City on a Hill: Ronald Reagan


Tenuously Connected But Cool

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. Today we focus on Ronald Reagan with excerpts you can find in the sixth chapter.

Between 1981 and 1989 Ronald Reagan mentioned the “city on a hill” in more than 20 speeches. Reagan described his vision of the city:

I’ve spoken of the shining city on a hill 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 walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.

Perhaps that kind of statement is the reason why historian John Patrick Diggins

concluded Reagan’s theology had little to do with seventeenth-century Calvinist views of God’s sovereignty, man’s depravity, and Christianity’s call to a life of repentance and self-denial. Indeed, Reagan’s optimism aligned him more closely with Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists’ Over Soul than anything resembling Puritanism.

We have seen how John F. Kennedy used “city on a hill,” but Reagan took it further:

Ironically, American evangelicals’ favorite president did more than any other figure in history to take a piece of their Christian identity away from them. …he also removed the last traces of the city’s ancient Christian and later English Puritan nuances…Reagan transformed Jesus’ metaphor into a political slogan inseparable from the 1980’s “Reagan Revolution”… for Regan it became a an expression of modern political, economic and religious freedom and a tool of American anti-communism.

…The Republicans, he said, ought to spread their message of “a future economic growth and opportunity and democratic revolution and peace among nations.” He than emphasized America’s “destiny” and “great calling” and and appealed to the “shining city,” a city aglow with the light of human freedom, a light that someday will cast its glow on every dark corner of the world and on every age and generation to come.”

The final page of Chapter Six includes the following summation:

…because exceptionalism has tangled up within it the problems of civil religion, it may well be that the deepest fault lies today in American culture not along the obvious divide between religious and irreligious people but along the largely overlooked divide between religious orthodoxy and Americanism. …Ronald Reagan guaranteed that for many years – and perhaps forever – the American nation and the city on a hill would be fused into one indistinguishable symbol of universal benevolence. The confusion of kingdoms evident in America’s identity as the city on a hill narrows the debate over the American identity to false options. It also renders Christians oblivious to the boundaries between the two cities they inhabit. Such confusion of kingdoms makes the common life that Christians and non-Christians share in this world more difficult than it already is. Sorting out all the confusion requires knowing the difference between the city on a hill and the City of Man.

We have previously watched a Reagan “city on a hill” clip. Now here’s Sarah Palin quoting both Reagan and “city on a hill:”


Filed under Church and State, City on a Hill, evangelical politics, Two Kingdom

6 responses to “City on a Hill: Ronald Reagan

  1. Richard

    Gary Wills makes the same point about Pres. Reagan. I always thought it interesting the words Reagan placed on his memorial: “I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life,” the inscription reads. Sounds like something out of Robert Schuller.

    • You know, this is killing me because my memories of Reagan actually get a tad sentimental. And don’t even get me started on my reluctance to diss Sarah.

      Tell me more about this book by Wills.

  2. Richard

    I hear you, my first vote ever was for Reagan, and I kept on voting for him. Gary Wills wrote a book, “Reagan’s America, ” which Mike Horton cited to in several of his books. Wills compares Reagan’s optimistic theology with that of (shudder) Jimmy Carter’s, citing to William James that Carter’s was the consistently Calvinistic one of fall, humility, and repentance. “America has increasingly preferred the religion James called “healthy mindedness,” which replaces sin with sadness as the real enemy of human nature. The modern evangelicals, beaming and healthy successes in the communications industry, are exemplars of that religion.” Reagan doesn’t come off very well.

  3. The problem is that Americans have never accepted their responsibility to be a model of Christian charity. The remedy for that is spelled out clearly in 1 Corinthians 12, which is the subject of Winthrop’s sermon:

    [25] That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.
    [26] And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.

    The failure is not with politicians, but with Christians, and Christian teachers.

  4. John

    Yes, John U., the Church is at fault, and shame on us. The evangelical and much of the Presbyterian church are modern-day Herodians, trading our hope and our identity in the kingdom of Christ for hope in the things of this world, particularly America, as we ideally “remember” it. Reagan’s theology of “man is good, not depraved, unless he’s not an American or an ally” is a big camel to swallow, but we gladly swallowed it (pastors, of whom I am, take blame; we’ve failed God’s people in this). May we refocus His flock to expect depravity, to be gracious to those in it, and to hope and hold out the hope of eternal life and the kingdom of God instead of the “promise of the America of old.”

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