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In Search of the City on a Hill

Darryl G. Hart

In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth, by Richard M. Gamble. New York: Continuum International, 2012, 224 pages, $24.95.

Richard M. Gamble’s latest book, In Search of the City on a Hill, is an odd one to recommend to church audiences where titles in theology, practical Christian living, and biblical studies are most popular. Gamble’s book is both an example of intellectual history in which he follows the history of an idea—in this case, “city on a hill”—and a version of political history that examines the construction of American exceptionalism— the notion that the United States has a unique mission in world history. Although this book does not even qualify as church history, it is essential reading for American believers precisely because of the overlap between the Bible’s popularity with Americans and the mythology of American nationalism. Indeed, one of the specters that haunts this superb book is the way that U.S. Christians allowed presidents and statesmen to transform a biblical metaphor into a tag line for American greatness. A remarkable aspect of this transformation is that few if any believers objected to the misappropriation. Instead, most Christians welcomed the exchange, fully convinced, in the lines of “God Bless America,” that God had shown his face on their nation.

Gamble’s aim is to explain how Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount entered American political discourse and became so common that even a British Prime Minister (Gordon Brown) as recently as 2009 would tell the United States Congress that the world looked to Washington, DC, “as a ‘shining city upon the hill,’ lighting up the whole of the world” (1). Gamble’s story is, in effect, “the unmaking of a biblical metaphor and the making of a national myth” (5). As it turns out, the appropriation of Christ’s words had a lot more to do with the United States’ battle with Communism during the Cold War than the pious hopes of either the original European settlers in North America or the mixed religious motives of the American Founders.

The classic invocation of the “city on a hill” for Americans was, of course, John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity,” the words that in 1630 inspired the Puritans who settled in Massachusetts Bay. When originally written, as Gamble shows, little distinguished Winthrop’s exhortation to mercy and charity from a host of addresses and sermons from other Puritan leaders. It was simply an exposition of biblical standards for God’s kingdom that should inform the community the New England Puritans planned to establish—nothing more—no dreams of an empire, military might, or even constitutional provisions for the state. The “Model” was a churchly document that only made sense in the context of a people who believed what the Puritans believed. In fact, Winthrop’s use of Matthew 5:14 came only in passing toward the end of the discourse when he compared the Puritan’s project to the Israelites’ crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. As such, Winthrop, following the example of Moses, reminded the Puritans of the terms of the covenant—what would happen if they obeyed, and the consequences of disobedience. The “city on a hill” was not a call to national greatness, but a warning about what would become of the Puritans’ endeavor if they failed. Gamble supplies useful contexts for how the “city on a hill” was interpreted through church history and among Puritans, with some debate over whether any modern society could claim the status of the Old Testament Israel. Either way, Winthrop’s original “Model,” the ur-text of American identity, was hardly what it later became in the hands of American nationalists and statesmen.

For almost two centuries, the “city on a hill” was a metaphor about which only preachers wrote. Until 1838 when Winthrop’s manuscript was first published, the only traces of commentary about the metaphor’s meaning came in discussions about the place of the New World in the plan of redemption. (Gamble features Jonathan Edwards’s sermons about New England as the New Israel, for instance.) But even when antiquarians discovered Winthrop’s manuscript, “No scholar or statesman left any record of experiencing such an ‘aha!’ moment when he saw the Model in print” (92). What did happen, as Gamble shows, is that throughout the nineteenth century, the Puritans emerged as the “founders” of the United States (even if 150 years separated the “Model” and Declaration of Independence), with Winthrop emerging as the model for later statesmen. Older notions of the United States as a nation with a special relationship to God also prevailed and secularized into a full-blooded nationalism. But the image of “city on a hill” remained untapped.

This would change in 1960 after a turbulent set of decades that firmly bequeathed to the United States, now the leader of the free world, a global footprint. Perry Miller, a Harvard University professor, who almost single-handedly refurbished the image of Puritanism, gave careful readings to Winthrop’s “Model” and recognized the power of the “city on a hill” as a metaphor for national identity and mission. Then in 1961, president-elect, John F. Kennedy, a Harvard graduate, and the nation’s first (and so far only) Roman Catholic president, gave an address to the General Court of Massachusetts that became known as his “City on a Hill Speech.” Kennedy described Americans as “beacon lights for other nations.” “We do not imitate—for we are a model to others,” he added. He also invoked Winthrop explicitly and quoted directly from the first governor of Massachusetts’ talk—“we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us” (135).

From there, a metaphor first used by Jesus to describe the church, became a phrase associated almost exclusively with the United States and its superpower status. Ronald Reagan virtually turned the “city on a hill” into a brand by adding “shining” to it. He first used the metaphor in 1969 as governor of California and continued to employ it at pivotal times in his career. While for Kennedy “the city” had meant good government and public service, for Reagan it signified the American ideals of economic and religious freedom, and the nation’s global opposition to tyranny (read: Communism). The Gipper had used it so frequently and successfully that Democrats felt compelled to take it back. Mario Cuomo gave a stirring speech at the Democratic Convention in 1984 that questioned whether all Americans had access to the “shining city.” Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for president in 1988, also invoked Winthrop. By that point, Gamble argues, “city on a hill” had become as inseparable from American identity as the Stars and Stripes, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and the Statue of Liberty. The number of presidential candidates who have used the metaphor grows: Bill Clinton, John Kerry, George W. Bush, and most recently and vociferously Sarah Palin.

Christians who worry about conflating faith and patriotism will likely find this narrative disturbing. More harrowing is the silence from conservative American Protestants, who generally voted for Reagan and took inspiration from his speeches and never objected to such a crass misrepresentation of either Winthrop or Jesus Christ. But Gamble is not silent. He argues that Christians should have guarded their metaphor vigilantly. But they did not. Instead, Christians wrangle over which “national values the politicized city should stand for and miss the fact that they have lost their metaphor” (179). They miss that “Jesus’ city on a hill was never the American, or any nation’s, mission in the first place” (180). But thanks to the popularity of the metaphor, the American nation has assumed “the calling of the apostles” and “the Body of Christ” (181). To illustrate how scary this is, Gamble writes the following:

In Christian theology, it is simply not true that America is the city on a hill, not now, not ever. To seek to protect America from this falsehood is not to do her any dishonour. Quite the opposite. It spares her from delusion. Proper love refuses to cooperate with the effort to divinize America. We would not indulge any friend’s fantasy that he is the Messiah. We would get him the help he needs.... Likewise, it would be healthy for America to see itself—and if that goal is too ambitious, then for Christians in America to see their nation—as part of the kingdom of this world, called in the Providence of God to fulfill its earthly purpose but not called to be the Saviour of the World. (183)

Insights like these are what turn a history of national mission and political discourse into a must read for anyone who wants to teach and faithfully defend God’s Word. Far too often Christians in the United States have let partisan politics obscure their higher commitment to Scripture. That is why evangelical Protestants, for instance, overwhelmingly supported Republican candidates who despite the misuse of biblical language appeared to be defending traditional American ideals. Of course, as Gamble shows, those ideals were not Jesus’s or Winthrop’s. But patriotism proved to be a more forceful influence than Scripture’s own teaching. That is a lesson, no matter how difficult, that conservative Protestants who consider themselves political conservatives need to learn.

Darryl G. Hart is visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and an elder at Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2013.

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