The phrase “city on a hill” has become inextricably tied to Ronald Reagan. Some Americans may even think that Reagan, rather than Jesus, coined it. Reagan routinely spoke of America as that “shining” city (a descriptor Reagan added), and nowhere more directly than in his 1989 farewell address. “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life,” Reagan said. “In my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.” This image, which in American history traces back to colonial Massachusetts governor John Winthrop and his “Model of Christian Charity” address, has become the ultimate symbol of American exceptionalism.
So it may come as something of a shock, as Richard Gamble’s In Search of the City on a Hill demonstrates, just how recently Americans have latched onto Christ’s (and Winthrop’s) city on a hill image. Gamble’s remarkable account shows that for more than 300 years after Winthrop’s 1630 address, his city metaphor languished in nearly total obscurity. But in a feat of historical resurrection, one historian (Perry Miller) and two presidents (Reagan and John Kennedy) placed the image at the center of American national identity in the post-World War II era.
Christians prior to Winthrop had generally interpreted Matthew 5’s city on a hill as referring to believers, the church universal, or pastors. But sometime during the transatlantic journey to Massachusetts, the lawyer Winthrop wrote (and presumably delivered) “A Model of Christian Charity,” telling the Puritan colonists that they would “be as a city on a hill.” “The eyes of all people are upon us,” he said. “If we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world,” he warned them. The notion that New England (and perhaps America) had a special divine mission had begun to brew.
It took a long time for this idea to take Reagan’s form, however. Some of Winthrop’s successors, such as Jonathan Edwards, did speak of New Englanders as a city on a hill, because they were a specially covenanted “professing community” of believers. But “A Model of Christian Charity” itself remained unpublished until 1838. Its publication in the journal of the Massachusetts Historical Society elicited no fanfare whatsoever. The sermon was quoted and used in anthologies for the next century, but remarkably, quotations of Winthrop typically ended with the sentence before the city upon a hill reference.
The neglect of Winthrop’s city ceased with the mid-20th century writings of Harvard’s Perry Miller, the greatest historian of the American Puritans. He argued that the Puritans migrated to New England in order to build “the revolutionary city, where they could exhibit to Englishmen an England that would be as all England should be.” John Kennedy, perhaps indirectly influenced by Miller’s work, also began appropriating the metaphor, especially in his farewell speech to the General Court of Massachusetts in January 1961.
But no one used the city on a hill to greater effect than Reagan. By 1980 the metaphor had become a staple in his speeches. To Richard Gamble, Reagan’s city on a hill was “an expression of modern political, economic, and religious freedom and a tool of American anti-communism” (147). And, in spite of his talk of the “God-blessed” city, Gamble says that in Reagan’s hands the image became “utterly secular,” ripped out of its original biblical context (154). Reagan’s metaphor became a “holy relic of American civil religion” (155).
This is where many readers—especially Reagan fans—may balk at Gamble’s analysis. Please understand, Gamble is no liberal: he’s a professor at Hillsdale College in Michigan and contributing editor at The American Conservative; what bothers Gamble about Reagan’s shining city on a hill is its very novelty. He thinks that it hijacked a traditional Christian metaphor in the service of American nationalism.
To Gamble, American civil religion competes with other religions, especially Christianity. When the apostles of civil religion steal a Christian metaphor and so thoroughly assimilate it that many Americans—perhaps even devout Christians—no longer recognize it as a teaching of Jesus, then real intellectual theft has occurred.
Gamble implies that such metaphors about America can foster a kind of messianic interventionism, leading American politicians to think they should make the world safe for democracy, and, where possible, build new democracies in America’s image (think Iraq). To the extent that Reagan’s city on a hill has bred American overconfidence, fueling interminable overseas conflicts, then the city on a hill is dangerous talk indeed.
When it comes to the purported clash between American civil religion and Christianity, the actual damage seems less clear. Gamble says that because of Reagan, the city on a hill “metaphor has been destroyed for American Christians” (182). Destroyed? Are pastors rendered incapable of accurately preaching on Matthew 5 because of Reagan? If your pastor tells you Jesus meant America when he spoke of this city, I would encourage you to leave your church as soon as possible.
Yet words from the English Bible are ubiquitous in the history of American rhetoric. The Bible’s resonant phrases have enabled politicians from George Washington to Ronald Reagan to frame America’s aspirations and challenges. When American political leaders appropriate biblical language, this doesn’t by definition “destroy” that language for the church.
But Gamble’s warnings remain apt, as contemporary evangelicals are constantly confronted with claims of America’s providential role in the world. Yes, Christians should be proud of America’s signal contributions to world political history, especially our commitment to religious liberty, our conviction that all men are created equal, and our belief that human rights come from our common Creator. But Gamble is right to remind us that no Christian may properly see America as the divine city in the kingdom of God. A nation like ours may yet be a force for good in the world, but we have no messianic role to play.
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