Most of us likely recall how much Ronald Reagan loved to misquote John Winthrop's sermon to prospective members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on shipboard before they landed in the New World, speaking of the new community they would found as “a shining city upon a hill”. Winthrop (above) only spoke about “a city upon a hill” — Reagan added the “shining” for rhetorical effect.
Reagan never quoted the best and most inspiring line from that sermon — “We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice
together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having
before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of
the same body.” That, after all, has the stink of socialism on it. It might imply that there was something fundamentally, aboriginally, American about banding together to avert the terrors of old age for our fellow citizens with Social Security, or to avert the terrors of illness though publicly guaranteed health care.
It's the hypocrisy, the selective memory, the mendacity and the sheer unbridled meanness of the American right which are stinking up the body politic these days. The American left is, and probably always will be, naive, incompetent, a tad deluded and more than a tad self-righteous, infuriating traits all, but the American right has become — there's no other way of saying it — morally depraved. Winthrop, hardly a tolerant man, for all his Christian idealism, would have put modern-day conservatives in the stocks and left them to rot there, for abandoning their commitment to “community in the work”, the sine qua non of the American experiment and the only part of it authentically derived from the actual teachings of Jesus.
America remains a predominantly Christian nation, in the sense that most Americans identify themselves as Christians, and we are still a city upon a hill, shining or not. People look upon this “Christian nation”, see how we treat our sick brother and sisters of modest means and draw their conclusions accordingly — just as Winthrop knew they would.
(With thanks to the writer Sarah Vowell for getting me to go back and read what Winthrop actually said . . .)