This essay was first published by the History News Network on June 11, 2017. It was also published by Yubanet.com on June 13, 2017.
While Trump and his circus of chaos continues to both entertain and terrify the world, providing fascinating talking points for political pundits, talk show hosts and late-night comics, it is also distracting us from some of the more significant changes that are taking place behind the scenes, changes that are distorting both our national persona and our global image.
For almost 400 years America has seen itself as a “city on a hill,” an example of goodness and virtue for the rest of the world. (Ronald Reagan added the adjective to the phrase, "shining city on the hill.") It is an vision chiseled into the American ethos, seemingly as indestructible as the presidential faces carved into Mount Rushmore.
America first imagined itself as a shining city more than a century before the founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence. The vision comes from John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” given to a group of Puritan colonists aboard the Arbella, the flagship of a fleet of eleven ships in route to the newly created Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.
In his sermon, Winthrop provided a simple and inclusive message of love, explaining that in the struggle ahead, the colonists “must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens.” The origin of Winthrop’s words can be traced to the Sermon on the Mount, part of the bedrock of Christianity, where Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world. A city on the hill cannot be hidden.”
Those who believe this country is unique among the nations of the world have long pointed to Winthrop’s sermon as a foundation for the principle of American exceptionalism.
Over the years some of our most famous Presidents have also drawn upon Winthrop’s words, speaking of the responsibility of this nation to set a positive example for the rest of the world.
Days before his inauguration as President, John F. Kennedy addressed the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Quoting Winthrop, JFK spoke of historic qualities such as courage, judgement, integrity and dedication.
“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 great trust and their great responsibilities,” Kennedy said.
Ronald Reagan, in his Farewell Address to the Nation, explained his own perception of the role of this nation on the global stage.
“I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, 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.”
Any serious student of American History understands that the shining city has yet to be achieved, rather it is a ring for which the nation has continually grasped.
For more than half a century, since the end of the World War II, the world has looked to America for guidance. We have been the leader of the Free World. During those years we expanded our definition of diversity, we sought to build a better world for all, not just the rich and powerful, not just those inside our own country. We shared our wealth with the rest of the world, knowing that by doing so we were making it a better place for all. We believed in Winthrop’s model of charity and we tried to live up to his expectations.
Today the eyes of the world remain fixed upon this nation, but in this new Trumpian Era what they see in no way reflects the shining city that Presidents Reagan and Kennedy described. The old image of a nation “open to anyone,” inhabited by individuals “aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities” is rapidly crumbling away.
At the White House they abandon old alliances, they talk about building walls, closing doors, turning America into an armed camp, hostile to the rest of the world. They rattle their nuclear sabers, abandoning concern for civil liberties, human rights, and the environment, as they shout down those who question their actions. They unabashedly incite the mob, dividing Americans with lies designed to spread fear and hostility, all so that they can fill their own greedy pockets.
It is not just the President who is changing the image of America. Congress is filled with equally greedy politicians who publicly parade their Christianity at every opportunity, but ignore one of its primary tenets – simple charity. Instead, they would have the nation abandon the poor and needy, not just beyond our borders, but within our country as well.
Many of the individuals in positions of power have begun to resemble the infamous moneychangers Jesus is said to have driven from the temple.
Unfortunately, driving out these greedy individuals is no simple task, especially since their corruption is supported by the hypocrisy of millions who pretend they are setting a morally upright example for others. They talk about freedom and democracy as they promote their own selfish agenda, ultimately facilitating the destruction of one of the pillars of the America Dream.
Where America once took great pride in being the best hope for the world, our shining city on the hill has become nothing more than a quagmire overflowing with greed, a dark and dingy ghetto teeming with hate. “Me, me, me” seems to be the new national motto.