City on a Hill: Final Chapter

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 the final chapter, The Once and Future City.

For those wondering if Marco Rubio is the future of the Republican Party, you may be interested to know that he continues the “city on a hill” myth:

In his maiden speech on the floor of the Senate in June 2011, the freshman Senator managed to combine John F. Kennedy’s “watchman on the walls of world freedom” and Henry Luce’s “American century” with robust exceptionalism and Reagan’s shining city.  At the end of his speech, he rejected the idea that America had reached the limit of its wealth, power and influence and was about to be surpassed by “new shining cities.”  He accepted the costs, he vowed, of “keep[ing] America’s light shining”…

In a nation of so many professing to be Bible-believing Christians, why has there been so little objection raised to the political appropriation and misuse of a biblical metaphor?

Nothing seemed strange about an American dressed in biblical imagery to a generation of Christians taught to read their nation’s history as a manifestation of the special relationship between their land and their God. Since the 1970’s, such bestselling books as The Light and the Glory and its sequels had turned the events of American history into proof of the finger of God in history.

Gamble then proceeds to give the example of the American Patriot’s Bible, which can, of course, be bought in a camouflage cover.  He doesn’t mention the prevalence of homeschooling resources that do the same thing.

We’ll conclude with Gamble putting Christian faith and patriotism in a healthier perspective:

Christians owe a proper degree of allegiance to their nation. Christians ought to love their earthly home with well-ordered affections. But they must be on guard against idolatry in whatever form it takes. They must not give to Caesar anything that belongs to Christ and his Church no matter how much they love their country. In fact, a proper love of their country will keep them from ascribing any untruth to the thing they love. In Christian theology, it is simply not true that America is the city on the hill, not now, not ever. To see to protect America from this falsehood is not to do her any dishonor. Quite the opposite. It spares her from delusion. Proper love refuses to cooperate with the effort to divinize America.

…The more self-conscious Americans in general become about using the metaphor, and the better they know the story of how the city was turned from a biblical metaphor into a national myth, the more likely they are to abandon it as a tired emblem of their collective aspirations as a people. If this is so, then it presents an opportunity for Christians to “take back” the metaphor, not for Reagan or the Republican Party, not for social justice or another liberal cause, but for the church to which it originally and exclusively belonged.


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

13 responses to “City on a Hill: Final Chapter

  1. I’m going to have to read this book sometime. It sounds great. I’ve been enjoying the snippets of it you’ve posted. As a homeschooler who has at least one copy of The Light and the Glory back home, who read all sorts of accounts of our Founding Fathers that even led me to believe that Benjamin Franklin was a godly Christian man, and as one who had cassette tapes where a guy spoke favorably of Christopher Columbus’ account that the Holy Spirit had led him to the Americas, I understand some of the dangers of the idolatry in the American Myth. I believe that this idolatry especially infects the “culture warrior” types.

    Nonetheless, I do favor a view of history that recognizes God’s providence in preserving His purposes on behalf of His church because “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

    One of my elders mentioned the other day, for instance, that a Christian view of the battle of Thermopylae would not revel in the vain and passing glory of Spartan might against the Persian forces of Xerxes, but would rather consider the glory of God in how He providentially preserved the Greek world, along with the Greek language in which He had purposed to have His Scriptures written. Fascinatingly, it was also from the hand of this same Xerxes that He providentially preserved His exiled people through Queen Esther.

    • Luke, it’s a fun read. It’s primarily history rather than the kind of cultural commentary I’ve highlighted as it traces how the phrase has been used since first penned by Winthrop.

      FWIW we’ve used all kinds of schooling in my household, and I’ve taught a couple courses in which other homeschoolers joined. It’s the best way for some kids/families, and the worst for others. So I have no animus against it, but I frequently observed a blending of Country and Christ and the manufacture of heroes rather than the telling of history. It seems almost human nature for kids to have heroes, yet we skew history and perhaps even the presentation of human nature when we make the heroes. The men of the Bible are always presented warts (moral) and all, with the biblical hero being God and his grace who saves and works through sinful man.

      We take it as a matter of faith that God works all things together for good and this is a great comfort but we should be humble in theoretically specifying how he works. God knows the beginning from the end and has his purposes; who knows the mind of God except for what he has revealed? Back in the days of my undergraduate philosophy studies I would joke that God raised up the Greek philosophers to produce a language suitable for the NT scriptures but of course his purposes are manifold and we had best be humble in our estimation of why history unfolds as it does. Otherwise we can be like Job’s friends, Pat Robertson explaining adverse weather, and the various oddballs that seem to be ever with us who fit contemporary figures into end times scenarios.

    • MLM, I would especially be interested in the book as being primarily historical because I see the effects of this myth all over the place. It would be nice to have a grasp on its history. The cultural commentary is a bonus that flows from understanding the history.

      I agree that it does no one any favors to whitewash history and that Christian historians ought to be cautious in that regard. That is why I think that Christians ought to look at history with a view to God’s goodness to His church. Even with regard to the U.S., it is good for us to give thanks to God for having provided a government that does not oppress us and under which the church has had much freedom.

      With any “hero” or nation that is raised up for some purpose, we know that “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”

  2. Richard

    The way in which Christians re-write their history (David Barton, e.g.) reminds me of the way the Soviets did the same thing. To the Soviets, all things which advanced “socialist realism” meant you could distort anything. That Christians, who are above all supposed to be “truth tellers,” could stoop to distortion of history never fails to amaze me.

    • Here’s a description of an elementary school textbook:

      Through “The Mighty Works of God” the student learns that the building blocks of our great nation were laid upon a biblical foundation. The formation of the United States of America is seen through the eyes of Christ and the Christian men and women who worked so hard to bring His plan into fruition.

      History seen through the eyes of Christ?

      An organization called Exodus Books tries to explain:

      as Christians, we believe it’s our duty to present history from a Christian perspective. If we believe the purpose of history study is to make us better, more capable, and more virtuous people, how can we then present information to our kids in a “just the facts, ma’am” format? They need to know how to think about the past in order for knowledge of it to affect them positively, and the only way to make sure they can is to teach them the facts tempered by our understanding of them.

      • Richard

        Good grief. Yeah, it is a problem, isn’t it, to just present facts? Christians should point to this crap and howl in derision at those in our ranks who distort history for a “higher purpose.” They have the same integrity I encountered with some of my history profs at Cal Berkeley.

  3. Luke, what about a view of history and providence that aligns with Belgic 13 (on Providence):

    We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what he does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ’s disciples, so as to learn only what he shows us in his Word, without going beyond those limits.

    That’s the one I favor, which might then call into question your elder’s attempt to trace out what was providentially going on what the Greeks and instead be content with what happened.

    • When we know for a fact that God works all things (that includes history) for the good of His church and we know that Christ came when and where He came and the Scriptures of the New Testament were written in the Greek language, it is hardly a matter of the incomprehensible when we see prior to that how God worked out history to preserve the Greek world from being overrun by the Persians. The conclusion is hardly inconsistent with what Scripture teaches.

  4. sean

    That’s good on the Belgic 13. It reminds me of the Lutheran caution to not look into the ‘secret’ things of God. Speaking of the Belgic Confession, I’ve used to great effect, with those at church struggling to understand the use of the Law in the believer’s life, the guilt-grace-gratitude structure. When all else seems muddy on the issue, they’ve been able to latch onto that as a fail-safe.

  5. Sean, more reason to love Lutherans. I’ve concluded there are two types of American P&R: Lutheran friendly, Baptist leery or vice versa. Unfortunately there are more of the latter than former.

  6. sean


    Unfortunate is a word. Nothing like trying to field Q & A after an Edwardsian sunday school. That, and not undermine the elders at the same time.

  7. Luke, maybe. But if your elder’s isn’t an example of what Belgic 13 is talking about, I’m hard pressed to know what is. For my part, I’m good with saying that somebody won a war and it had certain consequences, even that God providentially brought about all of it. Where I stop feeling at ease is plumbing the divine depths to explain why it happened. Like Calvin said, to do is to enter a labyrinth out of which there is no hope of escape. Or something like that.

    • Richard

      And in the end, you wind up sounding like Job’s friends, who similarly thought they had God all figured out. It helps to remember the Creator/creature distinction.

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