“A shining city on a hill,” first uttered by John Winthrop in a sermon, has become a sort of meaningless cliché. It has been invoked time and time again by presidents and candidates to paint a picture of American exceptionalism. So much so that we have become desensitized to its intended effect. The phrase has lost its buzz.
I would like to reinstate it into our current political discourse, but in a different context.
Yes, America is a shining city on a hill. But the light is from a thousand fires fanned by the convergence of multiple storm fronts: A growing, white supremacist movement; a white, male demagogue all too happy to exploit its violent tendencies and rhetoric; anti-immigrant fervor; anti-Muslim sentiments; protectionism; isolationism; and systemic, blatant, and latent racism. Unfortunately, this list is not exhaustive.
When Trump made his anti-climactic ride down an escalator, did we realize it symbolized the downward spiral this election was about to take?
When Trump made those stigmatizing statements about Mexicans, were we cognizant that, not only was he saying what some Americans had on their minds, but he rallied a previously subtle, dangerous, and xenophobic movement to the national forefront?
That said, how can we claim America to be that idealized shining city on a hill, when so many are left outside in the cold shadow of its walls. What kind of a shining city on a hill would hold itself out to the world as good and right, yet turn away immigrants in droves or marginalize and subject them to a sub-standard and second-class existence. What shining city on a hill would claim it harbors no darkness, when Blacks have to justify their anger, sadness, and loss, with evidence of their disproportionate treatment in our criminal justice, educational, and economic systems staring us in the face.
The truth is that, yes, America may be a shining city on a hill. But only to some because it shines only on some, not all.
If we as a nation desire to be that shining city on a hill, let us not build it upon the fires of the worst that this country has to offer. Let us instead throw open the gates to those left out in the cold shadow of the walls we’ve built – hell, let’s tear down those walls – and let us instead light fires in our hearts with a love of country and each other; regardless of where we are from, what we look like, or who we love.