City on a Hill? Or Not…

{By Taylor Eckel}

I recently read a blog post where conservative activist Star Parker lamented that youth no longer desire America as a “city on a hill.”

The notion of our nation as a city on a hill has a nice, conservative ring to it, but what does that really mean? Should this phrase summarize the aspirations of conservative Americans?

The “city on a hill” phrase originated with Puritan leader John Winthrop in his 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity” and in recent years has been used by several presidents. When Winthrop used the phrase, he was addressing a group of Christians who aspired to create a God-honoring colony in the New World.

Unfortunately, the Christian commonwealth established by Winthrop and others did not last long. American History Professor Dr. Robert Spinney explains, “There can be no better illustration of the late-1600s Puritan-to-Yankee transformation than to look at John Winthrop and his descendants: John Winthrop invested his faith in God, but his grandsons invested in Connecticut real estate.”

Although the nation established in the late 1700s was decidedly not a Christian nation after the model set forth by Winthrop, the slogan “city on a hill” remained in the American vocabulary.

In his 1989 Farewell Address Ronald Reagan described his idea of a city on a hill. After crediting Winthrop with the original idea he said,

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But 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.” 

At first glance that sounds like a pretty nice place to live. But something is strikingly missing. Winthrop exhorted his listeners to remember the grave responsibility of their calling.

“But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.” 

Reagan, on the other hand, describes more of a utopia of rest and commerce than the sacred duty that Dr. Spinney calls, “evangelism by example.”

The question then is simple. In 2012 should our nation still aspire to be that “shining city on the hill”?

Quite simply, no.

We cannot aspire to Winthrop’s idea of a shining city on a hill. America is not a Christian nation, and never has been. It is true that the Massachusetts colonies were originally Christian establishments, but by the late seventeenth century the church-going Puritans gave way to Yankee businessmen. Our circumstances are such that Winthrop’s paradigm just doesn’t fit.

That leaves the Reagan version of a shining city on a hill. I submit that Reagan’s view is dangerous because it leaves little room for the reality that fallen men cannot create a perfectly peaceful, harmonious nation.

In the classic City of God, Augustine recognized the “misery” of this fallen world, the difficulty of sinners governing sinners, and pointed to the hope that Christian’s have in the eternal city. Centuries later the wise man Edmund Burke objected to the Rousseauian idea that through proper government men can be perfected. Burke recognized the imperfectability of man. He essentially said that the purpose of government is to prevent the worst. Given the present threats to religious liberty, the mass murder of the unborn, the ever-increasing sprawl of bureaucracy and the national debt crisis, perhaps a less idealistic aspiration is in order. Maybe it’s time we realize that we can’t aim for the shining city until we come up and out of the cave.