“America is a nation with the soul of a church,” G.K. Chesterton said. The remark captures well America’s identity as a propositional nation dedicated to the pursuit of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And yet such propositions require a complimenting array of images to bolster the cause. One of the most potent metaphors Americans have embraced in recent years is the idea that their country is a “city upon a hill.”
In his book In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth, Richard M. Gamble explores how John Winthrop, in “The Model of Christian Charity,” applied Jesus Christ’s spiritual metaphor for the church to the Puritan’s earthly settlements in New England and then how the metaphor changed over time and eventually became a metaphor for America itself. Gamble argues that the application of the “city on a hill” to America damages both the church and the nation by confusing their respective ends. To be clear, Gamble is not out to bash America. He merely wishes to tell the history of an idea and call Americans and Christians to think through the dangers of applying this Christian metaphor to the United States.
So many layers of interpretation have been added to the phrase “city on a hill” that Gamble finds it necessary to reintroduce us to the world of the Puritans so that we realize how foreign our modern usage of the metaphor would sound to men like Winthrop. Intent on maintaining a pure church, many English Puritans fled their country to set up a new commonwealth devoted to the worship of God and governed by a godly magistrate. While Puritans have been portrayed by some as proto-American patriots out to create a land of liberty, Gamble notes that their motivation was usually more basic: “the building of a safe haven for God’s people to live and worship according to the demands his Word.” (23, 44) Indeed, Puritans motives were primarily religious and they remained proud of their English heritage even as they fled their homeland. Not only that, but the Puritan commonwealth, was anything but a nascent America: obedience to God’s word, not a commitment to an individual’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” animated their efforts.
In the now famous Model, Winthrop articulates the Puritans’ sense of divine calling from whence emerges a crucial (albeit hardly final) application of the Biblical metaphor to a kingdom of this world. Winthrop and many Puritans believed that God had entered into a unique covenant with them; in fact, they believed that they were a type of new Israel. Like Israel, the Puritans believed that if they obeyed God, their colonies in New England would be blessed. If they disobeyed, they would be cursed (48). Herein we find an important shift: the city on a hill no longer stood for the Christian church as a whole, but also for the towns of New England, in particular (57).
Not everyone, though, agreed with this vision. For instance, one Lord Saye argued that Winthrop was wrong for “assuming…that there is a like call from God for your going…that there was for the Israelites…[and] imagining that the Puritan plantation was ‘as much a work of God as his building of Jerusalem.’” (62) According to Saye, the Puritans had no such direct revelation from God. The Puritan Robert Cushman also disagreed with Winthrop: “but now we are in all places strangers and Pilgrims…our home is no where, but in the heavens.” In short, as Gamble puts it, “Since the coming of Christ there is no longer any geographic homeland for the Christian.” Just as these viewpoints provide an important counterpoint to Winthrop’s vision, they also call into question current beliefs regarding America’s special status in world history.
In the following centuries, Winthrop’s Model resurfaced in the American narrative as many intellectuals and politicians argued that the United States has a special, even divine, calling in the world. In 1840 the Massachusetts Historical Society acquired the Model and published it and soon historians began to incorporate Winthrop’s discourse into the American story, although it’s worth noting that few highlighted the phrase “city on a hill” (99). In the 20th century the historian Perry Miller and John F. Kennedy both proved crucial in remaking and popularizing Winthrop’s metaphor: while Miller depicted the Puritans as revolutionaries, Kennedy used the metaphor to describe ethical, American government. Jesus’ metaphor was on its way to being consecrated as a metaphor for American foreign and domestic policy.
Ronald Reagan cemented the metaphor into the national discourse and in the process made “city on a hill” utterly unrecognizable to the Puritans, to say nothing of Christ. Reagan believed that America had a calling to advance the cause of liberty and fight tyranny around the world. Reagan zealously used the metaphor before and during his presidency to express this belief in America’s global mission. Unlike the Puritans, though, who feared dealing falsely with their God, Reagan was confident in God’s favor and the inevitability of America’s success. Needless to say, Americans loved it and the “city on a hill” has now become a commonplace image of America’s bright destiny. But it’s a tragedy: Christ’s metaphor for his church, tweaked by Winthrop to apply to New England, had become the property of a nation. As Gamble puts it, “On the literal surface, the words of the metaphor had survived intact, but the underlying meaning had been lost. The metaphor had become an empty vessel into which Reagan and any other politicians poured his or her own content.” (154)
In recent years, political conservatives have assailed President Obama because his rhetoric did not sufficiently promote the idea of America as a “city upon a hill.” If we take Gamble’s account seriously, though, such “conservative” criticism is full of irony, especially when it comes from Christians. In an attempt to save America from godlessness (whether it be Soviet communism or militant liberalism), Christian conservatives allowed politicians to use a Biblical image for the church to promote particular policy items. They conflate eternal salvation with temporal liberty, or a foreign policy agenda, or domestic government programs. In doing so such conservatives weaken the metaphor’s spiritual import and impart other worldly significance to America in a way that rejects Christ’s own words: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Americans would do well to take this lesson to heart: love your country and its freedoms, but avoid confusing it with God’s country.
Adam Petersen teaches in the city of Sokcho in the province of Gangwon, Korea. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire