Rachel Maddow Sniffs in Disdain at Belief in America as 'Shining' City on a Hill

Thanks for sharing, Rachel, and confirming what we already knew.

The oh-so bright light in MSNBC's nightly firmament could barely contain her revulsion after Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels cited a familiar metaphor for America, that of the shining city on a hill, while delivering the official Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address. (video after page break)

Here's what Maddow said to fellow MSNBCer Chris Matthews, who clearly wasn't on board --

MADDOW: I want to bring in Chris Matthews here from Washington, quickly just for a quick response to Gov. Daniels. Chris, I have to, I have to put it to you because you're the only person I know in the world to whom I can complain about this, but the city on the hill does not shine. The city upon a hill with the eyes of the world, with the, with the, right, the eyes of all people upon us, the city on the hill never shined. I don't understand why it always has to be shining.

MATTHEWS (looking down, evasive, embarrassed): OK, well look, I'll have to think about that.

MADDOW: All right, fair enough.

When Maddow told Matthews, "you're the only person I know in the world to whom I can complain about this," what she meant was -- we're the only people smart enough to see what happened here. Followed by Maddow displacing her ignorance.

Before getting to that, the question begs -- what did Daniels say? Maddow was referring to the last line of his response to Obama's speech --

Republicans in 2012 welcome all our countrymen to a program of renewal that rebuilds the dream for all and makes our city on a hill shine once again.

A metaphor certain to resonate with conservatives for three reasons -- its origin in Scripture, John Winthrop using it in 1630 to describe the future Puritan outpost in colonial Massachusetts, and Ronald Reagan citing it often through his career. In his farewell address in January 1989, Reagan elaborated on why he did --

The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs I've thought a bit of the shining city upon a hill. The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we'd call a little wooden boat. And, like the other pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, 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 walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still. And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure and happier than it was eight years ago. But more than that, after 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge and her glow has held steady no matter what storm.

Winthrop, a future governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, said this about the city upon a hill in his sermon titled "A Model of Christian Charity" --

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Winthrop's lengthy remarks are invariably condensed to the first two sentences cited above. But his following sentence is arguably just as important, where he tells his congregants that since they will be highly visible, the Puritans risked being deemed hypocrites "if we shall deal falsely with our God."

Maddow, who did not elaborate on her criticism of Daniels, was most likely alluding to the absence of the words "shine" or "shining" in Winthrop's sermon. But Winthrop's followers knew, as do many Christians today, the underlying source of his imagery -- Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, as described in Matthew 5:14 --

You 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, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

Perhaps this will prove illuminating to Maddow.

Ronald Reagan, a devout Christian raised mainly by an evangelical mother, was also surely aware of the city upon a hill's provenance.

Matthews declining to join Maddow in her criticism is possibly explained by the fact that John Kennedy, the subject of Matthews' glowing bestseller "Elusive Hero," had also cited Winthrop in a high-profile address, his speech before the Massachusetts legislature shortly before becoming president in 1961.

In fact, this specific address is described at the Kennedy Library website as -- go figure -- "The City Upon a Hill Speech." Here's Kennedy's interpretation --

I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they too faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier.

"We must always consider," he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill -- the eyes of all people are upon us."

Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us -- and our governments in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill -- constructed and inhabitated by men aware of their great trust and their great responsbilities.

That city on a hill has been, successively, Jesus's followers, the first Puritan enclave in Boston, JFK's New Frontier, and Reagan's America.

Daniels' use of the phrase was meant to evoke Reagan's vision, which has clearly taken hold as the dominant interpretation -- America as shining city on a hill.

But to Maddow, that city has "never shined" -- not even, apparently, when Obama was elected. Not when firefighters and police risked death to rescue the fallen in burning skyscrapers. Not when our astronauts talked to us from the moon. Not when American soldiers ended fascist enslavement of Europe and Asia. Not when Union troops ended enslavement in America.

What makes Maddow's criticism all the more bizarre is how just the opposite was heard from liberals like her, in an endless chorus, during George W. Bush's presidency -- that America, once exemplary, was no longer so, thanks to Bush and all those hooligans in his junta.

Someone evokes America as shining city on a hill and Rachel Maddow just can't help herself. No it most certainly is not, she prissily insists. It's just another subway stop.

Jack Coleman
Liberated ex-liberal from the People's Republic of Massachusetts