This is the first of a series of posts about “founding documents” of the United States. Some will be founding in a philosophical sense while others will be more directly related to politics and government. Our first document is of the more philosophical sort; “A City Upon a Hill” is a famous passage from John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.” Let’s start at the beginning.
Now, the phrase “city upon a hill” is, indeed a biblical phrase. It’s found in the Gospel of Matthew:
“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.”
The phrase became a political phrase when Winthrop used it to describe the Christian community that the pilgrims would establish in this new land. Many have taken this document as a sign that “America” was established by covenant with God. Now, these Puritan settlers may have covenanted with God, but since there wouldn’t be a “United States of America” for another 150 years, I don’t think it transfers.
However, the larger part of this document is clear: the settlement that they were intending to build was going to be built as an example of God’s love in action. Reality felt short of intention, of course, as Puritan interactions with Native Americans, in general, didn’t reflect God’s love. Furthermore, Puritans, for decades, affirmed the right of some to hold others as slaves, though they eventually changed course on this matter.
So, why is this document important? Because many politicians have pointed to it either implicitly or obliquely by declaring that the US should continue to strive to be a city on a hill in regards to the international community. In many ways, the US does have the power and, therefore, the responsibility to set a good examples for others, but it’s hard to connect this with the idea of a being a “city upon a hill” that points others to God through the light of our good deeds.
What makes this so hard? The tenor of US politics has moved increasingly away from the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. As proof of this, we’d like to offer this video:
[We understand that some might find this video offensive, but what I (Phil) find more offensive is that individuals claiming to know, love, and follow Jesus who are being touted and supported by so many Christians can say things like this.]
For those who want the US to be a “city upon a hill,” there must be a realization that God’s love must be within us before it can shine through us to others.
If you’d like to read “A City Upon a Hill” for yourself, you can find it, as part of the whole sermon, on the John Winthrop Society’s website.