book cover imageA conversation with Richard M. Gamble.

Professor Richard Gamble, a Bookman contributor, holds the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander chair in history and political science at Hillsdale College. He has recently published In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth, a review of which will appear in a forthcoming edition of the Bookman. Gerald Russello recently spoke with him about his work.

Professor Gamble, thanks for joining us. Tell us a bit about how the idea for this book came about.

The idea for the book grew out of my own teaching about how Americans have understood and described themselves over the past four hundred years and how that has changed over time. I noticed once while reading the introduction to a collection of American sermons published on the eve of the Civil War that the editor, while discussing the Puritan legacy, never once mentioned the “city on a hill.” We associate that phrase so closely with America and Puritan idealism or even utopianism that it seemed odd to me that anyone would fail to mention the metaphor back in 1860. That missing piece stuck in my mind and began to fascinate me. That hole turned into a historical mystery that led to a lot of research and finally this book.

Americans are today accustomed to speaking, and hearing about, America as a “city on a hill.” Where does that image come from?

We certainly have become accustomed to hearing America described as the fabled city. The metaphor’s origin lies in the Gospel of Matthew. It comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is an extension of the “light” metaphor that dominates this passage in chapter five. In fact, many have seen the image of the city as subordinate to the image of light, and I think a good case can be made for that interpretation. Regardless, Jesus told his disciples that they would be conspicuous for their doctrine and their life. People would be watching them to see whether they brought honor or shame to the Gospel. The famous warning that the “eyes of the world” would be upon the Puritans in America reflects the point that Jesus’ followers could not hide their creed and conduct.

For the next 1,500 years or more, the Christian church understood the “city on a hill” as a warning that applied primarily (though not exclusively) to ministers. Pastors bore a heavy burden of responsibility. At the time of the Reformers, we see the metaphor occasionally applied to godly towns, but that use didn’t carry anything like the political and secular meanings it has been given today.

That transformation happened in America with the Puritan John Winthrop and his discourse, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Near the end of what is often called his shipboard “sermon,” the Puritan governor applied Jesus’ warning to his fellow Puritan refugees who faced the hard work of planting a colony in New England. From there it followed a strange trajectory through American history, for many years disappearing entirely.

Even though the phrase predates the founding, it was not always a metaphor used to describe the country. How did the phrase “city on a hill” make its way into American memory?

The story of the metaphor in American memory—an ongoing story, I might add—is complex and takes up the center of the book. In many ways, the story of the city on a hill in American history is the story of a false memory. The phrase has become so commonplace today, even to the point of cliché, that we assume we have always used it to explain who we are and what our calling and destiny are.

As a matter of historical record, the metaphor showed up very rarely from the time of Winthrop in 1630 until the presidency of John F. Kennedy—and then returned in a big way with Ronald Reagan. We say that a thing can be “conspicuous by its absence,” and that is certainly true in this case. To be sure, other ways of expressing American exceptionalism and the idea of a watching world were present, but Americans did not routinely call their country a “city on hill” until very recently. That happened gradually. The phrase was picked up by a handful of historians in the mid-nineteenth century, speculated on by other scholars in the early twentieth century, and then emphasized by the Harvard scholar Perry Miller as the key to understanding the revolutionary Puritans’ (alleged) determination to establish a beachhead in North American from which to transform the world.

Can you expand on a point you make in the book about the historian John Lukacs and his statement that people do things to ideas as well as the reverse?

Gladly. I first encountered the work of John Lukacs in the 1980s, and he has profoundly shaped the way I approach the history of ideas. His books have taught me the primacy of ideas, but not in the way we might assume. He has warned more than once that ideas do not operate autonomously in history. Thoughts have to have thinkers, people who live at certain times and places, who are influenced by the ideas of others, and, most importantly, who do things to the ideas themselves, intentionally and unintentionally. They handle ideas. They mold and remake ideas, sometimes radically. And this is exactly what I began to witness in the story of the city on a hill. Once this insight struck me and I saw the power of Lukacs’s analytical tool, I tried very hard in the book never to have the metaphor doing anything on its own, never doing anything to people or to America. This may be a subtle point, but it matters for the way we account for the power of ideas in the world. And it also reminds us why we must take care how we handle words and the ideas they convey. My book, then, is a close study of what Americans did with—and to—the idea of the city on a hill over the course of four hundred years, ending with what we continue to do with it right down to the 2012 presidential race.

Ronald Reagan used the metaphor quite memorably. What did Reagan mean to convey by his use? Is it part of American exceptionalism?

I devote an entire chapter to Reagan, but the answer to your question is fairly simple. Reagan took the biblical metaphor (by way of John Winthrop) and gave it a consistent secular meaning. He used it to express his vision of a free-market, prosperous nation that would defeat communism, expand democracy and freedom, and offer a welcome to all who sought refuge within our borders. Part of the irony here is that Reagan was, of course, very popular among evangelicals and yet did more than any other American in history to secularize and politicize what had once been a metaphor of the Christian church. I’m not saying he ever intended to eclipse Jesus’ use of the metaphor, but, again, this ought to remind us just how powerful images and words can be—powerful enough to replace one meaning with another.

What are the implications for church and state of this secularized, politicized biblical metaphor?

The implications for the church are the flip side of the implications for the state. I concede that the United States may have gained something very useful in this metaphor. It has become foundational to our civil religion. It is at least a vague aspiration that helps hold together a diverse and massive nation of over 300 million people. Politicians to this day seem to know that it resonates with the electorate. But America’s gain is the church’s loss. And that concerns me. Christians ought not to surrender any part of their identity. Doing so strikes me as a modern instance of “rendering unto Caesar” things that belong to God. A worse problem would be if Christians, even with the best intentions in the world, cheered on the use of the metaphor by politicians as if this were a mark of America’s spiritual health and renewal. Sadly, that has happened.

What does the metaphor stand for in current politics? Is it clichéd now?

I think the metaphor has reached the end of its shelf life. It still seems to have some evocative power, but it is used so often—even multiple times in one day by one candidate—that it will soon be dead. In such speeches, the “city” typically shows up in the last paragraph as a way to get one more emotional outburst from the cheering crowd. It is an empty vessel into which anything can be poured. And I think speechmakers largely leave it up to their audiences to supply that meaning out of their own vision of America. Most often these days it is shorthand for American exceptionalism. But the origin of that word and the idea behind it is another story.

Thanks for taking time for the Bookman.  

A conversation with Richard M. Gamble, author of In Search of the City on a Hill.