Van Ens: What dims our nation’s light from shining brightly? (column) |

Van Ens: What dims our nation’s light from shining brightly? (column)

Jack Van Ens
My View
Jack Van Ens

Many Americans picture our nation as a beacon of hope shining in a demoralized world. At Thanksgiving meals, will Americans regard this “beacon of hope metaphor” as a goal in the making or as a project our nation already achieved?

This “light beaming to the world” imagery comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14).

Before our nation’s founding in 1776, Pilgrim and Puritan leaders used this metaphor. In 1630, a decade after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, John Winthrop (1588-1649) preached a sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” He described the Puritans’ arrival as “a new community shining like a city of light on a hill.”

Winthrop warned Puritans not to make the blunder some Americans make today. He insisted it’s wrong to equate any nation or people with the biblical city of light shining in a shadowy world. Translated into today’s sound-offs: Don’t brag about America ranking No. 1 in God’s estimation, while the rest of the world trails in dark ruins.

If Puritans mistakenly equated “city on a hill” with their American colonies, warned Winthrop, then European critics would dismiss these New World settlements as a crackpot “story” or a mere “byword” soon forgotten.

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What happens when we disregard Winthrop’s caution and equate America as God’s beaming city? “The language of our politics casts the American story in explicitly religious terms: We’re ‘a promised land’ and our government a ‘new order for the ages,’ with a ‘manifest destiny’ defined by ‘American exceptionalism,’” cautions The New York Times commentator Ross Douthat (“Bad Religion,” Free Press, 2012, p. 251).

Then politicians and voters sound like combatants in culture wars, unleashing taunts that destroy compromise. “America First” promotes the policy “the U.S. does everything better than any other nation on earth.” Blunt talk is accusatory. Enemies are denounced with ugly nicknames. Why solve problems with adversaries when threatening them is simpler? Doesn’t America’s military might make us right?

The result? The U.S. gives up being conciliatory. Instead, threats make America great again.

Such fiery and furious threats, however, do the opposite, making American culture deeply divided and weak. “A weak culture,” writes James Davison Hunter, “is always embattled, always back on its heels, always resentful of enemies and uncertain of its friends. It imitates but doesn’t influence, alienates rather than seduces, and looks backward toward a better past instead of forward to a vibrant future” (“To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late-Modern World,” Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 16).

What does this emerging “city on the hill” look like? President Ronald Reagan in his January 11, 1989, farewell speech to the nation caught what our nation strives to become.

He said the shining city “was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city wall, the wall had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get there. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

Reagan rightly believed America with all her greatness still wasn’t the perfect fit for Jesus’ beaming city. But “morning in America arises,” promised Reagan when he ran for a second presidential term in 1984. Our nation’s light shines the more we admit mistakes, fortify strengths and believe becoming the “city of light” is a zigzag path of success and failure.

Ask yourself this Thanksgiving: Has America achieved status as the shining city on the hill, or must our nation still strive toward this goal?

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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