A city on a hill. These words have captivated Americans for generations. They encapsulate our sense of collective destiny, divine mission, and moral strength. They pack into one little phrase a larger tale about a band of religiously persecuted patriots who crossed a dangerous ocean, discovered a new land, and built the United States of America.
These words have come to have such deep political significance for Americans that we might forget they come from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount:
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:14–16)
John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, reached for these words (among many others) in his 1630 message “A Model of Christian Charity.” History textbooks often style Winthrop as the “puritan Moses,” delivering a speech at the dawn of America’s founding that would shape the ethos of the following centuries.
The history is more complicated than that: Winthrop’s speech was not a missive on American exceptionalism, and it did not become influential in American identity until the late twentieth century. Even more complicated are the questions of whether Winthrop’s use of Matthew 5 exemplified good hermeneutics, whether the resulting history resembles anything like faithful biblical interpretation, and how Christians should approach applying biblical commands and promises to our political communities. What is the city on a hill? Who is it? And do Jesus’s words mean anything for our political life together?
How the “City” Became Co-opted
Winthrop’s speech has been called the “most famous lay sermon in American history” even though it probably wasn’t a sermon. It has been cited as the source of America’s supposed strengths and ills even though it went practically unnoticed by American politicians and historians for over three hundred years. It has been called the “book of Genesis in America’s political Bible” even though its original author was neither American nor could have imagined the founding of the country over a hundred years later.
It is not clear exactly when Winthrop wrote “A Model of Christian Charity” or where (or even if) he delivered it, though the common story is that he gave it aboard the ship Arbella as it journeyed across the Atlantic. The bulk of the text covers Winthrop’s understanding of Christian charity. God has ordained a hierarchal social order, Winthrop says, in which the rich should not abuse their wealth but provide for the poor, and the poor should not rebel against their station but receive God’s gifts through the rich.
Winthrop goes on to describe Christian obligations of charity in surprisingly radical ways. Everyone should care for the poor, lend generously to siblings in Christ, and forgive freely if their debtors cannot pay back their loans. Winthrop describes the love that must bind together the fellow Christians journeying into a new colony: “We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren.” He quotes Isaiah 58:6–7 when describing giving to the poor: “Is not this the fast I have chosen, . . . to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke, to deal thy bread to the hungry and to bring the poor that wander into thy house . . . ?” Winthrop’s words express something all Christians can support: a desire for our communities to be ordered by God’s vision for his creatures’ flourishing.
Winthrop’s words are also full of much more apprehension than later storytelling would lead us to believe. While he does use strong language to describe the commission of this group of Christians, the biblical references to Israel’s covenant with God and Jesus’s famous sermon are used to inspire caution and reverence more than self-importance. The people are asking God for “favor and blessing,” but they also know that if they disobey his commands, “the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us.” It is not exactly surprising that later politicians would favor the more triumphant-sounding language.
It is easy to understand why someone might read “A Model of Christian Charity,” or even just the phrase “a city upon a hill,” and hear undertones of a familiar story about a nation blessed by God. The speech makes perfect sense as the potent beginning to a narrative many Americans today know well. But Winthrop’s words went largely unnoticed for hundreds of years, in part because using the biblical language of the covenant to describe the colonies was commonplace at the time. Even historians who did reference “A Model of Christian Charity” focused more on the charity part than on a city on a hill. The history of our associations of a city on a hill with American exceptionalism and the Christian founding of our country begins not in 1630 but in 1961.
By the time John F. Kennedy spoke to the Massachusetts State Legislature a few weeks before his inauguration, the Puritans had increasingly become a part of the story that America told of its founding. They were exemplars of the American dream, the root of America’s Christian past, and, for the president-elect from Massachusetts, an important connection to trailblazing forebears. “For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arabella in 1630,” Kennedy said, using a characteristic mispronunciation of the ship’s name. The world was watching, the task was daunting, and the language of “a city upon a hill” was ripe for appropriating.
Ronald Reagan would transform the little phrase into “one of the most familiar lines in the liturgy of the American civil religion.” He referenced the phrase in various speeches throughout his career, but he gave the most detailed explanation of his city on a hill in his 1989 farewell speech:
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, wind swept, 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.
For Reagan, the city on a hill powerfully revved up American pride. He used it to describe a standard of moral goodness, commercial power, or military strength from which America was close to falling. He used it to imbue any political message with the urgency and significance of divine mandate.
Historian Richard Gamble says Reagan “invented” the “city on a hill” as Americans know it today. What was once primarily a metaphor that Jesus used to describe the identity of his followers was now a political slogan. With the backing of a conservative political lobby, Newt Gingrich released a film in 2011 called A City on a Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism. Glenn Beck made a short film about “A Model of Christian Charity” in 2014. During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton included in her list of affirmations of America: “We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill.” Now the shining city was not Jesus’s but Reagan’s.
What began as a religious call for right living in 1630 became a defense of American exceptionalism in the Cold War era. It became a signature of Reagan’s presidency, and afterward “virtually no serious political figure could escape the obligation to quote it.” Wrapped up in this one little phrase is a host of moral, political, and religious ideas of great importance to many Americans. Yet the history of the phrase is not the history of a biblical truth piloting the grand trajectory of a nation. Rather, it’s the history of how America seized a metaphor and shaped it into a story to tell about ourselves.
It’s a story both common and complicated, a story of taking biblical language and employing it in service of unfamiliar goals. As such, it’s an important starting place for us to begin thinking about how to faithfully interpret Scripture politically.
The “city upon a hill” image exemplifies a common problem: we pluck promises of provision or judgment that were given to Israel or the church and apply them wholesale to America. We misapply promises because we misunderstand who is being addressed. We are often narcissistic and nationalistic readers, seeing our own nation as the subject of every promise or command. This problem might be the besetting sin of American political theology.
And yet we all recognize that Scripture has much to say not only about how Israel was to organize itself as a community or how the church should build a life together but about a host of other issues relevant to our political lives. It tells us about what kind of creatures humans are, what it looks like for us to live together in peace, what appropriate authority looks like, and how to structure a flourishing community. But before we rush into pulling passages from Scripture and applying them to our own political context, we need to have a hermeneutic that can prevent us from misapplication and misunderstanding. The Sermon on the Mount should inform our political theology, just maybe not in the way it has in the past.