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Sunday Homily: The Hypocrisy of Reagan's 'City on a Hill'

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Readings for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 58: 7-10; PS 112: 4-9; I COR 2: 1-5; MT 5: 13-16.

Today's readings are about the nature of the light emanating from a shining "City on a Hill." Jesus introduces that imagery specifically in today's Gospel selection. In doing so, he alludes to the words of the prophet Isaiah (today's first reading) which describe the City's characteristics.

However most Americans don't primarily associate the City on a Hill image with Jesus, much less with Isaiah. In fact, most cannot hear the phrase without thinking of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In Reagan's mouth, "City on a Hill" became a quintessential expression of American Exceptionalism. As such Reagan's usage exemplifies how Republicans have hijacked and distorted Christian discourse.

Reagan however didn't coin the City's connection to "America." John Winthrop, the Puritan leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had already done that in 1630. Standing on the deck of the flagship Arbella Winthrop told his shipmates, "We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill--the eyes of all people are upon us."

Then in 1961 J.F. Kennedy quoted Winthrop's words specifically as the new president addressed the General Court of Massachusetts. Kennedy added ". . . (W)e are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less fantastic than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within."

After Reagan, Gary Bauer, the president of the Family Research Council, attempted to borrow some of the Reagan thunder by using his idol's words. Bauer repeatedly used the "City on a Hill" metaphor as he attempted unsuccessfully to secure the Republican presidential nomination in 1999. Before him in 1997, Reagan's adopted son, Michael, had already written a book about his father entitled The City on a Hill: Fulfilling Ronald Reagan's Vision for America.

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As for Reagan himself, here's what he said about the image in his farewell speech to the nation in 1989:

"...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 . . ."

These words show that Reagan's image of the "City on the Hill" is one of pride, strength, harmony, peace, open markets and free immigration -- all of it specially blessed by God. Noble ideals all. . . .

Nonetheless President Reagan's policies proved questionably coincident with his words and especially with the biblical ideals expressed in today's readings.

Think about those ideals.

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In the selection from Isaiah, the prophet says the City on the Hill shines because its inhabitants:
"  Share bread with the hungry.
"  Protect the oppressed and remove oppression from their midst.
"  Shelter the homeless.
"  Clothe the naked.
"  Remove from their midst accusation and malicious speech.

The Responsorial psalm seconds all of that, adding that the hilltop city's just citizens:
"  Lend (without interest).
"  Give lavishly to the poor.

In today's selection from Paul's letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle himself identifies with the weak and fearful, not those who are "wise" according to the standards of the world. Paul goes on to contrast the world's logic with what elsewhere he calls the foolishness of Jesus' Spirit -- which chose to identify with those on death row (I COR 1:23).

Finally, today's Gospel reading has Jesus refer specifically to the "City on a hill" and the light that causes it to shine. Once again, it's the "light" described by Isaiah -- sharing bread, shelter, clothing, and money with the hungry, homeless, naked, impoverished and oppressed.
All of this has little to do with President Reagan's version of an exceptionally blessed America. In fact, during his term in office Reagan:

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Recently retired, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 36 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program.Mike blogs (more...)

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