Is America still the "shining city on a hill"?

Van Engen quotes from one of Miller’s lectures: “A society that is both clear and articulate about its intentions is something of a rarity in modern history.” Miller cited Winthrop’s sermon as evidence that America met his standard of clear, articulate intention. “The great uniqueness of this nation,” Miller wrote in a private letter, “is simply that here the record of conscious decision is more precise, more open and explicit than in most countries.”…

Miller was a liberal, not a conservative; a domestic reformer, not a Cold Warrior. But the “city on a hill” language Miller publicized was brilliantly adapted to the rhetorical needs of Cold War America. That nation regarded itself both as the center of events and as a society profoundly vulnerable to external shocks. “The eyes of all people will be upon us”—and those eyes could condemn as well as approve. The city on a hill could fail. That defeat would drag all humanity to “take the last step into a thousand years of darkness,” as Ronald Reagan warned in the 1964 speech that launched his national political career.

Ronald Reagan seems never to have appreciated his debt to Miller, which was only fair, because Miller probably would have had little good to say about Reagan. Miller might have been especially offended that Reagan amended Winthrop’s biblical phrase to meet Reagan’s different purposes. Along the way to the presidency in 1980, Reagan dropped the apocalyptic terror of a “thousand years of darkness” and instead brightened Winthrop’s “city on a hill” into a “shining city on a hill.” That creative misquotation changed the meaning of the phrase in potent new ways. The destiny of the city on a hill was uncertain. But if the city was already shining, then its destiny had been achieved. Hopes had been fulfilled, the dream had been realized, and now the task shifted from creation to preservation, or possibly restoration—to scrub off any grime that dimmed the shine.

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