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What We Talk About When We Talk About America

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In the March 2015 speech that launched his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas pledged to “restore that shining city on a hill.”

Cruz has repeated the language in countless campaign appearance since then, no doubt as a way to build a connection in voters’ minds between him and President Ronald Reagan, who made the phrase famous in the 1980s.

Yet while Cruz and countless other politicians from both sides of the political aisle have used the phrase as an inspiring image of the United States’ global leadership over the past half century, it has also fomented some of the worst tendencies of American exceptionalism.

It’s time to retire the phrase back to its home in Scripture, where it belongs.

The first known description of any part of America as a city upon a hill came in 1630 when, while traveling from Great Britain to New England, John Winthrop wrote a discourse titled “A Model of Christian Charity.”

In his charge to fellow Puritans on their way to settle the New World, Winthrop laid out what has since become an iconic vision for the new colonies as “a city upon a hill.” Winthrop borrowed the metaphor from Matthew 5:24, where Jesus tells his followers, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

After nearly three-and-a-half centuries of relative obscurity, the phrase re-emerged in 1961 when President-elect John F. Kennedy called on local, state and federal governments to be “as a city upon on a hill.” Reagan famously invoked the phrase throughout his presidency, and it has since become an iconic part of the way America is talked about both at home and abroad, as a descriptor of American leadership in the world.

Yet, despite the inspiring imagery and bipartisan use of the phrase, describing America as a shining city on a hill fosters a dangerous national identity rooted in a kind of collective vanity which, like personal vanity, often leads to a crippling failure to recognize or admit faults and mistakes.

Vanity leads us to overestimate our own abilities, resources, authority and credibility. On the global scale, national vanity has resulted in an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy that insists that because America is both powerful and righteous, it has to engage in nation-building by promoting global democracy and free markets the world over. This is, to put it mildly, an untenable approach to international relations.

In the context of domestic policy, national vanity also leads to similar delusions, with different consequences. Perhaps the most obvious and gut-wrenching symptom is the $19 trillion — and rapidly growing — national debt.

National vanity has undoubtedly led to the delusion that we are immune from insolvency, that our children will never have to pay the price of reckless spending down the road and that we can continue to spend trillions with no consequences.

Political speech that appeals to our nobler ideals is important. There’s a reason this imagery has been so popular in American politics, and leaders have a responsibility to find the delicate balance between stern, honest speech on the immediate challenges facing our nation and a hopeful vision of the future.

With that in mind, there is a better way to talk about America that aims to foster a truthful recognition of our remarkable achievements without creating delusions of grandeur.

This new approach entails a focus on three key principles: American achievement, constitutional government, and our unprecedented civil, economic, and religious freedoms. Each of these qualities is a genuinely exceptional element of American success in the world, and we would do well to renew national attention on each one of them.

John Dickinson, known as the “penman of the Revolution,” once praised Americans for their lack of lust for empire and their determination to be a modest people. Writing in his“Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” Dickinson implored, “May our national character be an animated moderation.”

A return to national modesty would be a return to Dickinson’s animated moderation, as a nation that is alert to current realities, prudent on the world stage, and inventive in her policies and governance.

As we pack our bags and leave the shining city in a hill behind, we should be committed to once again becoming a nation that effortlessly combines energy and prudence in our leadership at home and abroad.

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