But it doesn’t mean what you think it means.
At the first Republican presidential primary debate of the 2024 election, the last biblical reference of the night was also its most significant—and the most often misunderstood.
“In his pitch to get to the Oval Office, President Reagan called America the ‘shining city on a hill,’ a beacon of hope and optimism,” prompted moderator Bret Baier.
“So, in your closing statement tonight, please tell American voters why you are the person who can inspire this nation to a better day,” said Baier’s fellow Fox News host, Martha MacCallum.
Former vice president Mike Pence’s response stuck closest to the theme, evoking the same 1630 speech Reagan quoted, with a reference to Americans’ Puritan forebears. “God is not done with America yet,” Pence said, “and if we will renew our faith in him who has ever guided this nation since we arrived on these wilderness shores, I know the best days for the greatest nation on earth are yet to come.”
City on a hill—this captivating little phrase has a complicated American history, one that often ignores the phrase’s true origin: not among the Puritans, but in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
The phrase was used by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, John Winthrop, in his 1630 treatise “A Model of Christian Charity”: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” Historians are not certain when (or if) Winthrop delivered the speech, but the popular story is that he gave it on the flagship Arbella to his fellow Puritan travelers on their way to Salem, Massachusetts.
Winthrop’s words have been called the “most famous …