City on a Hill: John F. Kennedy

In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth is written by Richard M. Gamble, Hillsdale College professor and Ruling Elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  We now consider the impact of John F. Kennedy on the “city on a hill” metaphor.

That farewell, known for a time as JFK’s “City on a Hill” speech, launched the biblical, Puritan metaphor into contemporary American politics and culture. This powerful symbol, now so closely identified with the populist Right, entered modern American politics as an emblem of the internationalist left.

…Obviously the Catholic Kennedy could not conjure up all or even many of the historical meanings embedded in or ascribed to the city on a hill. I could not signify to him what it had for the Puritans. Instead, he used a metaphor for something quite mundane: ethical government.

[Quoting Life magazine] “The sense that they are a peculiar people, designed by Providence to live in a more perfect community than any known in the Old World, the sense that it is America’s mission to set an example to other nations, is part of America’s Puritan inheritance.”… By the time of Kennedy’s death, it had become possible to make the fragmentary phrase “city on a hill” stand all by itself for the nation’s messianic impulse.

You can listen to the speech below, with the “city on a hill” allusion beginning at about 4:00.

And here’s an excerpt from this speech that was delivered on January 9, 1961:

Allow me to illustrate: During the last sixty days, I have been at the task of constructing an administration. It has been a long and deliberate process. Some have counseled greater speed. Others have counseled more expedient tests.

But I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella 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.”

Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.

For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arabella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within.


Filed under Church and State, City on a Hill

9 responses to “City on a Hill: John F. Kennedy

  1. Richard

    It was interesting seeing how Perry Miller was an influence on this distorted perception of Winthrop, and how this played out in Camelot. Of course, when we talk of Kennedy–we really mean Theodore Sorenson.

    • Yes, the Perry Miller stuff was interesting as he spearheaded a kind of academic Puritan Revival.

      I’ve decided to take a look at JFK, Reagan, then conclude with excerpts from Gamble’s last chapter.

      JFK predates me, but, having reviewed this clip and another on youtube, he was an extraordinary politician. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a President with his skills of oratory. Since, oh let me see, Reagan?

      • Richard

        JFK was an extraordinary politician–but his moral failings combined with his rhetorical skills point more to a comparison with William Jefferson Clinton than Reagan. I had a lot of respect for Perry Miller before this–I know Miller was an influence on people like John Gerstner in his devotion to the Puritans. Miller was the go-to guy in discussing the Puritans at my college, UC Berkeley, in the 70s. But, he could be wrong as well–as he was here.

      • I should have been more specific. JFK’s oratorical skills are evident, and the only politician in my lifetime wjp would be a comparison in that regard would be Reagan. Clinton was a master at politics – remember his effective triangulation – but he wasn’t in their league as a speaker. Of course, Clinton was a force in the moral degradation of our country. Before Clinton it would have been a shock to read about oral seks in newspapers or mainstream magazines. Since then, it’s all out there.

  2. Richard

    Yes, his oratorical skills were excellent, although there is a lot of historical controversy about how much this was due to Kennedy and how much to his courtiers-such as Sorenson, who, as Gaffin points out, until his dying days, was mum about how much he contributed as speech writer. Kennedy was a pretty ambiguous figure–most tell us his Pulitzer book, “Profiles in Courage” was ghost written. JFK could get people to do all sorts of things for him.

  3. MM,
    I am not a fan of the Clinton Presidency, I see him as responsible for the crash of 2008 as anyone in the Bush presidency, since he acquies ced to Greenspan’s economic policies that created the dot-com bubble and crash, and gave wholesale support to Larry Summers and his cronies as they gutted the Glass-Stegal act, which was the one piece of legislation holding back mega-banks tendency to massive financial fraud.

    But, Of course, Clinton was a force in the moral degradation of our country., do you really think he had such a heavy role in our moral degradation? I would be more inclined to cite the sexual revolution, and it is not as if America under the Regan administration was lacking in moral excess.

  4. Jed, I didn’t say “heavy” actually. I did notice the jarring effect of seeing front-page newspaper stories about oral sex (“Dad, what is oral sex?”) and how that seemed to considerably loosen up the topics of mainstream publications. Then coffee pot conversation followed the same path. I guess one could dispute whether than is moral degradation, but I can’t imagine that having a positive effect on teenager who followed current events. And you know that would be one curent event that would get on their radar.

  5. I can see what you are driving at here – there might be an argument that sexuality became less of a faux-paux in civil discourse or the national conscience during the Clinton years. I just think that the undercurrents driving this are less owing to Clinton, and more to other institutions, like education and the entertainment media where liberal views of sex were incubated and encouraged to flourish. Bush wasn’t particularly immoral (unless you count those wars) when it came to sex, but the turn of the 21st century society continued to become more and more sexualized – one only needs to track the proliferation of internet porn in the Bush years to find a major example. But, I wouldn’t necessarily lay that on Bush’s doorstep.

    • Sure, maybe the Lewinsky thing was simply a convenient excuse to open the floodgates a little more.

      Odd how one ideology refuses to consider prenatal death as morally problematic and the other side does the same with adult death (in warfare).

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