"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."

By the 1820s, Winthrop's city on the hill became the idea of what many scholars call "American exceptionalism," a sense of self-righteousness and divine purpose that becomes the basis for manifest destiny, westward expansion and the justification for every American war from the invasion of the Philippines to the current incursion into Iraq.

"There is nothing new about it," Wilson continued. "It has simply been with us since the beginning of our history and has been interwoven throughout our history and our foreign policy."

But in recent history, the idea took on special significance as American national pride suffered the loss of the Vietnam War, the disillusionment of the Watergate era and the failure of the Carter Administration to outmaneuver Iran in the hostage crisis.

"It was the low point of the city on a hill," Wilson said. "Then it is Ronald Reagan who resuscitates the phrase and makes us feel good about ourselves again."

Reagan was very fond of Winthrop, and quoted him both on the campaign trail and from the oval office. "With our eyes fixed on the future, but recognizing the realities of today.. we will achieve our destiny to be as a shining city on a hill for all mankind to see," he said in 1978 in a speech before a political action committee. He returned to Winthrop's vision several times and in several forms, including in July 1984 when he said he did not understand some Americans' fears for their future. "Why, this country is a shining city on a hill," he said.

That led to a famous rebuttal by Mario Cuomo, then the governor of New York, in his address to the Democratic National Convention in July 1984.z,pz. "In fact, Mr. President, this is a nation," Cuomo said in a speech widely regarded as the high point of his own political career. "Mr. President you ought to know that this nation is more a `Tale of Two Cities' than it is just a `Shining City on a Hill.'"

But Reagan had the last word in his farewell address to the nation, when he again invoked the image, this time mentioning Winthrop by name.

"The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined," Reagan said. ". . . in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still."

Since then, each American president has had his own city on the hill moment. For George H.W. Bush, it was on the campaign trail when the city on the hill shined so bright it became "a thousand points of light." And Bill Clinton's nod to Winthrop was to adopt the Puritan's idea of "covenant," the notion that America has a special role in the eyes of God.

Many scholars think George W. Bush had his city on a hill moment after Sept. 11 when he framed the war against terror as a moral response, a mission blessed by God that the rest of the world would join in. "America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world," the president said in an address to the nation on Sept. 11, 2001. "And no one will keep that light from shining."

Who among the current crop of candidates - Democrat or Republican - will ultimately take their reframing of Winthrop's vision in the White House remains to be seen. But some scholars feel President Bush has already blown his city on a hill moment. They point to world disapprobation for the war on Iraq and growing discomfort at home at mounting U.S. casualities with no end in sight.

"It is the duty of every president to use images that will unite people as much as possible, but this one doesn't work now because we are so divided," Marty said. "So when President Bush uses the language, as he will in 2004, it will be more about how we should run the city on the hill than that we are a city on the hill."

Haynes also hears echoes of Winthrop in the rhetoric of conservatives. "Look at the `under God' controversy," he said of the ongoing debate about the Pledge of Allegiance. "That is the whole idea of the city on a hill, that a nation has a special role as long as it stays true to the fact that we have been given our blessings and our liberties by God. Justice [Roy] Moore is Winthrop today."

That raises the question "WWWD?" - What Would Winthrop Do if he could see his beloved America today? Would he find it his city on a hill?

Francis Bremer, author of "John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father" and a professor of history at Millerton University in Pennsylvania, thinks the Puritan "would be very disturbed" at the spin given to his metaphor. Most upsetting, he said, would be the way the idea has been taken from a passive one - of America as an example - to an active one -of America carrying its values into other countries.

"I think in the post-20th century world we act on the belief that our system is inherently - whether it is blessed by God or the forces of history - the best way for other people to live and we are going to bring it to them whether they want it or not," he said. "There is a danger in this."

A danger, Haynes said, that was never part of Winthrop's vision. "There is definitely a dark side when we set ourselves up as a special place with a special mission we set ourselves up for a fall."

Still, he and other scholars expect more city on a hill moments as the race accelerates - but again, with a twist. Instead of touting America as the city on a hill for the eyes of the world to admire, Bremer expects the candidates will instead ask Americans to try and make their country a place Winthrop could be proud of.

"I think we will see them turning the question around and saying the eyes of all people are upon us and what do we want them to see," he said. "And I think that ultimately that may be the healthiest course."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad