Here's a fascinating history of a badly misused idea.
Daniel T. Rodgers’ book, As a City on a Hill, looks at the use of John Winthrop’s 1630 document, “A Model of Christian Charity”, in terms of how various political interests have appropriated it over time.
The origins and purpose of the “Model” are not clear. It was not well known in its day, and it only came to publication in the early 1800s, and was promptly ignored.
Over the years editors of literary anthologies began to include it, but not to give it any special attention. The phrase which is the title of this book crops up from time to time, but not with any lasting use or impact.
Until the Cold War. Rodgers demonstrates how his title phrase became the darling of politicians from Kennedy to Obama to argue the case for a kind of American exceptionalism (in Obama’s case, carefully hedged). Ronald Reagan really put the phrase on the rhetorical map, and since then, evangelicals have been its most ardent appropriators. The phrase provided powerful incentive for standing firm for America’s uniqueness and mission to democratize the world.
The problem, Rodgers points out (and I agree), is that few have ever taken the time to read the entire document or to make its message as a whole their passion. Wintrhop was writing about creating a covenanted community of believers who pursued an economy based on grace rather than profit. His writing is grounded in the Law of God and seems to have been intended to sketch a framework for the kind of community the Puritans would need to establish in Massachusetts if they were going to survive.
Copping the phrase, “a city on a hill”, to refer to America as a whole, or the idea of America, or any other large-scale political agenda is just bad reading, bad history, and wishful thinking. Rodgers’ book is as much about the self-serving and corrupting power of politics as it is about Wintrhop’s careful and profound pamphlet. Winthrop’s work is worth reading in its own right. That’s the only way we’ll will avoid misusing it.