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city on a hill

[An excerpt from the In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth.]

In popular culture, the phrase “city on a hill” has become so closely identified with Ronald Reagan and before him with John Winthrop that even Christians can forget that the words originated not with a founder of a colony but with the Founder of their faith. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States has achieved near-monopoly control over the metaphor. Despite scattered references, nothing in the wider culture has the power to challenge the American nation’s ownership of the metaphor.[1] Even the Church in America might not have that power. When a megachurch markets itself under the name “City on a Hill,” does it reclaim the metaphor for Christian use or only draw attention to how successfully America has appropriated it? People driving by might even think that the congregation’s name is a clever reuse of an American metaphor.

The metaphor of the “city on a hill” comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. In quick succession, Jesus compared his disciples to salt, light, and a city, and then back to light again. He warned them—and clearly it is a warning— “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5: 13-16). Barely half of one verse, the city metaphor proportionately takes up little space in Jesus’ sermon. In fact, its position between two references to light means the city can also reasonably be read as a subordinate part of that larger metaphor. Despite its small role in its original context, the “city on a hill” has become the object of varied and conflicting interpretations that overshadow the rest of the passage.

Whether Jesus had in view only his chosen disciples, his followers in general, or the universal Church he promised to build, he clearly did not address the metaphors of salt, light, and city to the Roman Empire of his day. He could have done so. Others living during roughly the same era did just that. A century earlier, the Roman statesman Cicero combined two of these three images when he warned his fellow Senators at the time of Catiline’s conspiracy that he “seem[ed] to see this city, the light of the whole world and the fortress of all the nations, suddenly involved in one general conflagration.” Centuries earlier, the Athenian general and statesman Pericles had praised his city as a model to all the Greeks. Jesus, in contrast, gave these metaphors to his Church and not to an earthly kingdom. At some point in history—we will never know when—someone first applied the city metaphor to something or someone other than Jesus’ disciples, to something or someone outside the boundaries of the Christian church. That may not have happened for many centuries. It may not have happened first and only in America. But along the way it became commonplace to talk about America as the embodiment of Jesus’ hilltop city.

It is not natural or inevitable that America should have been given this sacred identity. The path from first-century Palestine to twenty-first century America is not an obvious one. Nor is the path from a sermon about life in the Kingdom of God to blogs about national destiny. Along that path, individual Americans did something to Jesus’ metaphor that changed it. Gradually or abruptly, intentionally or not, they helped remake the “city on a hill” from “a metaphor into a myth,” to borrow a phrase from historian Michael McGiffert.[2] Even if we cannot pinpoint the exact moment of transformation, we will see in the following pages that at one time Americans chiefly used the “city on a hill” to describe something transcendent and theological, and then at a later time chiefly to describe something earthly and political. The transition required nothing less than the unmaking of a biblical metaphor and the making of a national myth.

The metaphor of the “city on a hill” comes up most often these days when historians, journalists, and politicians try to trace the origin of some praiseworthy or blameworthy feature of modern America back to its alleged Puritan roots. They engage in what the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield called the “quest for origins.”[3] They look for the source of what they love or hate about the United States and its domestic and foreign policies. They imagine how the Puritan exceptionalist narrative, supposedly embodied in the idea of the city on a hill, set the nation’s trajectory toward civic and religious freedom, toward democracy, economic prosperity, and humanitarian benevolence or, conversely, toward genocide, capitalist exploitation, prudery, messianic delusions, and ruinous overseas adventures. The “city on a hill” finds itself caught in the fierce crossfire of the battle to define the American identity.

But lost in this debate is another story every bit as important to understanding what the United States has become: the story not of how the metaphor helped make America what it is today but the story of how America helped make the metaphor what it never was. Judging by how many recent books promise to tell the story of how some invention or election or natural disaster “changed America forever,” the reading public seems to be addicted to narratives of transformation. Americans like to tell stories of redemption about the most trivial aspects of their individual lives and also about the grand narrative of their national experience. Scientific discoveries, charismatic leaders, and landmark events certainly have remade America. But Americans have also remade what they have touched, and from the Puritans to Sarah Palin, their handling of the city on a hill has changed Jesus’ metaphor beyond recognition.

Piecing this story together, I have been guided by a principle developed and refined over the past fifty years by the Hungarian-born historian John Lukacs. Beginning in the 1960s, he urged historians to pay attention more to what people do to ideas than what ideas do to people. Ideas are not autonomous actors in history. Telling their story is nothing like tracing the migratory patterns of birds and fish. Ideas are acted upon, used, and changed. Contrasting two great nineteenth-century novelists, Lukacs wrote that “while Dostoevsky describes what ideas do to men, Flaubert describes what men do with ideas: and perhaps the latter may be more significant—certainly for the historian.”[4] That premise lies at the heart of this book. Put into practice, it has the potential to reorient how historians write intellectual history. In the case of America’s identity as the city on a hill, the words stayed the same, but what the metaphor signified changed over time as human actors, some famous, some obscure, used it for new purposes far beyond the scope of Matthew 5:14. To borrow an ugly word a trendy interior designer might use, Americans “repurposed” the city on a hill as they rearranged the furniture of the American identity.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


[1] Recent examples include “City on a Hill” charter schools, a critically acclaimed stage play called “Shining City,” a reference to Manhattan as the “city on a hill” on AMC’s Emmy-winning drama “Mad Men,” and the gated Christian community called “City on a Hill” in the 2011 satirical film Salvation Boulevard.

[2] Michael McGiffert, “God’s Controversy with Jacobean England,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 88, No. 5 (Dec., 1983) 1157.

[3] Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965) 43.

[4] John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past, with a new introduction by the author and a foreword by Russell Kirk (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994) 126. See also p. 148.

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  1. Ah, someone else has read John Lukacs's HC, one of the few truly great books ever written on the interplay between historical thinking and the human mind. That aside, Dr. Gamble here grasps also the need we seem to have to capture an idea, an event, a person for contemporary purposes. I look forward to his book.

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