John F. Kennedy invoked the phrase in a speech to Massachusetts General Court in January 1961 before he headed off to Washington D.C. to be inaugurated President of the United States.
Ronald Reagan invoked the phrase in the 1980s.
I am sure George W. Bush used the phrase at some point.
Rick Santorum used it a lot during his 2012 presidential campaign.
And now Ohio Governor John Kasich has adopted the phrase. He described the United States as a “city on a hill” when he announced his candidacy
in July. Last night, at the CNN GOP presidential debate at the Reagan Library, he introduced himself
by saying that he wanted to “lift Americans, unify, give hope, grow America, and restore it to that great, shining city on a hill.”
Of course the phrase “city upon a hill” comes from John Winthrop’s 1630 “A Model of Christian Charity
.” (It came from Matthew 5:14 before that). It was delivered aboard the Arbella
as it sailed to America with English men and women of Calvinist faith who were often referred to as “Puritans.” Winthrop would eventually help to found the colony of Massachusetts Bay and serve as its first governor.
Winthrop and his fellow Puritans wanted to build a society in North America that was based upon the teachings of the Bible, as they interpreted it. He realized that the Anglicans of England would be watching such an attempt to build a Bible-based society. Massachusetts would thus be like a “city upon a hill” because the eyes of English Protestants would see both its successes and its failures.
Kennedy, Reagan, Bush, Santorum, and now Kasich, have applied this term in a way that is usually described as American exceptionalism–the idea that American democracy and ideals should be spread throughout the world and the United States should serve as an example in this regard for other nations to follow.
Santorum and Kasich (and to a much lesser extent Reagan and Bush) have argued in one form or another that the United States was founded as, or somehow needs to be, a Christian nation. It is thus hard not to interpret their use of this phrase without connecting it in some way to their Christian nationalism.
I will be watching Kasich to see how he uses this phrase over the course of the next weeks and months, assuming he stays in the race for that long. But it is worth noting that while Reagan described America in its current state (in the 1980s) as a “city upon a hill,” Kasich said that we need to restore
America to that “great, shining city on a hill.”
Of course this raises even more questions. Does he want to “restore” America to the way it was in the 17th century, at the time Winthrop first used the phrase? Or does he want to “restore” America back to the way it was in the Reagan era? Of perhaps he wants to “restore” America to the age of the Founding Fathers or the 19th century or the 1950s? Inquiring minds want to know.