John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Shining City on the Hill

Posted on January 11, 2012
Shining City on the Hill



Twenty-three years ago today, Ronald Reagan gave his exit address where he spoke eloquently about John Winthrop’s famed “Shining City Upon a Hill.”

I only know this because I was listening to Tim Farley’s most excellent summation of this day in history on the POTUS station on XM/Sirius satellite radio, and I heard the audio of Reagan’s address.

In many ways, the Reagan address was kind of hokey.

He imagined the city upon a hill as a “tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”

Why does it have to be windswept?  Chicago, for example, is windswept, or at least, it is pretty darn windy.  Is Chicago the shining city on the Hill?

Before he got to the windswept part though, he talked of a new nationalism, and he warned that most Americans didn’t know enough about their history.

Amen to that.  I bet you most Americans haven’t the foggiest notion who John Winthrop is or was.

Winthrop was one of the first governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and he was the first guy to make the connection between America and a shiny city on the Hill.

The idea of a shiny city on the Hill came initially from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus taught his disciples how to act.  “Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do [men] light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Jesus wasn’t necessarily talking about commerce and the wonders of free-market capitalism when he spoke of the City on the Hill.  And for those who forget (and I am not exactly an expert on these kinds of things), the Sermon on the Mount is perhaps most famous for the Beatitudes.

I once misquoted one of the Beatitudes in a press release that I wrote for my old boss, Denny Hastert.   When I discovered I did so, I was mortified, but nobody else seemed to notice, so I got away with it.

In case you were wondering, here they are:

Blessed are: the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, they that mourn: for they shall be comforted;  the meek: for they shall inherit the earth; they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled; the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy; the pure in heart: for they shall see God; the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God;  they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Another great piece of advice from the Sermon on the Mount was “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

These days, everybody is judging everybody, without a whole lot of introspection.  But, hey, that’s how we roll in America in the modern era.

When you re-read John Winthrop’s “Modell for Christian Charity,” the sermon he wrote that initially contained the Shining City on the Hill phrase, it is noteworthy for a couple of reasons.

First, it has a whole bunch of stuff about how we need to take care of another, and how we should do it with a good attitude:  “this lawe requires two things. First that every man afford his help to another in every [Page 35] want or distresse. Secondly, that hee performe this out of the same affection which makes him carefull of his owne goods, according to that of our Savior.”

Second, it really focuses on how all need to get along:  “Wee must entertaine each other in brotherly [affection. Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities. Wee must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekeness, gentlenes, patience and liberality. Wee must delight in eache other; make other's conditions our oune; rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer together, allwayes haueving before our eyes our commission and community in the worke, as members of the same body. Soe shall wee keepe the unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace.”

I wonder how that all works out in this era of negative campaigning.

But I digress.

I started writing this post because when I heard Reagan speak this morning, he said something very important.  He said:  “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.”

Reagan believed that America did best when it opened its doors and welcomed people from around the world in.  America does its worst when it closes its doors and tries to keep people out.

In this era of immigrant bashing, we should listen more to Reagan.  He was a wise soul.