What Shining Hill Is That Republican City Built On?
This week, when Ted Cruz announced his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, he promised to “fight to preserve America as a Shining City on a Hill”. The fact that the Ted Cruz for President campaign is capitalizing “shining city on a hill” is meant to indicate that Cruz understands the whole shiny hilly city thing to be more than just a description of strange geography, but an important cultural phrase that refers to something else. Many Americans might wonder what he was talking about, but the audience of right wing Christian fundamentalists that Cruz was talking to at Liberty University knew exactly what he was saying.
The statement that the United States is a “shining city on a hill” has become political shorthand for the assertion that the United States of America, despite its secular Constitution, is actually a nation of Christians, by Christians, and for Christians. The meme has passed through several twists and turns, but ultimately goes back all the way to the year 1630, to a sermon delivered by John Winthrop on a boat filled with Puritans headed off to join the colony in Massachusetts.
The way that Republicans like Ted Cruz tell the story of America as a shining city on a hill is that the United States was intended to be a Christian nation from the beginning. They read Winthrop’s speech as it leads up to the phrase, “shining city on a hill”. Winthrop wrote, “The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his oune people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our wayes. Soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdome, power, goodness and truthe, than formerly wee haue been acquainted with. Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it likely that of New England.” For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill.”
When this part of Winthrop’s sermon is read, it sounds like a prophecy of the greatness of the American nation as a Christian theocracy. Winthrop is read as foreseeing that the Massachusetts Colony would grow into unrivaled greatness because of its affiliation with the divine power of the Christian God. This interpretation of John Winthrop’s sermon has been made into the foundation of the ideology of American Exceptionalism, which asserts that the United States is a Christian nation, and has been chosen by the supernatural creator of the entire universe to become the most powerful nation on Earth.
If this shining city prophecy was true in a literal sense, then the divine influence of the Christian God over American politics ought to be made manifest through the consistent political victory of those political leaders who most loudly retell the prophecy. In our time, the Republicans proclaim the mantle of divinely authorized government, so they ought to have won the executive leadership over our country, if their god of American Exceptionalism is actually manipulating American politics from his heavenly abode.
That’s not the actual political history of the shining hill city of GOP, though. The most recent Republican presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, both pledged their campaigns to the mission of making the United States a “shining city on a hill”. Both lost by large margins.
Why has this happened? Well, in addition to being devotees of the Cult of American Exceptionalism, John McCain and Mitt Romney are also arrogant plutocrats. As such, they have ignored the second part of John Winthrop’s metaphor of the emerging American nation as a shining city on a hill. Winthrop’s shining city was a much a warning as it was a prideful prophecy of greatness.
Winthrop said, “Wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God’s sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing.” If the Christian colonists of America deal falsely, Winthrop warned, then they will give people reason to speak evil of the ways of Christianity.
Dealing falsely is just what the Puritan colonists of Massachusetts became infamous for. The Salem Witch Trials became well known as one theocratic atrocity among many. The shining city on a hill was built as an instrument of torture and death upon the chest of Giles Corey, an elderly farmer who was sentenced to be executed when he dared to speak out against the witch hunt, and refused to make himself subject to the religious court. Corey was ordered to be stripped naked and covered with a board, upon which would be piled large rocks, to crush Corey slowly to death. The weight of the stones was so tremendous that it caused Corey’s tongue to pop involuntarily out of his mouth, until a law enforcement officer came along and shoved it back in with the end of his cane.
The shining city on a hill of theocracy in colonial America was a glaring embarrassment, and led the founders of the United States of America to construct a Constitution that kept religion out of government. Still, Republicans keep trying to shove religion back into American government, to try to build their shining city ever higher. Most recently, Mike Pence, Republican Governor of Indiana, approved legislation that allows businesses to legally discriminate against people, using their Christianity as an excuse to do so.
Even after generations of failed, ugly attempts to establish theocracy in the USA, Republicans have yet to heed the warning of John Winthrop’s shining city on the hill: The world is watching what Christians try to do when they seize the power of government, and judging them negatively for it.