The Truth, Mainly - 06/21/2004

We're a shining city on a hill? Look out!
by Leon Satterfield

Has it been long enough yet? Can we talk about Ronald Reagan as a mere mortal now?

No, this isn't going to be an anti-Reagan rant. I found him a hard man to dislike. He was friendly, he had an engaging smile, he could tell a good story. Reminded me of lots of good old boys from my hometown. The barbershop was full of them.

So, aside from some of his policies, what's not to like about Ronald Reagan?

Well, OK, there was one thing that gave me the fantods: he loved to talk about how we're a shining city upon a hill.

And maybe we are. But I get queasy when we brag about it.

That's because I'm of the Ernest Hemingway School of Reluctance to Engage in Self Praise.

When someone asked Hemingway what his next wonderful book would be about, here's what he said: "If you talk about it, you lose it."

Maybe President Reagan hadn't read Hemingway's cautionary remark. Maybe he hadn't read much about the Greek gods and goddesses who preceded the Christian era by several centuries.

Those divinities were, by and large, a jealous lot, and the quickest way to bring down their wrath was to brag loudly about how well things were going for you.

Noisy self-congratulation, the Greeks believed, was an indication of hubris—overweening pride and ambition. The gods didn't like it when mere mortals had such high self-regard, so they'd punish them with some really dirty trick.

Oedipus, for example, was very proud of how smart he was in solving the riddle of the Sphinx, so the gods tricked him into killing his father and marrying his mother, neither of whom he'd seen since he was an infant. When he found out what he'd done, Oedipus ripped his own eyes out and spent the rest of his life a blind wandering beggar, a living reminder that "pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16-18).

So when Reagan talked about America being a shining city upon a hill, I got the fantods. Was he opening us up to Divine Retribution?

You know where that shining city image comes from, don't you?

At Reagan's memorial service, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor quoted its usage in a sermon by John Winthrop, a theocratic Puritan who came to America from England in 1630. That was 159 years before we ratified our constitution asserting we're a democracy, not a theocracy.

In that 1630 sermon, Winthrop said this:

"We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when He shall make us a praise and a glory so that men shall say of succeeding plantations, 'The Lord make it like that of New England,' for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people upon us."

The notion that ten of us can resist a thousand of our enemies sounds a whole lot like the pride that goeth before destruction, the haughty spirit before a fall.

And later in the memorial service, former Senator John Danforth reminded us of where Winthrop got the metaphor—from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus told the twelve disciples that "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid…. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 5-14, 16).

The notion that Americans are like the twelve disciples also gives me the fantods. It's a grossly inaccurate and self-congratulatory comparison. Every time I hear that we are the shining city on the hill, I want to duck and cover because I remember that hilltops are prime targets for lightning bolts from heaven.

And here's what really worries me: the comparison Ronald Reagan liked so well is also a favorite of our current president. I'm afraid that anyone who believes his own behavior is divinely directed is heading for trouble. And when that person is president, it's trouble for all of us.

So let's stop bragging about our virtue. You talk about it and you lose it. We may have already lost it. Do shining cities on the hill engage in what we engaged in at Abu Ghraib prison?

Remember the old German boast, Gott mit uns (God with us). Remember German troops, Adolf Hitler among them, going into World War I battles wearing belt buckles with Gott mit uns inscribed on them.

Remember how well all that worked out for Germany.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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