America is a shining city upon a hill

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"As Ronald Reagan emphasized, America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere."[1]

And, "As Ronald Reagan said in his farewell address to the nation, 'I've spoken of the Shining City all my political life. …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.'"[2]


  • "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."—Jesus, from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14-16.
  • "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 shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses . . ."—John Winthrop, aboard the Arbella, 1630.[3]
  • "President-elect John F. Kennedy said, in an address to the Massachusetts Legislature on January 9, 1961, “During the last 60 days I have been engaged in the task of constructing an administration…. I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arabella [sic] 331 years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a government on a new and perilous frontier. ‘We must always consider,’ he said, ‘that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.’ Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, State, and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their grave trust and their great responsibilities.”—Congressional Record, January 10, 1961, vol. 107, Appendix, p. A169..."[4]

In U.S. presidential election, 2004

"Politicians as diverse in their ideology as John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale and Bill Clinton have all borrowed Winthrop's vision, each of them giving it his own spin," Kimberly Winston wrote for Beliefnet.[5]

"And as the Democratic primary season gets rolling, three of the Democratic candidates have already pitched to their audiences some version of the Puritan's ideal.

"John Forbes Kerry--distantly related to Winthrop on his mother's side--described for a New Hampshire audience an America of 'rising hope and true community . . . we have moved closer to the America we can become - for our own people, for the country, and for all the world.' Wesley Kanne Clark's idea of a 'New American Patriotism' borrows heavily from Winthrop's idea of Christian charity as it envisions the nation 'once again . . . a beacon of hope and a source of inspiration for people everywhere.'

"But it was Howard Dean who, like Reagan, quoted directly from 'A Model of Christian Charity' when he announced his candidacy. 'We shall be as one,' he said in Burlington, Vt., last June [2003]. 'We must delight in each other, make other's conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always living before our eyes our Commission and Community in our work. ... It is that ideal, the ideal of the American community, that we seek to restore,' he concluded.

"Still, no one has used it as extensively or to better effect than Ronald Reagan, who lifted the phrase intact from Winthrop's sermon several times, most memorably in his bid for a second term and in his farewell address.

"The idea behind the phrase - of America as a special nation blessed by God - has burrowed so deeply into the American consciousness that some prominent religion scholars and pol-watchers say it is nearly obligatory during Presidential races."

"Since then, each American president has had his own city on the hill moment. For George Herbert Walker Bush, it was on the campaign trail when the city on the hill shined so bright it became 'a thousand points of light.' And Bill Clinton's nod to Winthrop was to adopt the Puritan's idea of 'covenant,' the notion that America has a special role in the eyes of God.

"Many scholars think George W. Bush had his city on a hill moment after September 11, 2001 when he framed the war against terror as a moral response, a mission blessed by God that the rest of the world would join in. 'America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world,' the president said in an address to the nation on Sept. 11, 2001. 'And no one will keep that light from shining.'

"Who among the current crop of candidates - Democrat or Republican - will ultimately take their reframing of Winthrop's vision in the White House remains to be seen. But some scholars feel President Bush has already blown his city on a hill moment. They point to world disapprobation for the war on Iraq and growing discomfort at home at mounting U.S. casualities with no end in sight," Winston wrote.

Resources and articles

Related SourceWatch articles



  • Michael Reagan, "The City on A Hill: Fulfilling Ronald Reagan's Vision For America".
  • Amos Kiewe and Davis W. Houck, "A Shining City on a Hill. Ronald Reagan's Economic Rhetoric, 1951-1989," Praeger Publishers, New York, 1991.

External articles