of Christ (i.e., the church), to preserve their posterity from the corruptions of the world, and to live their lives according to “his holy ordinances.” Not exactly the mission statement later glosses on Winthrop’s words would have in mind.
In the scholarly realm it was Perry Miller, the prolific 20th-century historian of the Puritans, who did so much to link Winthrop’s city on a hill to the idea of a messianic American consciousness….
According to Miller, Winthrop and the Puritans sought to establish a “revolutionary city” in New England that would regenerate the world. Miller conceded that the Puritans themselves probably did not understand the full significance of what they were doing—an admission that throws his own interpretation into rather serious question, though he believed Winthrop himself did hold this messianic vision. Gamble is skeptical. “Winthrop understood the mission behind the mission, Miller claimed, although it sounded more like Miller was the one blessed with the special gnosis.”
During Reagan’s presidency, Theodore Dwight Bozeman accused Miller of having invented the “idea of an exemplary Puritan mission” and noted that the “city on a hill” language was a “rhetorical commonplace,” not the document’s interpretive key….
It was Ronald Reagan who seared the image of the city on a hill (the “shining city on a hill,” in his rendition) into the national consciousness….
Reagan spoke of the city on a hill nearly two dozen times in presidential speeches. His was “a city aglow with the light of human freedom, a light that someday will cast its glow on every dark corner of the world and on every age and generation to come.” Gone for good was the idea of divine judgment to be visited upon a disobedient city. This was a city that boasted only promise, and a distinctly secular promise at that.
Gamble is at pains not simply to trace the evolution of the “Model of Christian Charity” and its “city on a hill” in American culture but to insist that the original city on a hill was a biblical image, not a political symbol. It was not a physical place at all but the Christian church itself, conceived of as the community of believers wherever they may be found. The Christian community, Gamble insists, ought to be outraged at the secular appropriation of one of its most arresting images….
There is no such resentment, of course. The intellectual debasement of American conservatism, combined with the grotesque and impious neoconservative conflation of Christianity and “America’s mission in the world,” have decimated the kind of religious sensibilities that would alert the properly formed Christian conscience to blasphemy.
Thus when Abraham Lincoln is found to have said that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” America’s ideals, this does not shock or scandalize American Christians. When George W. Bush said “the light shined in darkness and the darkness did not overcome it,” and by “light” meant American ideals, few American Christians batted an eye.
So we have the following spectacle: a religious image is adapted by an earthly government for secular purposes, in order to urge Americans to pursue a messianic world mission that would have been dismissed with contempt by a classical conservative like Edmund Burke and which bears more in common with the French Revolution and its wars of ideological expansion than it does with anything conservatives would have recognized—and so-called conservatives cheer….
Read my article “Whose City? Which Hill?”