October 31, 2012 | 41 comments
Reagan pushed “a city on a hill” into our political lexicon, to the point where the metaphor’s Biblical and Puritan roots lie mostly forgotten.
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He laments that the phrase has been misused, not only by modern politicians, but by the Puritan himself. Winthrop used the phrase in a far different manner than Jesus, who told his disciples that they, and by extension the church, would witness to the world the faithfulness of a community to God, as an unmistakable light to the world. The metaphor belongs, originally, to the Christian church.
Modern Americans have become unable to hear that original message through the historical noise. It has been co-opted, in much the same way that Lincoln co-opted the Gospel phrase “a house divided.” Mr. Gamble appeals to the church to reclaim the metaphor for itself. It would be an act of service to America, to protect it from false delusions of messianic glory. It would be an act of service to its own members, to remind them of the church’s primary responsibility as witness to Christ.
On November 14, in a speech at the Spectator’s 45th Anniversary Gala to the gathered warriors of the right, who had just about recovered their sense of balance in their wake of the electoral defeat, Senator Tom Coburn roused the room with an appeal to political courage on the model of George Washington’s resistance at Valley Forge. Asking the room to seek conservative wisdom in the great men of history who endured perilous times, he cited the distinction of the ancient Christian theologian Augustine between the city of God and the city of Man. Mr. Coburn invited conservatives to regard the vision of the city of God as their own, a vision in which all individuals are flawed, but welcomed into a political life of shared prosperity on the basis of the acknowledgement of human freedom, liberty, and dignity under one Creator. He contrasted this vision with the leftist ideal of the city of Man, which “offers shared misery through the redistribution of wealth and class envy.” “Their vision,” he said, “is unsustainable, ours is sustainable. Where they offer a rendezvous with debt, we still offer a rendezvous with destiny.”
The old temptation is still at work. Augustine would have resisted this transformation of his meaning. He wrote his City of God shortly after 410 AD, the year when Alaric the Goth sacked Rome. Jerome, the great saint and translator of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew to Latin, wrote in a letter upon hearing the news, “My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth and sobs choke my speech.” Romans began complaining that the ruin of their city was the fault of the Christians who forced Rome to abandon its old gods. Augustine’s work was a defense of the Christian doctrine that hope lay not in human political organization, no matter how honorable, but a heavenly Kingdom administrated by God.
Using the language of Christian eschatology to shape and to inspire worldly political activity invites false hope and false confidence. A movement charged with that sort of language all too often becomes confident that it, and it alone, participates in a divinely inspired political tradition with Messianic potential. Mr. Gamble’s book, In Search of a City on a Hill, is a light to beat back the darkness of that error.
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