We are not a Christian nation: Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and the eternal lie of the "city upon a hill"

John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" dominates presidential rhetoric and our self-understanding. Here's the problem

Published February 14, 2015 2:00PM (EST)

  (AP/Doug Mills)
(AP/Doug Mills)

Excerpted from "One Nation Under Gods: A New American History"

When Barack Obama delivered his first inaugural address six years ago last week, on January 20, 2009, it was the first time a newly elected president used the occasion to give voice to the diversity of religious life among its people. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims,” Obama said, “Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”

Such a high­-profile expression of the varieties of American religious experience was unprecedented, even if the reality it described predates the Republic itself. A spectrum of beliefs informed the nation’s history well before its first president, in his 1789 inaugural address, spoke of “that Almighty Being who rules over the universe.” Yet Obama’s choice of words served as a reminder that only recently did the range of opinions about the nature of that Being, including its existence, begin to receive their due in the ongoing national conversation about the appropriate place of religion in American life.

Perhaps most noteworthy about the president’s acknowledgment that the United States is a country of many faiths was that it seemed noteworthy at all. His simple declaration of a catalogue of beliefs surprised many because there persists, among believers and nonbelievers alike, an assumption that the United States is, for better or worse, a Christian nation.

Nothing has done more to keep this notion alive than the stubborn persistence of words spoken more than a century before this land was a nation at all: John Winthrop’s designation of the community he would establish in America as a “city upon a hill.” Some historians have doubted these words were ever spoken, but tradition maintains that in 1630, while the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts Bay were still aboard the Arabella, the governor of the colony delivered a sermon comparing their humble settlement to a lofty city described in a parable of Jesus.

For at least the past fifty years, that single unifying metaphor has dominated presidential rhetoric about the nation’s self-understanding, causing an image borrowed from the Gospels to become a tenet of faith in America’s civil religion. While not a direct refutation, Obama’s statement of religious diversity presented a challenge to reconsider the meaning, and even the relevance, of this image in the twenty­-first century.

Much as Obama’s reevaluation came in an election full of firsts, the earliest effort to make Winthrop’s phrase a widely accepted metaphor for the origins and purpose of the United States came at a time self-consciously declared as the dawn of a new era in American political life, when “a torch had been passed to a new generation.” Ironically, it was the first Catholic president who cited the words of the man who came to Massachusetts in part to build a “bulwark” against Jesuits and their church in North America. Less than two weeks before intoning “ask not what your country can do for you” during his own inaugural address in 1961, John F. Kennedy reminded the legislature in his home state of Winthrop’s words:

I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arabella three hundred and thirty­-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider,” he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us.”

Concerned as he was with distancing his approach to governance with his religious affiliation, Kennedy edited out any mention of God from the original sermon. But he did accurately capture something of the uncertainty Winthrop himself must have felt casting off from a familiar shore. Moreover, by entwining the dangers faced by the Arabella with his own, he enlisted “city upon a hill” in the Cold War conflict that would define his presidency, making of it a “bulwark” not against Rome but Moscow.

Not so just thirteen years later, when Ronald Reagan began testing out the trope that would define his political future. Then governor of California, Reagan used more of Winthrop’s words than Kennedy had, adding back in the theology that the Catholic president had excised: “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.’ ”

Elsewhere in the speech, delivered at the first Conservative Political Action Conference in 1974, Reagan offered his own religious interpretation of this early moment in American history:

You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage. This was true of those who pioneered the great wilderness in the beginning of this country, as it is also true of those later immigrants who were willing to leave the land of their birth and come to a land where even the language was unknown to them. Call it chauvinistic, but our heritage does set us apart.

Reagan would go on to use his version of the city upon a hill at every major juncture in his public life, including three campaigns for the presidency, two administrations, and perhaps most significantly in the farewell address that marked his departure from the national stage. Describing his last week in the White House in January 1989, he closed his final remarks as president with an elaboration of his understanding of what Winthrop might have had in mind on the Arabella 359 years before:

The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

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, 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.

Of course, Winthrop’s city was never “shining,” nor was it so well established as the thriving and cinematic cityscape Reagan described. It is also a remarkable feat of revisionism to praise the governor who exiled Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams as a “freedom man.” Yet the most interesting departure from history in this American creation myth may be that though Reagan spoke often of the courage it took to reach this city, there was for him little hint or risk of which the Puritans were warned. His city upon a hill, “built on rocks stronger than oceans,” was divinely guaranteed success in a way Winthrop’s and Kennedy’s were not.

In the forty years since Reagan successfully repainted the origins of the United States with this broad brush, nearly every politician on the national stage has repeated some version of “city upon a hill” as creed and shibboleth.

Only the late Mario Cuomo ever dared openly question this essential element of American political oratory. Just ten days after Reagan used the phrase yet again in accepting the Republican Pary’s nomination in 1984, Cuomo challenged the metaphor directly. “This nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill,’” he said.  “A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well, but there's another city,” he continued. “This nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.’”

Since his death last month, Cuomo’s address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention has received renewed attention as a energizing moment for his party, but left largely uncommented upon was the bold iconoclasm of calling out the darkness hidden by the bright light of the “city upon a hill.” To Cuomo, the poetry of the metaphor concealed the suffering of those waiting for American prosperity to “trickle down” to find them. Reagan’s conception of the “city upon a hill,” in the governor’s estimation, was inseparable from his belief in “social Darwinism” and ”survival of the fittest.”

“For the people who are excluded, for the people who are locked out, all they can do is stare from a distance at that city's glimmering towers,” Cuomo said. “It's an old story. It's as old as our history.”

Such heretical attacks on the orthodoxy of “city upon a hill” may never open doors to higher office. Even Obama, years before he delivered his affirmation of multi­religious America, made approving use of the well­-worn Christian phrase. Invoking Winthrop’s city as Kennedy did, while speaking in Massachusetts, he delivered a commencement address that echoed earlier allusions. He did so when he was still just the junior senator from Illinois, his presidential future still far from certain:

It was right here, in the waters around us, where the American experiment began. As the earliest settlers arrived on the shores of Boston and Salem and Plymouth, they dreamed of building a city upon a hill. And the world watched, waiting to see if this improbable idea called America would succeed.

For over 200 years, it has. Not because our dream has progressed perfectly. It hasn't. It has been scarred by our treatment of native peoples, betrayed by slavery, clouded by the subjugation of women, wounded by racism, shaken by war and depression. Yet, the true test of our union is not whether it's perfect, but whether we work to perfect it.

Obama’s “city upon a hill” was a return of sorts to Kennedy’s; he removed it from its theological frame, treating it instead as a verse from the secular scripture of American history. Nonetheless, he did not depart as far from Reagan’s interpretation as it at first might seem. After all, he still insisted that it was with the Puritan dream of a city upon a hill that the “American experiment began.” He would not embrace this dream, however, without acknowledging how it had been “scarred” — a mixed metaphor, perhaps, but an arresting one: a wounded city upon a wounded hill.

Despite Obama’s overwhelming victory in two presidential elections, his slightly revised sense of the city upon a hill, taking into account as it does the many ways it has not been perfect, has not supplanted the fortieth president’s “shining” notion. Nor is it likely to. To use Reagan’s terms, the phrase maintains its “mysticism” and it remains “chauvinistic.” While making no threats, its use implies a society certain in its supremacy and the righteousness of even its questionable acts.

For this reason, it is thanks more to Reagan than anyone else — including Winthrop himself — that “city upon a hill” has come to mean what it does today. And it is thanks to the growing ubiquity of the phrase over the past several decades that even the earliest moments of our prehistory are now remembered as if they were merely scenes from this mythical city’s construction. Different as they were in approach and outcome, the various settlements through­ out North America — those of the Spanish in the south and west, and those of the English, Dutch, and French in the north — are often viewed through this single lens, as if the radically divergent forms of Christianity brought across the Atlantic were a unified monolith of faith; as if the lands soon conquered by Europe were not already full of cities upon hills of their own.

All of which made the new president’s words six years ago all the more surprising. They represented not only a nod to minority voters who had favored him by unprecedented margins but a rhetorical shift away from the Puritan dream of uniformity and toward the more complicated truth of difference, an acknowledgement that to speak of the United States with biblical terms is to pretend that the nation “shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth” is not home to many traditions, each with sacred texts of its own.

As a new presidential campaign season begins in the coming months, the odds are beyond slim that a non-Christian will win the White House at the end of 2016. Yet no matter who looks out over the National Mall two years from now to deliver the inaugural address, we should hope that the new president will be aware enough of history to reaffirm a truth that should be self-evident: A country as complex as ours cannot be captured by a single religious idea.

Excerpted from "One Nation Under Gods: A New American History" by Peter Manseau. Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2015 by Peter Manseau. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Peter Manseau

Peter Manseau holds a doctorate in religion from Georgetown University and is currently a fellow at the Smithsonian. He is the author of Rag and Bone, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, and Vows. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland.

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