A while ago I wrote about Reagan’s use of racism to win elections. He was undeniably more racist than even Nixon, which is a remarkable achievement for a “popular” American President.
Also I have written about Reagan’s attachment to dictatorships, such as his mass human rights violations in Guatemala (creating a massive refugee flow toward the United States, which has been inhumanely turned away by his own party).
Lately I see people citing a “Shining City on a Hill” speech (Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National League of Cities in Los Angeles, California, November 29, 1982) as evidence of some better vision for America.
“Standing on the tiny deck of the Arabella in 1630 off the Massachusetts coast, John Winthrop said, “We will be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.” Well, we have not dealt falsely with our God, even if He is temporarily suspended from the classroom. … We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”
Like his racism, however, this nonsense somehow has evaded real scrutiny.
To be fair, a lot of Americans fall into this camp of citing “A Model of Christian Charity” in their political careers. Yet I think it fair to say nobody went so far in their use, nor used it with such impact as Reagan.
Reagan lifted his phrase intact from Winthrop’s sermon several times including both his bid for a second term and his farewell address.
With that in mind, here are some important problems with the phrase.
First, John Winthrop hated democracy with religious fervor. He literally said it was the worst:
A democracy is, amongst civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst of all forms of government…and histories record that it hath always been of least continuance and fullest of troubles.
Second, from that perspective Winthrop took the Gospel of Matthew (Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14-16 “A city set on a hill cannot be hid…”) and derived his intolerance of dissent imagery (pushing ideology out as a form of preventing anything coming in) that he framed into a extremist defense narrative, a “City upon a Hill”
…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 be made a story and a byword through the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for Gods sake; we shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into Curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whether we are going: And to shut up this discourse with that exhortation of Moses that faithful servant of the Lord in his last farewell to Israel.
Honestly this reminds me of a “Kansas God and Country Rally with U.S. Congressman Mike Pompeo” where he says things like “we shot abortionists and called it justifiable” and refers to multiculturalism/diversity as “worshipping other gods”.
In early America such a politician as Pompeo would have written it like we see in actual early laws (e.g. Capitol Laws of Massachusetts):
Deut. 13. 6, 10., Deut. 17. 2, 6., Ex. 22. 20: If any man after legal conviction shall have or worship any other god, but the lord god, he shall be put to death.
Do you see the problem yet with calling these intolerance screeds some sort of great future vision of America instead of a troubled and awful past that needs to be stopped?
It’s a subtle step from the idea of illumination being helpful into making darkness something villainous that must be kept out.
Third, Winthrop’s formulation of a City on a Hill meant he referred to women as an “agent of the devil” when they dared to have a dissenting voice. Page 959 of Great Lives from History probably says it best:
Winthrop believed that the disunity in the colony was the result of evil, and evil was associated with women. Therefore, he concluded, Hutchinson must be an agent of the devil.
Now the counter-point of course may be Reagan himself trying to wriggle out of the fact that the Shining City on a Hill is a call from the ghosts of American past for an intolerant tyranny.
He gave it all this context in his Farewell Address:
I’ve spoken of the Shining City all my political life. … 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.’
The problem remains that “all kinds living in harmony and peace” doesn’t remove the Winthrop themed intolerance campaign to destroy dissent.
Indeed, the City on a Hill reference to Winthrop may in fact signal that if you disturb the harmony and peace you will be concluded to be an agent of the devil and treated as such.