Every writer hopes to come up with a memorable expression or turn-of-phrase, but only truly masterful communicators say something that defines the essence of a nation in just six words. President Ronald Reagan was just such a man, who borrowed and popularized a term for America that came from our nation’s distant, Puritan past: “A shining city on a hill.” As he left office in 1989, the aging president shared a few more words in his desperate yearning to communicate his vision for a free, thriving country to his fellow Americans.
“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,” he stated in his farewell address on January 11, 1989:
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.
Reagan also credited the original source of the four-word description: John Winthrop, whom he described as “an early Pilgrim” who “journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat,” because “he was looking for a home that would be free.”
Winthrop coined the phrase in 1630, 146 years before the foundation of the United States. He looked forward, beyond the fledgling colony with its material and morale struggles, to the virtues that would cause this new land to endure, to grow, and eventually to affect the entire world. “… [W]e must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection,” he said. “We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together … as members of the same body.”
If Americans will follow a virtuous life, “The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies.” In time, he said audaciously, when God “shall make us a praise and glory,” that future settlements will say, “May the Lord make it like that of New England.” Then came the phrase that echoes through the centuries:
[W]e 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 … till we be consumed out of the good land … .
America would flourish, he said, as it holds to the laws of the Bible. And the whole world would see our prosperity and seek to replicate our institutions and mores in their own land.
In time, the more sectarian aspects of the appeal rounded off, but the view of America as a beacon to the world resonated throughout the generations. This “vision of the New Jerusalem that in the 17th century is a quite profoundly theological vision, rooted in scripture, with the passage of time becomes increasingly generalized and secularized, and becomes transformed into a kind of vision of America having a redemptive role in world history, simply by being America,” said the late historian Paul Boyer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
America’s greatest presidents retained the view of America as not just an extraordinary or indispensable nation, but one set apart for a specific purpose. Abraham Lincoln called America “the last best hope of earth.” America’s civil religion of liberty, he said, is so plainly holy that “if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.” More than a century after the U.S. grew from a riven, fractious nation into the most prosperous country in world history, Ronald Reagan would say America is “still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
During his eight years in office, Reagan strove to bring that dream to fruition, at home and abroad. Just months after leaving office, he saw the Berlin Wall crumble onto the ash heap of history. A few years later, the Soviet Union officially dissolved. But that did not mean Americans would live up to the vision of its founders and its greatest recent president.
Reagan perceived seemingly distant dangers looming on the American horizon. Left unchecked, he warned, a new critical history of the U.S. could trigger “an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.” In the last generation, the radical ideology of Critical Race Theory has undermined Reagan’s and Winthrop’s visions. CRT teaches that, instead of a “shining city on a hill,” America is a benighted and fundamentally racist nation whose Constitution represents “the fundamental flaw of this country that continues to this day.” Instead of being “knit together” as “members of the same body,” intersectionality degrades the gossamer threads that hold civilization together ever thinner.
From his vantage point centuries earlier, Winthrop foresaw what would happen if America became unmoored from its values and lost its capacity for self-governance. So did Marxist activists, who viewed this as their opportunity to overthrow the old order. One New Left activist told William F. Buckley Jr. that “drugs, for example, are a device,” together with “pornography” and “abortion,” which turns their users into “natural allies to a revolutionary movement, whether they’re conscious of it or not.” Decoupling the American people from American civic virtue, and an appreciation for the founding documents that reflected that unique settlement, would deflect our free country toward socialism and despotism.
In his own Farewell Address, one of the few presidents greater than Reagan — George Washington — said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indisputable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.”
As Fr. Robert Sirico, the founder of the Acton Institute, frequently reminded his market-fundamentalist friends, virtue provides the necessary foundation for commerce to flourish within society. Conjoined with that insight is another vital truth: the historic religions of the West necessarily restrain the government from morphing into Big Brother. Only those who believe rights are God-given can preserve them from the encroachments of government. History and social science studies have found the more religion grows, the more socialism recedes in roughly equal measure — and vice-versa.
As Americans gather together to celebrate this Thanksgiving and the holiday season, we should give thanks that America was founded on the solid rock of eternal, revealed truths. It is animated by love for all people, a love never perfectly realized, but always calling us to greater unity rather than Balkanization. It gives the maximum liberty compatible with order to the individual and lets him, or her, chart a path toward his own brand of greatness. And it offers its gratitude and homage to God alone.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.