Finding the City on a Hill

One of the most widely employed metaphors in today’s American political discourse is that the United States is a “city on a hill.” Especially popularized by Ronald Reagan, this phrase (taken from Matthew chapter 5) has been used by countless politicians, journalists, and historians in recent decades to describe America’s mission in the world. Its origin is John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon titled “A Model of Christian Charity,” which explained what the Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay Colony sought to create—a godly community that furnished a model of Christian love and liberty.
Richard Gamble shows in his recent book, “In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth” (Continuum, August 2012), that the common assumption of this phrase being employed continuously and frequently from Winthrop to Reagan is false. Only since the 1950s have pastors, politicians, and historians made Winthrop’s sermon one of our nation’s most hallowed documents. In the process, Gamble contends, they transformed Jesus’ metaphor that applies to the church (along with being light and salt in the world) into a national myth aboutAmerica’s alleged goal.
shutterstock_18568747Gamble explains that the primary purpose of Winthrop’s sermon was to argue that Massachusetts Bay Colony should model Christian love and base aspects of its life on biblical teaching. Winthrop’s statement was a proclamation, not a prediction. Their migration to the new world and effort to establish a righteous community inescapably made the Puritans a visible city that could either be a model of God’s blessing or chastisement depending on their conduct.
There’s no extant evidence, Gamble claims, of anyone quoting from Winthrop’s sermon before 1838. For two centuries, apparently no one saw his sermon as a prophecy of America’s divine destiny to be a great nation. Throughout the 19th century, many prominent Americans also used Jesus’ metaphor to applaud or admonish various cities, states, or the nation without referring to Winthrop. Between 1860 and 1930 “A Model of Christian Charity” gradually became widely analyzed in studying the early history of the Puritans. However, while orators, historians, and biographers underscored the sermon’s emphasis on Christian love, brotherhood, and establishing a righteous community, they did not connect the city on a hill metaphor with America’s messianic mission or exceptional destiny.
In the 1950s, however, prominent historians Perry Miller and Daniel Boorstin sought to make the city on the hill image the “keynote of American history,” and a 1961 address by John F. Kennedy propelled this powerful symbol into contemporary American politics.
Reagan, in dozens of speeches between 1969 and 1989, converted Jesus’ metaphor into a succinct summary of what he hoped the United States would become—“a shining city on a hill” that promoted economic growth, democracy, and peace around the world. Reagan made this metaphor essential to American identity and the nation’s civil religion. As a result, since the 1980s Republicans and Democrats have asserted that “America, from its earliest days, was destined to be a city on a hill.” Both the political right and left have crafted “secularized, politicized versions” of Winthrop’s statement without questioning whether it is proper to apply this label to our nation.
Moreover, numerous politicians, scholars, and pundits today use the phrase to applaud or critique America’s domestic or foreign policies. They argue that the Puritans either set the United States on the path toward civic and religious freedom, democracy, and humanitarianism or toward “capitalistic exploitation,” “messianic delusions,” and interference in the affairs of other nations. As an independent nation, and especially as a global superpower after World War II, the United States has clearly been a city on a hill in terms of the attention and scrutiny it has received, but this does not prove, Gamble argues, that it is specially chosen by God to accomplish His purposes.
Gamble analyzes how Americans have manipulated this metaphor to serve their own purposes and explains how the metaphor’s meaning has changed throughout American history. Although this “redeemer myth” springs from a long-standing impulse of Christians to refashion the world as they fulfill the cultural mandate of Genesis, Gamble protests that many American evangelicals misapply Christ’s charge to the church to be a visible city to their nation. Gamble could have noted that some evangelicals, most notably Gregory Boyd and Richard Hughes, have strongly criticized the typical evangelical understanding of American exceptionalism.
Gamble’s book is a clarion call to reassess whether and how America is indeed exceptional. Does it have a special relationship to God and a divinely-appointed mission in the world? He faults Christians for both misapplying the city on a hill metaphor and failing to recognize America’s shortcomings and “lust for domination.” He correctly challenges Christians to untangle the metaphor from its association with the United States and employ it where it properly belongs—to the worldwide church.

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Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009) and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).

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