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America Cannot Be the Biblical City on a Hill

That’s what the church is for.
November 20, 2021
America Cannot Be the Biblical City on a Hill

Last weekend, Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn (Ret.) told a large crowd at the three day Reawaken America tour event held at Cornerstone Church in San Antonio that America should really have just one church and be one nation under one God to be the city on a hill. He went on to say that all of the churches in America needed to come together to help make this happen. Now, some of that is in the Pledge of Allegiance (the one nation under God part) and is well accepted. However, his remarks and call to action caused some people from other religions or no religion to wonder what that kind of vision for our nation would mean for them. Those are good questions, but I wanted to address Flynn’s misuse of Biblical imagery in calling America the “city on the hill.”

Here’s the relevant excerpt of Flynn’s comments from Baptist News:

There is a time, and you have to believe this: that God Almighty is like involved in this country because this is it. This is it. This is the last place on Earth. This is, this is the shining city on the hill. This is the city on the hill. The city on the hill. The city on the hill was mentioned in Matthew. OK? It was mentioned in Matthew. And then a guy by the name of Winthrop mentioned it again in 1630. In 1630, OK, before the country was formed. And he also coined the term New England. “We’re going to go to this New England” — this new world he was talking about. And he talked to the people there about this thing called the city on the hill. And then Ronald Reagan a couple of hundred years later again talked about it as the shining city on the hill. And they’re talking about the United States of America. Talking about the United States of America. ‘Cause when Matthew mentioned it in the Bible, he wasn’t talking about the physical ground that he was on; he was talking about something in the distance. So, if we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion, one, one, one nation under God and one religion under God. Right? All of us together. Working together. I don’t care what your ecumenical service is or what you are. We have to believe that this is a moment in time where this is good versus evil.

Flynn is referring to the Puritan John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and his use of Jesus’s claim that his followers were to be a “city on a hill” in Matthew 5:14 from the Sermon on the Mount. Winthrop, while on the Arbella before landing in Massachusetts, wrote A Model For Christian Charity in 1630 as he cast a societal vision for the Puritan colony based in the ethics of Jesus. The treatise deals prominently with themes of love and care for the needs of one another and to value each other. Winthrop calls upon the Puritans to follow the biblical prophet Micah’s vision to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, lest they incur God’s judgment. He says that if they keep unity, obey the Lord, and love one another, they will be blessed by God. But, if they turn away from the commands of God, they will be judged harshly.

It is in this context that Winthrop says the new Puritan colony will be a “city upon a hill” in the sense that the world will be watching them, so they need to get this right and not fail in their quest to be a people living for God and one another.

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 by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going.

Nothing in Winthrop’s understanding of being a “city upon a hill” involves inherent national greatness or any kind of prophetic destiny as God’s shining example or last hope for the world, per se. It is about moral responsibility and a calling to live out their mandate to be the people of God who loved, gave to, and served one another.  His hope was that when the rest of the world looked at them, they would see a society of charity and mercy, which was a decidedly Christian vision of a community of interdependence. Of course, the Puritans did not faithfully live this mandate out as they had culture clashes with Native Americans, began bringing in African slaves, and by the early 1660s had to adopt the Halfway Covenant because so many of their children and grandchildren were not professing Christians. The sense of charity and mercy did not extend to the Native population as by 1676, the Puritan minister Increase Mather, claimed property rights over “the Heathen People amongst whom we live, and whose Land the Lord God of our Fathers has given to us for a rightful possession.” So, Winthrop’s vision as articulated in his Model For Christian Charity speech went somewhat off the rails within a generation.

But, the imagery of America being a “city on a hill” was later articulated by President John F. Kennedy as a way to call us to national sacrifice and adopted in the political career of Ronald Reagan, who used it over and over again to describe how he saw America. He alluded to it prominently at the end of his Farewell Address in 1989:

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, wind-swept, 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.

Winthrop’s vision of a “city upon a hill” was a localized view for a Christian colony that would be observed by the world to see if they were living out their profession of faith or not. Reagan’s view was of America as the transcendent goal of human freedom that would be teeming with prosperity and be a glorious society of harmony with commerce and free movement of people. Immigrants are welcome to this Shining City!

While much can be commended in both Winthrop’s and Reagan’s visions, they both fall short of what Jesus referred to. When Jesus spoke of a “city on a hill,” he wasn’t speaking of a Christian colony in Massachusetts or of Reagan’s America. He wasn’t talking about any earthly nation at all. He was talking about those who would believe in, follow, and be transformed by him into his light-bearers. He was talking about how the church was to represent God. Here are Jesus’s words from Matthew 5:14-16:

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 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. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Jesus’s followers were to be the “light of the world” because they were to reflect Jesus’s light. In John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Jesus isn’t saying that America, or any society or nation, can be the city on a hill that is the last, best hope of the world. He is saying that he is the light of the world and that when his followers reflect his light, they illuminate the world for others to see the good works and life that comes from God through Jesus.

Winthrop got close to getting the analogy right because he called the Puritans to follow and reflect biblical teachings about charity and mercy as they followed Christ. His shortcoming, as seen by the Puritan breakdown over the next few decades, was thinking that a whole society could possibly do that well over the long term. Reagan’s vision of America being a city on a hill wasn’t terrible because he was simply building off of biblical imagery to make a point about the goodness and potential example of our country, but it still falls far short of what the saying really means.

But, Flynn gets this imagery wrong because he goes beyond what both Winthrop and Reagan seem to allude to in his suggestion that God had America in mind as the last best hope for the world, the city on a hill. And, he calls upon the churches in America to come together to make that happen — to make America the city on the hill that Matthew wrote about when he quoted Jesus and that Winthrop spoke of in 1630 and that Reagan called us to in the 1980s. That is a Christian Nationalist view of a Divine purpose for America that is not at all what Jesus had in mind when he said that his followers, what would soon be the church, would be the city on a hill because they would reflect his light (the light of Jesus and the gospel) to a watching world in desperate need of that light everywhere.

You don’t have to be a Christian or believe in God at all to think it important to understand what this biblical imagery actually entails. But, I am a Christian and I think it inappropriate to co-opt words that were clearly meant for those who follow and believe in Jesus to then be applied to a nation-state 2000 years later made up of people from all religions or no religion at all. That isn’t what America is and it isn’t what Christianity teaches either. The church exists in society, but it isn’t the whole of society because there will always be people who do not believe in or follow Jesus, as much as I would like everyone to do so. And yet, we must all live peaceably together.

It isn’t a knock on America to say that it cannot be the biblical city on a hill. America can and should be a good country and an example to other nations, and that is what I believe Reagan meant by the term. But, America isn’t the church and the church isn’t America. If the church properly follows Jesus, the light that it reflects can help illuminate America and help it be a better country. But we shouldn’t get things confused about who is who.

We can misuse biblical imagery in our national dialogue. It happens a lot. But, we really shouldn’t go back and ascribe our misuse to the original intent found in the Bible.

Alan Cross

Alan Cross is a Southern Baptist pastor, writer, and author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, NewSouth Books, 2014.