The Shining City

Remarks delivered at the July 4th, 1999 services of The North Texas Church of Freethought

Before we get started, let me mention just a few things:

Now then, ...

Even the critics of former President Ronald Reagan grudgingly allowed that he deserved his sobriquet of "The Great Communicator." For Reagan was able to think and speak in broad themes and ideals without sounding phony, foolish, or trite. And the themes he spoke about were well-chosen, for the most part, because they usually had a kind of timeless and universal appeal, as well as specific meaning and importance for Americans, who often tend to forget that there is anything at all that makes us uniquely a nation. One of the most successful of Reagan's themes was that of, "The Shining City on a Hill." (Don't bother, by the way, with Michael Reagan's book by the same name, because, except when he quotes his father, the younger Reagan shows himself to be little more than a Rush Limbaugh clone.)

Ronald Reagan gave credit to Puritan minister John Winthrop for the image of, "The Shining City on a Hill." But the idea goes back much further, I think. We can find it in the Bible, so it must be very old. Indeed, since we can find it in the Bible it was surely borrowed from somewhere else, though I don't know where. Probably, it had its origins in an earlier age when people really did build new cities from scratch, from when Jerusalem really was new.

Unfortunately, we must always stop for a moment before taking anything from the Bible to state clearly that there is nothing in this particular book — or any other — that can be considered authoritative. It is not the work or the word of any god, "supreme being," or of anyone or anything else intrinsically superior to the facts and reason to which we all have access. It is no "sacred scripture," but, rather, a work of human literature. But, as such, it is useful because it reflects the human experience and the human understanding of the human beings who wrote it.

It's a shame that this needs to be said. But we Freethinkers are very attached to reality. And the reality is that, unless it is said, certain confused people are likely to suppose that we think more highly of or differently about the Bible in some metaphysical sense than we do of the Iliad and the Odyssey, or of Shakespeare, or of Grimm's Fairy Tales or Mother Goose. Having made this qualification, though, consider this passage put into the mouth of the Jesus character in the New Testament's Gospel of Matthew:

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a 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. — [Matthew 5:13-16]

A cynical view would be that this is Jesus urging his followers to be on their good behavior for public relations purposes. But, even if that was the intent, we can consider the general idea of the passage, which is a good one. It is this: that it matters what we say and do because it reflects on us. It is how others perceive and come to understand us. Indeed, it is all that other people can really know about us. Even our closest and dearest friends, regardless of how well we — and they — think they understand us, have only our behavior to judge us by. And once those judgements are made, they can be very hard to change.

Well, we know what happened for many centuries after this passage was written. Kings and Popes and princes and bishops and their subordinates enforced a system which gave so little light to the world that we refer to them now as, "The Dark Ages."

It is the early 17th Century before we have John Winthrop (1588-1649), an English lawyer who in 1629 lost a well-paid and comfortable position because of his religious opinions and associations. A year later, in June of 1630, he landed in Salem in charge of 700 settlers. He went on to be elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony 12 times before his death in 1649. But in 1630, when Winthrop arrived in America, he had the following to say [abridged and with editing for grammar] to his band of Pilgrims:

Now the only way to avoid [ruin] ... is to do Justly, to love mercy, [and] to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities. For the supply of other's necessities, we must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work. ... The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways. ... We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a praise and glory, that men shall say ... the lord make it like that of New England. For we must Consider that 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 through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of god and all professors. We shall shame the faces of many of god's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whether we are going.

Like Matthew's Jesus, we see immediately that Winthrop intends the "City upon a Hill" as a kind of public relations project. He intends that its success will be useful as a sort of marketing tool for his particular version of Christianity. Its failure, on the other hand, will have the opposite effect: it will make a mockery of the ideals of Puritan Christianity. But, unlike the passage in Matthew, Winthrop's city is no abstract notion. On the contrary, it is very real. And it is proclaimed by a man who has invested his career and his future in an unproven project in a wilderness among many people that he may never have met before. Yet he has invested all his hopes and dreams into it. His whole sense of self is tied up in it.

Moreover, Winthrop lived in a time when "providence" had far more power over people than it does today. In 1630 it was often the case that ten men could hold off a thousand, if the weather, and disease, and scores of other things beyond human understanding, let alone human control, went against the thousand and in favor of the ten. Anyone who then might have gone about asserting that such things were, "just chance," would have been accused of worshipping a new deity. For in Winthrop's time, there was no science of probability theory and no such thing as chance. Technology had barely made its start, as measured against our modern era of air travel, agribusiness, antibiotics, and annuities.

Perhaps this accounts for Winthrop's innovative version of the "city on a hill" imagery of Matthew. For the gospel Jesus speaks of a city that glorifies God. But Winthrop's vision is of a city that is also blessed and glorified by God. It's a subtle shift, but an important one, I think, because it shifts the emphasis from the divine to the human. In fact, it does so in a striking way, asserting, in effect, that the actions of human beings — individual human beings who each play a part in creating this "city on a hill" — command the attention of omnipotent divine power. This is very different from the "amazing grace" sort of theology of orthodox, and especially Clavinist, Christianity.

But what else, really, could Winthrop appeal to in exhorting his fellow colonists to put forth their best efforts in the coming months and years? He certainly couldn't hold up before them the banner of king, of country, or even of conquest in the traditional sense. He had to appeal to his listeners' sense of their own personal convictions, their own special capabilities, and the obligation of their God to "command a blessing" on them in return for their efforts. It is no wonder that so many Americans believe — falsely — that the phrase, "God helps them who help themselves," is a biblical passage.

It doesn't stop there, either. For as with so many other things, it is impossible to change one element of an equation without affecting all the others. The subtle shift in emphasis from divine to human creativity and accomplishment inevitably leads to another. For if human action can be so extraordinary as to command the attention and favor of a divine power, then how much more should it command the attention of other human beings?

Winthrop gives no hint of understanding all this. But less than 150 years later, on this date in 1776, in fact, the signers of the Declaration of Independence demonstrated that they understood it implicitly. For the opening sentence of that document, which was supplied to Thomas Jefferson, interestingly enough, by Thomas Paine, reads as follows:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

There are those, as we know, who think that the only important word in that statement is, "God," even though the term clearly doesn't refer to any of the many gods worshipped by theists. But the really important words are those that refer to, "human events," and to the "political bands which have connected [one people] to another," and, especially, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." For the words and ideas of the Declaration of Independence, which are easily the equal, if not the superior, of those to found in any supposedly sacred scriptures, are the words and ideas of human beings. They are words and ideas that deal honestly and passionately, not with theological speculations, but with the real world concerns of human beings: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But perhaps what is most important is that the Declaration of Independence states outright that its purpose is not connected with any reverence for supernatural powers, but with "a decent respect" for human opinion.

It's "the city on a hill" image again: the idea that what we say and do in America is not just our own business, but something that matters to everyone, everywhere, and for all time. We see it in Emerson's calling the outbreak of hostilities at the North Bridge in Concord, "the shot heard round the world." We see it in Abraham Lincoln's description of the War Between the States as a contest in which, "We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth." We see it in Woodrow Wilson's saying that America's entry into World War I was necessary, "to make the world safe for democracy." I think that, in a way, we see its echoes in all the most noble and stirring appeals to what is best in our human ambition, imagination, and spirit.

Perhaps it was inevitable that it would happen this way in America. For what else was there besides all the old ways of holding people together and directing them towards a common goal? We cannot say, in America, after all, that we are all Germans or Japanese, or that we are all white people or black people, Christians or Muslims. We cannot say that there is any significant ethnic, or racial, or religious distinction between us and the rest of the world. Nor do we have the historical baggage of a thousand years of enmity with bordering peoples or countries. At least not yet. For now, we have still a great measure of what people had when they first came to America, including even so-called native Americans. For they had, and we still have, an enormous space, "from sea to shining sea," that remains something of a new beginning for everyone. It is at least arguable that this country has rather more shaped its people than it has even yet been shaped by its people.

Robert G. Ingersoll made this very argument on the Centennial observation of the 4th of July in 1876:

It has been a favorite idea with me that our fore-fathers were educated by Nature, that they grew grand as the continent upon which they landed; that the great rivers -- the wide plains — the splendid lakes -- the lonely forests -- the sublime mountains --that all these things stole into and became a part of their being, and they grew great as the country in which they lived. They began to hate the narrow, contracted views of Europe. ... [people] had to come here who were dissatisfied with the old country ... When the Puritans first came, they were narrow. They did not understand what liberty meant — what religious liberty, what political liberty, was; but they found out in a few years. ... So many religions met in our country — so many theories and dogmas came in contact — so many follies, mistakes, and stupidities became acquainted with each other, that religion began to fall somewhat into disrepute. ... [And t]he people were too much interested in this world to quarrel about the next. ... They had a common aspiration. They wanted to form a new nation. ... [And so] they pledged each other to forget these religious prejudices, for a time at least, and agreed that there should be only one religion until they got through, and that was the religion of patriotism. ... Our fathers founded the first secular government that was ever founded in this world. ... What we want today is what our fathers wrote down. They did not attain to their ideal; we approach it nearer, but have not reached it yet. We want, not only the independence of a State, not only the independence of a nation, but something far more glorious-- the absolute independence of the individual. That is what we want. I want it so that I, one of the children of Nature, can stand on an equality with the rest; that I can say this ismy air, my sunshine, my earth, and I have a right to live, and hope and aspire, and labor, and enjoy the fruit of that labor, as much as any individual or any nation on the face of the globe.

By the time Ronald Reagan adopted the "city on a hill" imagery, it was this that he saw [from Ronald Reagan's Farewell Address to the Nation]:

I've spoken of the shining city 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, windswept, 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 city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.

Yes, there's a "God" in there. But, if you removed it, it wouldn't alter the meaning in the slightest. The idea either of the "city on a hill" glorifying or being glorified by a supernatural power has become a vestigial appendage to the driving article of faith of American patriotism: that what we say and do matters, not just to us, but to everyone, everywhere, and for all time. In fact, the "city on a hill" has become "tall" and "proud!" It has become an emblem for one of the "Seven Deadly Sins" inasmuch as the human beings who built it, believe in it, and maintain it, are the ones who glorify and are glorified by the accomplishment. It is an idea that would have been unthinkable for the earliest immigrants to America, who had not yet, as Ingersoll suggested, learned the lessons that this land had to teach.

For it was once the case that facts and reasons were little more than the slaves of old outworn ideas that equally enslaved all who believed them. But when we and our ancestors transplanted the power of free minds to a new land, new and better ideas were the result. Puritan Christianity was only the leaky boat that first brought it over, and no more deserving of unique credit for our American liberties than were the slave ships from West Africa. That is why, "the shining city on a hill," belongs to all who can see it, because it represents our own highest and best ambition, imagination, and spirit. Moreover, we are no longer only, "the salt of the earth," but also the pepper, the chili, the cinnamon, the chocolate, and all the other flavors and spices of life that make us different even as we acknowledge, as Ingersoll put it, our shared "religion of patriotism."

Let me finish by reminding you that it now falls to us Freethinkers, as it has always fallen to Freethinkers, to be the true leaven in the bread. We must strive to be that one part in ten, or a hundred, or a thousand, or a million people that dare to look beyond what is and begin to take the first steps towards something better. I'm not talking about various forms of political activism, either. Just because politicians have taken up these ideas and made them their own doesn't mean that all hope for the future lies in political power. Far from it. For politics, as important as it is, is but a part — a very small part — of what freedom is really all about. What is much more important are the steps we, as individuals, can take towards bettering ourselves, our families, our communities, and, of course, this church of ours.

Do we have the will and the heart to do what only we can do? We can be "the light of the world," obviously. But, more obviously, if we believe, as we say we believe, in our own lights, then what we say and do really does matter; to us, always, and for all the time we can ever know.

Thank you and Good Morning.

© 1999 by Dr. Tim Gorski