Saturday, October 4, 2008

Huffington Post and Daily Kos Misdiagnose Palin’s “City On a Hill”

American history buffs and theocracy fearers rejoice! Andrew Bacevich is talking to you on The Huffington Post, and Daily Kos (ironically) must need some “liberal” arts education.

Bacevich dissects the only philosophically meaningful comment Governor Sarah Palin made during the VP debate:

“And we are to be that shining city on a hill, as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope, and that we are unapologetic here.”

As Bacevich notes, the “city on a hill” idea came from Massachusetts Bay Colony Founder, John Winthrop, in 1630. Bacevich lays out the entire text and context for Winthrop’s remark and convincingly argues that unless America is God’s chosen people, a presumption which strikes him (and me) as arrogant, the "city on the hill" comment is inapplicable to the American experiment.

Daily Kos goes a step further and implies that Palin’s "city on a hill" remark is “code” for a fundamentalist conspiracy to create a Christian-based theocracy. D.K. says they (the religious right) have been “slipping this one by us.”

Daily Kos notes:

“The phrase was referenced several times during the 2008 Republican National Convention by Rudy Guiliani and several others, during the nomination of the Republican John McCain.”
Here’s the idea By referring to an “obscure” 1630 sermon that was given at the initiation of a Puritan colony, Republicans are secretly signaling their intentions to other Christians to enforce Christian values in government.

With all due respect, this idea that Republicans are "signaling" through Winthrop is crazy talk. Sarah Palin (and the supermajority of Christians in this country) couldn’t even tell you who John Winthrop is, let alone what he said and why. Without knowing the context of Winthrop's remark, how can anyone draw an association from it?

The stronger "signaling" argument is the one both Bacevich and Daily Kos completely miss. The original source of Winthrop’s oratory is the Gospel of Matthew, verses 14-16 (NIV):
"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."

In other words, Christians should act Christ-like while letting people know they are Christians as a way of gaining more believers. This is an uncontroversial notion that can be summarized as "serve as an example." Winthrop mutilated the original meaning to induce his followers to create a completely Puritan-based government.

"City on a hill" might be a signal, but it's no more a secret to a cultural literate American than "an eye for an eye," "turn the other cheek," or "God Bless America." The fact that Daily Kos, a leader for my party on a lot of issues, has authors who don't know such an obvious reference in the Bible is concerning because I suspect they know Greek and Roman mythology.

Like it or not, the Bible is the best-selling book in the world. Whether you're Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddist, Wiccan, atheist, agnostic, transcendentalist, or accidental tourist, you have GOT to know the Bible as a matter of cultural literacy. Even if you cringe when you hear someone call America a "Christian nation," you cannot dispute that it's a pluralist nation with a supermajority of Christians. As a result, even if you read it as fiction, you HAVE to read it. It's sort of like the Da Vinci Code, except movie adaptions of the Bible are actually entertaining.

(Also, even the culturally illiterate might have driven by the staggering number of churches actually named "City on a Hill." They're in Atlanta, San Diego, Boston, Albuquerque, Torrance, and Knoxville, and that's just the first six Google pulled up among the thousands of links I got in response to my search).



Anonymous said...

Sarah Palin speaking in codes?

Uhh ... maybe speaking in tongues, but I think any codes beyond using #1 and #2 for bodily functions is probably above her comprehension level.

If the "City on a Hill" comment was her ideological high point, I guess she gets middle-of-the-road grades for drawing enough breaths to avoiding fainting. Otherwise, she spoke in generalized "talking points" all night and never really answered any questions at all.

iPOPA said...

Actually, Anon 2:30, I think the Republicans should embrace this "talking in code" idea. It would certainly explain why most Americans had no idea what she was talking about during her interviews.

Sean Shepard said...

I've talked about that "shining city on a hill" in the context of setting the best example economically and diplomatically for the rest of the world so that they desire to be more like us (rather than attack us).

I was not aware of the origin other than Ronald Reagan's usage. If someone where to pick up on that and make the same analysis, that I was speaking in code for some kind of theocracy, they would be so far off base to be laughable.

So, I think while it is sometimes easy to see familiar shapes in the clouds, they often are still just clouds.

iPOPA said...

Sean Shepherd gets the line of the week award.

Anonymous said...

See Silhouette City and then maybe rewrite your commentary...