A City on a Hill: American Leadership as the Chosen Country

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In November 13, 1979, Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for the presidency just nine days after the beginning of the Iranian hostage crisis and just four months after President Carter told the country that it suffered from a “crisis of the spirit” (Moss & Thomas, 2010, p. 195) and that people no longer had faith in the future (Moss & Thomas, 2010).  In his speech, Reagan said, “A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and—above all—responsible liberty for every individual that we will become that shining city on a hill” (Reagan, 1979).  “To Carter’s malaise, Reagan brought a convergence of God and country that was perfectly worded and timed” (Domke & Coe, 2010, p. 51).

Known as the Great Communicator, Reagan created powerful imagery that repudiated Carter’s viewpoint and focused on themes of American renewal and America’s role as God’s chosen country to lead the world towards liberty and democracy (Domke & Coe, 2010).  Reagan quoted John Winthrop, a Puritan leader who, in his sermon, A Model of Christian Charity extolled the Massachusetts Bay colonists to live and work based on their Christian ideals to create a successful colony, “For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us” (Morgan, 1965, p. 93).  The irony of quoting John Winthrop, was that Winthrop thought democracy to be the most wicked form of government (Winthrop, 1864).   Winthrop himself, was quoting Matthew 5:14 of the New Testament where in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his flock that they must be living example of the glory of God, because, “A city on a hill cannot be hidden” (The Holy Bible : New international version, containing the Old Testament and the New Testament, 1978)

The link between God, His divine providence and American destiny has long been in the fabric of this country and was weaved into the notion of both manifest destiny and American exceptionalism.  The idea of a god-ordained leadership role for the United States in world affairs has been utilized by many Presidents to justify our actions both at home and abroad throughout the course of United States history.  “The sermon, a stream of words transporting ideas, has woven itself into four hundred years of national life.  Words are just that, but even the nebulous power of rhetoric sets entire societies on their course” (Witham, 2007, p. 1).  Religious oratory in politics has long provided divinely inspired purpose to the nation and has a long tradition that has had a monumental impact on our national course and discourse.

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What set Reagan apart was not that his view of America’s role was somehow different from those who came before him; rather Reagan was the Great Communicator, sharing his optimistic vision for the future.  He was able to inspire the nation at a time when it needed inspiration, and remind the people of the United States of their long tradition as a nation of destiny and hope.   As to whether Reagan achieved his goal for the U.S., I believe he did; under Reagan the U.S. experienced a rebirth and once again had a vision for its place in the world.  In his final statement to the nation, Reagan echoed his themes of renewal, destiny and God, “Those words and that destiny beckon to us still.  We are asked to be guardians of a place to come to, a place to start again, a place to live in the dignity God meant for his children. May it ever be so” (Reagan, 1989).


Domke, D. S., & Coe, K. M. (2010). The God strategy : how religion became a political weapon in America (Updated ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

The Holy Bible : New international version, containing the Old Testament and the New Testament. (1978). Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Morgan, E. S. (1965). Puritan political ideas, 1558-1794. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Moss, G., & Thomas, E. P. (2010). Moving on : the American people since 1945 (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Reagan, R. (1979). Ronald Reagan’s Announcement for Presidential Candidacy  Retrieved 4/7/2011, 2011, from http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/reference/11.13.79.html

Reagan, R. (1989). Final Radio Address to the Nation  Retrieved 4/8/2011, 2011, from http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/reference/11.13.79.html

Winthrop, R. C. (1864). Life and letters of John Winthrop. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.

Witham, L. (2007). A city upon a hill : how sermons changed the course of American history (1st ed.). New York: HarperOne.