It’s a safe bet that if Americans ever find that “shining city on a hill,” it won’t be in a college town. “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,” Richard M. Gamble writes in his new book, In Search Of The City On A Hill: The Making and Unmaking Of An American Myth. Gamble teaches at Hillsdale.
“The metaphor of the city on a hill comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew,” Gamble reminds us. Specifically, Jesus told his disciples: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
“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,” Gamble writes. “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.” Gamble himself labored mightily to answer the where or when question, in archives on two continents.
“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,” Gamble avers. He finds this problematic: “As a Christian, I believe that for the health of the Church it is necessary to unmake a national myth in order to reclaim it as a biblical metaphor.”
Moreover, for conservatives, secularizing the city sets up a bit of a philosophical dilemma, Gamble indicates. “A decentralized state would have less of a stake in the city on the hill,” he said at the libertarian Cato Institute.
Indeed, the first president to invoke it was not the Gipper but JFK, Gamble shows in his book. Yet and still, Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop himself, who used the phrase in a speech in 1630, had some notions that mirrored those of Barack Obama more closely than they did of Ronald Reagan: “In his economics, he retained such notions as the just-price theory and other elements of medieval Christendom,” Gamble notes in his book.
“To be sure, an ostensibly more historically accurate Winthrop might prove useful for liberals eager to find a precedent for Washington, D. C. to take more direct, collective action,” Gamble warns.
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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