"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."

"It is that ideal, the ideal of the American community, that we seek to restore," he concluded.

Still, no one has used it as extensively or to better effect than Ronald Reagan, who lifted the phrase intact from Winthrop's sermon several times, most memorably in his bid for a second term and in his farewell address.

The idea behind the phrase - of America as a special nation blessed by God - has burrowed so deeply into the American consciousness that some prominent religion scholars and pol-watchers say it is nearly obligatory during Presidential races.

"I would argue with you that it is almost impossible for a political candidate to win major office in this country without making his or her `city on the hill' speech," said Charles Haynes, a First Amendment scholar at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va. "Almost anyone who wants to lead the nation has to strike that chord to be taken seriously by the American people."

Gerald Wilson, a Duke University professor who teaches a course about American myths that kicks off with Winthrop's city on a hill, said, "I tell my students to look at the political ads and see how the most effective are the ones where everyone wraps themselves in the myth of America as the city on the hill. I tell them nobody is going to get elected unless they talk about these myths."

The transformation began not long after the Puritans came to Massachusetts, where Winthrop served as governor. Winthrop's sermon spelled out his goals for the new colony: it would be a Christian commonwealth built on love - the "charity" of the sermon's title. It would be based on a covenant with God - if the colonists worshipped him and did as he commanded, they would be accordingly rewarded. Lastly, their new colony would serve as an inescapable example - "a city on a hill" so brilliantly successful other nations would line up to mirror it.

But the colonists could not live up to Winthrop's expectations - at the end of his tenure he wrote in his diary that "sin abounded." But they took his idea of their new country as exceptional in the eyes of God and gave it a twist.

"Winthrop was talking about America as an exemplary beacon," Wilson said. "But very quickly, John Adams and Thomas Paine gave the idea a missionary slant and said not only are we to be an example to the rest of the world, we are to be very active missionaries" in spreading the American form of government.

"I have always considered the settlement of America with reverence and wonder as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth," Adams wrote in 1756. Twenty years later, Paine wrote in "Common Sense," "We have it in our power to begin the world all over again."