Our Shining City on a Hill?

In Search of the City on a Hill, Richard M. Gamble, (Continuum, 2012)

Do you believe that America is the “city on a hill” that Christ was referring to in his Sermon on the Mount? Are there more than one of these cities? Was Jesus talking about a civil nation at all, or was this a metaphor of the church?

Ding, ding, ding…1,000 cyber-points awarded to those of you who agree with question #3.

In his book, Richard Gamble gives us a history lesson on how Americans have refashioned this metaphor of the church into the myth of the redeemer nation. “The first two chapters of this book set out to free the Puritans, John Winthrop, and the Model of Christian Charity from nearly 400 years of accumulated clutter” (16). The reader will discover that not only was Winthrop’s infamous “city on a hill” line insignificant to the discourse as a whole, but that we really don’t know if he ever delivered The Model of Christian Charity as a sermon while aboard the Arbella. If you are now thinking, “Wait a minute, I read about Winthrop preaching about the city on a hill aboard the Arbella in my history books,” you probably did. This story has been renovated to fit the ideologies of historians and politicians on both the left and the right.

If you are interested in how this could have happened, you need to read Gamble’s book. Although he does free the Puritans, Winthrop, and the Model from accumulated clutter, he presents them as the messy selves that they were. In cautioning the reader not to read America’s future into the Puritan’s purpose and context, Gamble demonstrates that this was not a political discourse, but a model of Christian love. And yet, in it there is certainly a rendition of Deuteronomy 30 that does show Winthrop’s conviction of a national covenant in which he was leading his Puritan community to the Promised Land. In contrast with God’s covenant of grace in which Christ has accomplished redemption on our behalf, earning our future, eternal holy land, Winthrop seemed to push the rewind button back to a temporary land based on our covenantal obedience. Sounds familiar to some of the rhetoric today.

Gamble then traces this popular metaphor through pastors, historians, and politicians up to this day, where it has been spun to implications completely unrecognizable from the meaning our first Pastor ever gave to it. There is a great chapter on Ronald Reagan’s interpretation and exploitation of the metaphor to promote American exceptionalism, making the phrase “a holy relic of the American civil religion” (155).

Why does any of this matter?

The language of the church cannot be appropriated by the state without consequences. The long tradition of Christian political theology has maintained, despite considerable internal debate and important exceptions, that the confusion between the ‘things of Caesar’ and the ‘things of God’ threatens the integrity of both realms. It elevates the secular government beyond its calling and capacity and robs the church of an essential part of its identity.

Wrapped in the American flag, the biblical metaphor of the city on a hill loses its power to identify the church…The ‘good news’ has been overshadowed by a feel-good political agenda (181-182).

It matters for the sake of the purity of the gospel. America as a redeemer nation is not very good news at all.


Dr. Gamble's book is

Dr. Gamble's book is terrific, thanks for giving it a promotion. The idea of a "national covenant" which he and other Puritans (Johnathan Edwards, e.g.) promoted is especially troubling, and appears to have been a source of the problems with the metaphor later on. Let me also recommend another fine Dr. Gamble historical work, "The War for Righteousness," where he examines early American Progressivism and WW I within the context of postmill Christianity.

Alan, no one here is claiming

Alan, no one here is claiming that America is the site of the new kingdom; just the opposite is posited in Aimee's article.


The sermon and mount

The sermon and mount reflected a new dispensation, evangelical. Both the first table of the law, and the second table, were given on the Mount of Olives, presented not in legal terms, but under grace. Sinai saw legal terms introduced, do this and live. Both mountains spoke to the Israel of God, and not the world around. So how can America claim to be this mountain, the mount of Olives unless it were the church that was consistuted there, as old physical Israel was constituted beneath Sinai?
I have read of America as being where Christ will return and set up His kingdom. This was rife within the 1800's, the time of the false prophets, not just Joseph Smith and William Miller, but some trusted individuals, men of renown, giants within the earth.
When, in 1666, London was ablaze, there were already plans being made to create a new Jerusalem. Architects claimed that they would, from the ashes, build a new Jerusalem, and that having done so it would herald the reign of Jesus Christ. Think somewhere along the way Westminster palace, and Big Ben, seem to have gotten in the way, some centuries later. Good try, though!

[...] Church (PCA) in

[...] Church (PCA) in Martinsburg, WV.  She and her husband, Matt, have 3 children.  She blogs at Housewife Theologian where this article first appeared; it is used with her [...]

Did you see the article

Did you see the article Christianity Today did on displaying the flag in churches? It’s three very short essays by people (Douglas Wilson, Lisa Velthouse, and Russell D. Moore) who come down in different places on the issue, and is really well done: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/july-august/should-churches-dis...


The Christian flag is the

The Christian flag is the other flag usually in the front of the sanctuary: mostly white, with the cross in the corner.

I don't think Christian's need a flag, and my husband pointed out that, since it's mostly white, it looks like a flag of surrender. What kind of message does that convey?

That last line of yours is

That last line of yours is outstanding, Aimee: "America as a redeemer nation is not very good news at all." I don't know how people who read the Bible can get confused on this issue, but they seem to with regularity. The quote you gave us from the book is a great tool for setting people straight. Then again, there's always Jesus' own words about Caesar and God, right?


I'm sure, Kim! I somehow

I'm sure, Kim! I somehow didn't realize you were a Canadian :)

Love the name of your

Love the name of your website, Jen. So glad that you stopped by. I have not read Leithart's book--looks interesting.

Thanks, Carol--haven't read

Thanks, Carol--haven't read that one.

Not a fan. What's the

Not a fan. What's the Christian flag?

Aimee, I was just wondering,

I was just wondering, after reading this review, what your thoughts are on American flags in church sanctuaries, or flying outside above the Christian flag.

This is an interesting

This is an interesting concept to contemplate for me as a Canadian. It's often very instructive to view things as an outsider.

Aimee - I think I love you.

Aimee - I think I love you. Well, not you, necessarily, since we've never actually met, but I truly do love both your writing style and the content of the posts on your blog. I discovered you last night and spent a great deal of time reading posts. I'm hoping to spend more time here today. Your insights are keen. We share a similar passion for the Church. And this article is excellent. Have you read Leithart's book: Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective? My husband is reading it now and when he's finished, I get it. Or perhaps I'll just sneak a peek and read it today. It sounds like the premise of Gamble's book is similar.

Looking forward to getting to know you better through your writing,


I am blogging about Howard A

I am blogging about Howard A Eyrich's book, A CALL TO CHRISTIAN PATRIOTISM, and he writes: "We have not been overrun by another nation, but we have been overrun by a pagan philosophy that touches every dimension of our national life. The walls have been broken down--biblical doctrine has been diluted and the church has become anemic. . . . We are in need of a cadre of men like Nehemiah." (p. 149) And women like you Aimee!

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