I have finally obtained Dr. Richard Gamble’s In Search of the City on a Hill : the Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. For the next few months I will periodically update with my summary and impressions of this book, which examines the phrase “a city on a hill” as applied to the United States, the history of the metaphor and how it has come to be so closely associated with our country.
The phrase of course, comes from Scripture, Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” These words were addressed to the Apostles, and by extension the Church. Yet now, to many people, they are words synonymous not with Christianity, but with America. How did this come about? Dr. Gamble traces the progress of the “city on the hill” in the American consciousness, from John Winthrop’s 1630 “Model of Christian Charity” to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s 2009 address to the U.S. Congress. He begins his book with the latter example, demonstrating that at this point in history, even our allies abroad have adopted this language of American exceptionalism.
But while calling the United States a “city on a hill” might seem natural to 21st century Americans, and even to foreigners, Gamble points out that this is by no means an obvious use of the phrase, given its origin and history. It was originally addressed to Christ’s disciples, not to any earthly polity, and before Winthrop, for sixteen centuries of Christian history, had probably never had anything but a spiritual meaning. In order to trace the transformation of the “city on a hill”, Gamble is guided by the principle of historian John Lukacs, who proposed that we should pay more attention to how people change ideas, rather than how ideas change people. Gamble says: “To borrow an ugly word a trendy interior designer might use, Americans ‘repurposed’ the city on a hill as they rearranged the furniture of the American identity.” This repurposing began with Winthrop.
The “Model of Christian Charity” has only recently entered the canon of American history. From its composition in 1630 to JFK’s presidential address in 1961, the “Model” had not led the list, or even been visible, in the popular consciousness that included the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farewell, and the Gettysburg Address. Yet by the Reagan years of the 1980’s, it was inseparable from any discussion of the United States’ special destiny. We did not, as a nation, always think of ourselves as “a city on a hill.” Writers of the 18th or 19th centuries, even those who wrote of a special destiny for the United States, even those who mentioned Winthrop, gave no specific mention of the phrase. There is no “unbroken line” stretching back from Reagan to the Puritans, no simple, monolithic story of American identity. The “city on a hill” has been deliberately, and only very recently, co-opted into the vocabulary of “America’s messianic consciousness.” How and why this has happened, and what the implications are for an earthly nation to adopt for itself the language of the Son of God, will be examined in future posts.