During MSNBC’s coverage of the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address this past January 24, Rachel Maddow took issue with Gov. Mitch Daniels’s description of America as the “shining city on the hill.” She was irked by what she sees as a spurious addition to John Winthrop’s famous metaphor from his 1630 sermon aboard the Arbella: “…for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us.”*
What bothered Maddow was the presence of the word “shining,” a word that does not appear in Winthrop’s phrasing.
“We are going take a quick break,” Maddow said at the end of her segment with Chris Matthews. “The city on the hill will not be shining when we come back. It doesn’t need to shine. John Winthrop just talked about it being up there, in the eyes of the world upon it. That was it. Shining thing was a late addition. I’m sorry. Bugs me. Up next, we’ll be talking with Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama. We’ll be right back. It’s not shining. It’s not.”
That “late addition” to which Maddow referred is found in Ronald Reagan’s deployment of the “city on a hill” metaphor at the end of his November 1979 speech announcing his intent to seek the Republican nomination. In his closing remarks, Reagan invoked Winthrop’s address aboard the Arbella and repurposed the metaphor for his own candidacy as a “rendezvous with destiny”:
We who are privileged to be Americans have had a rendezvous with destiny since the moment in 1630 when John Winthrop, standing on the deck of the tiny Arbella off the coast of Massachusetts, told the little band of pilgrims, “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 byword throughout the world.”
A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and—above all—responsible liberty for every individual that we will become that shining city on a hill.
For her part, Maddow seemed to be piqued that Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” a go-to metaphor for Republican politicians ever since, represents not merely an addition to Winthrop’s phrasing but also a distortion of Winthrop’s meaning.
Clearly, Rachel Maddow does not know her Bible.
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matt. 5:14-16)
Winthrop’s hearers, well-versed in the Bible, would have immediately recognized his metaphor and just as immediately associated it with its scriptural context and connotations. For them, the “City upon a Hill” was implicitly shining — as it was for the “Moral majority” voters of the 1980s who apparently responded very well to this scriptural reframing of American exceptionalism.
My point here is not that Maddow is somehow incorrect to point out that John Winthrop didn’t describe the City as “shining.” Of course she is correct. But her point is politically irrelevant. Most Americans probably don’t connect this phrase to John Winthrop at all, and pointing out that he didn’t say the City was shining will not in any way affect how this modified metaphor resonates with many who hear it. The “shining city on a hill” will continue to make an appearance in American political rhetoric because it evokes a familiar text that remains as central to the lives of many Americans today as it was to the lives of the Puritans aboard the Arabella.
There is no single text or set of texts that has been more influential in American intellectual history than the Bible. The (Protestant) Christian scriptures have shaped the political, cultural, social, and intellectual discourse in the U.S. since its colonial days. Yes, there are other equally crucial influences — but none more influential than the Bible.
The Bible is a key primary text for U.S. intellectual history. It has been read, re-read, misread, used, misused, repurposed and used again, quoted and misquoted, revered and reviled, throughout American history, by a fairly sizable number of Americans. However its meanings have been construed at different moments, by different groups of people, the Bible — not merely its theological content or narrative incidents but its very language — has persisted as an integral part of the conceptual framework within which American thought continues to take shape.
Am I suggesting that it is necessary for a U.S. intellectual historian to be familiar with the Bible? No. But it couldn’t hurt. Indeed, it could be quite helpful. If what we are about is understanding the sense that people have made of their world, and the underlying sensibility from which that meaning-making emerges, we really need to pay attention to the texts and the ideas that were important to them and to the world within which (and sometimes against which) they lived — not just what those texts were, but what those texts said, and what those people used the texts to say.
Those of us who were (un)fortunate enough to grow up going to Sunday School and Children’s Church (and Bible Study and Prayer Group and Vacation Bible School, ad infinitum, ad nauseum) are at an advantage here. It is beyond easy for someone like me to read William Lloyd Garrison or William James, W.E.B. DuBois or Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Addams or Henry Luce, and recognize when and how they are invoking the language of scripture, and to what rhetorical effect. I don’t need footnotes to tell me the source of their phrasing or the meaning of their allusions. This is a real boon when it comes to understanding the ideas at play in a particular text and placing that thought within a larger context.
Don’t get me wrong: the idea of sitting down to read the Bible is no more pleasant for me than it might be for someone who was not brought up to know it backwards and forwards. In fact, it’s probably a good deal less pleasant for me than it would be for those who can approach the text without quite so much, well, history. Nevertheless, the durability and ubiquity of the Bible as a common cultural referent throughout American history — a source and resource of thought accessible and appropriated across lines of race, class and gender — combined with its plasticity as a text from which multiple meanings have been shaped and reshaped at each new moment in American thought, should make it an indispensable primary source for U.S. intellectual historians.
So, brothers and sisters, I urge you — certainly not by the mercies of God, but rather by the exigencies of doing first-rate U.S. intellectual history — to bite the bullet, take your medicine, and read your Bible.
*Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in Hollinger and Capper, The American Intellectual Tradition, vol. 1, pp. 6-15 (p. 15).