About That City on A Hill

Once upon a time, the goal of our aborning country among Puritan emigrants to the New World was “we shall be as a city upon a hill” – a haven.

The phrase harks back to 1630, when Puritan John Winthrop, who was to be the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, spoke those words at a church in Southampton, England, during a sermon to his fellow emigrants as they were about to sail on their ship Arbella to found what became Boston. They were fleeing religious persecution in England, assuredly a motive for migrants everywhere.

Winthrop cautioned his shipmates in the sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” that their new settlement would be “as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us” – meaning their sins would be unveiled if “they failed to uphold their covenant with God,” according to a Wikipedia entry that quotes two books. Cold War historians, it said, credited the sermon “as the foundational document of the idea of American exceptionalism.”

Presidents beginning with John F. Kennedy have seized on those words as a means of defining who we are as a country, what we stand for. Ronald Reagan embellished the phrase in his 1980 election eve address, referring to Americans of all political stripes, religions or colors as being proud of their country as “a shining city on a hill.”

And now, amid perhaps the worst polarization since the Vietnam War split the country between fierce antiwar demonstrators and President Richard M. Nixon’s “silent majority,” the shine has dimmed immeasurably. For as the Lincoln Project, the anti-Trump organization, put it in a spin on Reagan’s 1984 campaign slogan, “It is mourning in America.” It certainly is.

With a viral disease of global magnitude ravaging America with the number of dead about to exceed 100,000, we have a president who has forsaken the helm of his country as it faces its most colossal pandemic disaster in a century. He went golfing for two days over the Memorial Day weekend, a time when America honors its war dead. His act translated as a two-word expletive the vain narcissist shoved right in our faces. He didn’t wear a mask, didn’t set an example for Americans to follow to prevent the spread of this plague. His Republican-led Senate took off for a vacation, ignoring a House-passed bill seeking $3 trillion to rescue Americans from the most unemployment since the Great Depression of the 1930s, when it was 25 percent at its height.

A meanness has gripped the land, a get-off-my-lawn vindictiveness unparalleled in previous administrations (but for slavery and the slaughter of Natives) that has been unleashed by the words and deeds of a president chosen by the Electoral College. He just doesn’t seem to care about the fate of the people he was expected to govern or his negatively infectious impact on allies who ordinarily would rally around us in such a time of despair and wholesale suffering, as they did after 9/11.

We would be as one. We should be as one.

Just as Washington should be the go-to capital so America’s vast resources could be called on to help struggling nations – that “shining city on a hill” – Germany and France have emerged as the combined leader of the free world. “America First” is no one’s leader. Even China, increasingly in conflict with Washington, plans to contribute $2 billion to the World Health Organization.

Instead, the United States has become cruel, a country that cares little for the downtrodden, the hungry, the poor, one that reneges on its obligations. What country can depend on its word, on its pledges, on its treaties as America sinks deeper into its shell?

It plans to withdraw from the Paris climate accord in the fall; it pulled out of the Iran nuclear pact; it intends to leave the Open Skies Treaty and is abandoning the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and is threatening to end the START treaty that reduces the number of strategic nuclear weapons, all with Russia.

It early on ended its participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, leaving the door wide open for China to step into a crucial area of the world; it abandoned its Kurd allies, leaving Syria to Russia; it withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council; it ended funding for the U.N. Relief Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees; it pulled out of UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural organization; and it has threatened to end funding of the W.H.O. at a time when countries depend on it for guidance during the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

And, of course, the White House and its army of uniformed enforcers have been going after their favorite targets: immigrants already in country, migrants and asylum seekers – those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as that statue in New York Harbor proclaims. That pale green monument invites those seeking refuge to the “sweet land of liberty,” the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Uh-huh. Not when craven Republicans are in charge. Yet immigrants are one of America’s strongest assets, people not unlike those who arrived here from England and Spain in our fetal stage. Where are the guardrails?

America now spits away those who would help make us great as a nation. Now we put women and children in cages or kick them across our southern border to homelands riven asunder with mindless uncertainty and violence. But the white supremacists and neo-Nazis of Charlottesville, Va., are “very fine people on both sides.”

But deportations of children, some of them frightened and alone without adults to accompany them to their native countries where killings were a way of life? Has America completely lost its conscience? Its decency? Its pride? Its heart?

Somebody, please, rebuild that city on a hill and turn its shining light back on.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.