From Theological Tenet to Political Password

Three of the Democratic candidates have already pitched to their audiences some version of the "City on a Hill" speech.

"For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that 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 shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses . . ."

--John Winthrop, aboard the Arbella, 1630

When John Winthrop preached these words to his fellow Puritans as they set sail from England for the New World, he was calling on them to make their new home in the Massachusetts Bay Colony the epitome of his sermon's title, "A Model of Christian Charity." And while the colony and its citizens eventually disappointed Winthrop, his metaphor for America as a "city on a hill" shining like a beacon of Christian ideals for the rest of the world to emulate took deep root in the new American soil.

Indeed, that idea--drawn from the Gospel of Matthew by a pious Christian layman more than 300 years ago-has now made the journey from theological tenet to political password. Politicians as diverse in their ideology as John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale and Bill Clinton have all borrowed Winthrop's vision, each of them giving it his own spin.


And as the Democratic primary season gets rolling, three of the Democratic candidates have already pitched to their audiences some version of the Puritan's ideal.

John Kerry--distantly related to Winthrop on his mother's side--described for a New Hampshire audience an America of "rising hope and true community . . . we have moved closer to the America we can become - for our own people, for the country, and for all the world." Wesley Clark's idea of a "New American Patriotism" borrows heavily from Winthrop's idea of Christian charity as it envisions the nation "once again . . . a beacon of hope and a source of inspiration for people everywhere."

But it was Howard Dean who, like Reagan, quoted directly from "A Model of Christian Charity" when he announced his candidacy. "We shall be as one," he said in Burlington, Vt., last June. "We must delight in each other, make other's conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always living before our eyes our Commission and Community in our work."

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Kimberly Winston
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