spoken of the shining city all my political life.... [I]n my mind it
was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept,
- President Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address, January 11, 1989
"'God Bless America?' No, no, no, God d--- America.... God d--- America.... God d--- America!!"
- Jeremiah Wright, pastor to Barack Obama for two decades
spiritual mentors of Ronald Reagan shaped his understanding and vision
of America's role in the world. Why would anyone assume the same does
not hold true for Barack Obama?
have always been a religious people, with the vast majority believing
in God and a consistent majority attending religious services -- from
the founding to today. The so-called worldview and even politics of
many Americans are frequently shaped, guided, or reinforced by what
they hear week after week from behind the pulpit, from the person of
God they respect and usually admire as their pastor. A pastor leads the
flock. A good pastor reads and applies Scripture to the times -- to the
events of the day. Pastors hold an immense responsibility, as they can
very well mold a citizen, leader, and even that rarest of congregants
who have the extraordinary potential to become president of the United
who study religion and politics talk about "civil religion." Jean
Jacques Rousseau maintained that no state had ever been founded without
a religious basis, nor could it survive without appealing to its
citizens through some form of religion, or, as he put it, through some
form of "civil religion." Citizens need a transcendent cause, something
larger in which to believe. For most typical states, civil religion is
understood as an infusion of sacred principles drawn from a nation's
own civil traditions and from those of a conventional, organized
religion -- a kind of mixture of political allegiance and religious
itself is a good illustration of this. In American history, civil
religion has been associated with positives images -- America as a
promised land and new Jerusalem, Americans as a chosen people, to name
just two. In fact, many left-leaning academics do not like how this
fusing of the political and the religious has led, in their view, to
excessive patriotism, in which America is seen as possessing a
dangerous notion of divine mandate that can err on the side of
self-righteousness and imperialism. And of course, that's a balance
that any American leader needs to be careful to keep in mind.
Nonetheless, overall, this sort of civil religion perceives America positively.
To the contrary, there is another admixture of faith and politics that strays in the other direction -- a kind of un-civil
religion, I suppose. This brand draws from America's worst sins, real
and imagined, and employs them to construct a terrible America, one
that has been a force for hell and havoc in this world -- so bad that
it deserves the worst calamities that befall it, like everyday business
people being ignited into flames and violently dislodged from atop the
World Trade Center buildings on September 11, 2001. Rather than an
image of America whose first leader knelt in the snow of Valley Forge
to seek the counsel of Divine Providence, here's an America whose men
in charge border the demonic, heading to the lab to manufacture
everything from crack cocaine to the AIDS virus so they can kill black
view of America is the one, of course, perpetuated by the Rev. Jeremiah
Wright, pastor to Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), the frontrunner for the
Democratic presidential nomination and quite possibly the next
president of the United States. It is a toxic brew that we can only
hope and pray has not sunk deep into the marrow of the bones of Senator
Obama. That hateful view of an insidious, malevolent America might be
contrasted with the kind of America that President Ronald Reagan --
regularly ranked as one of our most beloved presidents -- learned about
from the pulpit:
was heavily influenced by his pastor in Dixon, Illinois, a man named
Ben Cleaver, who was a father figure to the young Reagan. Cleaver had
attended the University of Chicago, near Obama and Wright's church, and
learned to read Hebrew and classical Greek. He was well read and
curious, intellectual, and patriotic, harboring a faith in the American
founders, given to invoking the likes of Washington and Lincoln. On one
such speech to the local American Legion in February 1927, Cleaver
spoke of the decidedly different upbringings of the two presidents,
emphasizing that neither man's background, whether rich or poor,
stopped him from making his mark on history.
a member of the Disciples of Christ denomination, was influenced by
church leaders like Alexander Campbell. For Campbell and other 19th
century Disciples, America's destiny was often prophetically
interpreted, and the nation had a democratic mission to save the world
from autocrats. Campbell believed the world's fate rested on America.
In July 1830, Campbell declared the world "must look" to America "for
its emancipation from the most heartless spiritual despotism ever."
"This is our special mission in the world as a nation and a people,"
said Campbell, "and for this purpose the Ruler of nations has raised us
up and made us the wonder and the admiration of the world." Campbell
confidently predicted the "speedy overthrow" of "false religion [and]
oppressive governments." He spoke of America as a "beacon," a "light
unto the nations."
was the kind of instruction that Ronald Reagan got from his church and
the pulpit of Rev. Ben Cleaver, not to mention similarly uplifting
messages from additional pastors, like the Rev. Cleveland Kleihauer,
who pastored Reagan's church in Hollywood when Reagan was at an age
comparable to Barack Obama during his time with Rev. Wright.
his religious instruction and own reading, Ronald Reagan came to view
America as "A Shining City Upon a Hill," which he anchored in his
understanding of the Old and New Testament and from his knowledge of
what John Winthrop had proclaimed aboard the Arabella off the
Massachusetts coast in 1630, the latter of which Reagan recited by
The message Reagan took from Matthew 5:14-16 (New Testament) is especially telling. The passage reads:
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....
nation that reflects God is not a nation to be hidden under a bowl,
Reagan held, just as one would not light a lamp and then cover it with
a bowl, not shining its light and extinguishing itself in the process.
There's no point to lighting a lamp merely to cover it. Likewise,
there's no point to a nation that's a beacon hiding itself. The
faithful are not to harness the light only for themselves and their own
warmth, but to share and spread it. One must bring that light to where
it is needed -- to cast it upon the darkness. For Reagan, that would
mean (especially) upon the Soviet Union - an empire he called "evil,"
and a land he dubbed "the heart of darkness."
both privatized and nationalized -- and even internationalized --
Matthew 5:14-16. He spoke of the "city on a hill" in this passage as a "Shining
City Upon a Hill," as a "beacon." This is what Reagan wanted America to
be: a model for all others, a guiding light . He saw America as
divinely blessed and chosen to lead the world to freedom.
always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way,"
Reagan said literally innumerable times, "that some divine plan placed
this great continent here between the two oceans." It was a divine
edict to bring freedom to the world-one that Reagan sought to fulfill.
As he summed up in his Farewell Address from the Oval Office on January
11, 1989: "We stood, again, for freedom.... We meant to change a
nation, and instead, we changed a world."
short, Reagan's optimistic view of America would compel him to lead a
positive America to create a better world. Reagan looked at America and
saw freedom, not slavery.
that's the kind of thinking that Ronald Reagan took from his religious
instruction, beginning with the pulpit of Ben Cleaver. It is not the
view of America that Barack Obama has taken from his pulpit of choice.
In Obama's case, we can only hope he wasn't ever listening to Pastor
Jeremiah Wright's deranged, angry sermons, or that these rants somehow
managed to have no effect whatsoever on the senator, his wife, and his
children. What are the chances of that?
a July 1983 speech, Ronald Reagan noted that "two visions of the world
remain locked in dispute." One was the American vision, said Reagan,
which "believes all men are created equal by a loving God who has
blessed us with freedom." The other vision was the Soviet one.
today, we have two visions of America locked in dispute, and poised to
produce very different fruit. I prefer the image of a blessed Shining
City over the view of an America that is deservedly damned.