During his short time on earth, Jesus coined many pithy turns of phrase. They’re exactly the sort of lines you’d want to lift if you were writing a speech. One of the most lift-able, at least for politicians wanting to project a sense of optimism about the future, is this from Matthew 5:14–16: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good.”
I remember president Ronald Reagan borrowing this imagery in his farewell address:
I’ve thought a bit of the ‘shining city upon a hill.’ … 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. ... After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true.
In 1974 he had launched his first (failed) presidential bid with this:
I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.
This is politically potent stuff. Trouble is, for those familiar with the original, it sticks in the craw as well as it sticks in the mind: Jesus couldn’t possibly have been talking about America!
Reagan wasn’t the first to lift this line from Jesus, and neither was John F. Kennedy when he told the Massachusetts legislature in 1961 that all branches of government were the city on the hill, “and all eyes will be upon us.” The earliest known application of this metaphor to the U.S. was by the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, who in 1630 sternly warned his compatriots in Plymouth to be on their best behavior because the world was watching.
The idea that “We the People” are God’s chosen people has been the organizing mythos of American politics from the beginning. But what started as a picture of America as moral example morphed into the idea of America as moral compass. In the 19th century, it was widely held that the nation had a “manifest destiny”—a mandate from on high to sweep over the continent, no matter what or who might get in the way. Slavery? War? Injustice? Native American genocide? All have been carried out as the will of Providence. Today we know a similar (if less pernicious) idea by a different name: American exceptionalism. What was once a call to morality before the eyes of the world has become a license to define morality as coinciding with our national interests.
Sadly, this is the exact opposite of what Jesus meant. It’s not hard to figure that out by looking at the context:
When was Jesus speaking?
About 1,750 years before the U.S. was a gleam in George Washington’s eye.
Who was Jesus speaking to?
These verses are part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ call to renewed holiness in Matthew 5–7. He was speaking to the assembled Israelites outside Jerusalem.
What imagery was Jesus evoking?
The “city on a hill” line must have been especially apropos as Jesus looked out at the people gathered on the hillside. Jesus was also drawing on a rich history of metaphor about the city of Jerusalem (aka Zion; aka God’s holy hill). Jesus was reminding his Jewish audience that God had chosen them to spread his glory throughout the earth. As God told Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). And Moses, “Out of all nations you will be my treasured possession … a kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:5–6 NIV). And Isaiah, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6).
Why did Jesus address these issues?
Jesus wasn’t flattering his audience with inspirational stories of their own potential for greatness. He was offering them a warning. In Matthew 5:13, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste … it is no longer good for anything.” He also wanted to point them toward worship: “that [others] may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (5:16).
Jesus’ words were meant to inspire good works that would glorify God. Politicians and patriots have since co-opted those words to inspire a sense of achieved (or achievable) glory, granted by God to their audience.
Jesus wasn’t completely apolitical—after all, he sparked a worldwide movement. But Jesus transcends politics. He’s not an earthly candidate seeking approval, but the ruler of the “kingdom of God” whose approval should be sought. We are patriots and citizens of his “better country” (Heb 11:13–16). We shouldn’t flatter ourselves by thinking that any earthly nation, great or terrible, is worthy to compare with God’s kingdom. To lift a line from C. S. Lewis, “we are too easily pleased.”
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).