As I wrote in my post “Thanks Again, Sarah,” I spent some time during a lecture in my Conversations of the West class earlier this term discussing John Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” which draws on the Sermon on the Mount to describe the Puritans in America as a “city on a hill” that should serve as a model for all Christian communities. The sermon, I argued, tries to harness the energies of individualism, but subordinates them to a sense of communal mission.
At the close of the lecture, I talked about Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of Winthrop’s appropriation of Matthew’s figure of the city on the hill. For Reagan, Winthrop became “an early freedom man,” a rugged individualist whom Reagan could recruit to support his idea that the Republican Party must rejuvenate itself by becoming the “party of the individual.”
Reagan, in short, appropriated and reframed Winthrop’s message. “No greater challenge faces our society today,” he told the Conservaitve Union in 1977, “than insuring that each one of us can maintain his dignity and his identity in an increasingly complex, centralized society. . . . Then with God’s help we shall indeed be as a city upon a hill with the eyes of all people upon us.”
Reagan has been invoked repeated this year by the McCain-Palin campaign. And now, an old college friend tells me, he’s being invoked by supporters of Obama and Biden. Or rather, he’s being appropriated and reframed.
Here’s an ad that’s running this weekend in Ohio and Florida. It’s brilliant.