Recently I have been in a running conversation with a Christian brother about whether America is or claims to be the City on a Hill (from the Sermon on the Mount) or â€œThe New Jerusalemâ€ (from Ezekiel/Revelation). My answer is that a balanced view of Scripture and history would say no to both charges â€“at least not in a Scriptural sense. God did not â€œchooseâ€ America in the sense of us being specifically identified in Scripture or referred to in prophesy.
What is more accurate to say is that the early American leaders and Founders being largely Christian and in the unique place of being able to establish willfully a society on terms of their choosing set out to base that society as much as practical on Judeo-Christian ideas/principles. In effect, we (America) intentionally chose God and His ways. This did not mean that we would have a theocracy (although some state governments embraced this idea for a short while) or that every person would be required to be a Christian but rather that the framework around and within which the society would operate would reflect broad agreement with Biblical principles (especially those in the New Testament). A free society built on such a foundation would best serve the interests, needs, and future liberties of all inhabitants regardless of their personal views.
The fruit of this choice can be seen in that our nation (and the ideas/principles upon which she is based) have allowed people who were enemies in their homeland to come here and live in peace. Application of these ideas have allowed us to enjoy unparalleled economic growth and prosperity. These ideas (more than our geography) have been a beacon to the peoples of the world and caused many to, at great risk, seek to make their way to our shores. These principles have fostered a society that contains the freest people, the most innovation, and the most charitable people in history. We ought not be surprised that God would look favorably upon a people and a nation set after His own heart.
By embracing and promoting these values/principles/ideas both domestically and externally then, in effect, we do represent a symbol or lighthouse for them. Whether or not our â€œgripâ€ on them can be strong enough to overcome the very real forces (both spiritual and otherwise) that seek to displace/dislodge them is what the â€œAmerican experiment in self-governmentâ€ is all about.
City on a Hill
The â€œCity on a Hillâ€ language first found in Christ' Sermon on the Mount refers to His followers (His Church of believers) and the role that they (and we) should have in the lost world we face.
Matthew 5:14 â€œYou are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.â€
Puritan Leader John Winthrop'sSermon â€œA Model of Christian Charityâ€  written/delivered while still on board the ship Arbella as they arrived at the New World:
â€œFor 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. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.â€
Sermon text found at: http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/charity.html [This is great and well worth reading.]
The following JFK and Reagan entries can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_upon_a_Hill
In the twentieth century, the image was used a number of times in American politics. On 9 January 1961, President-Elect John F. Kennedy returned the phrase to prominence during an [pre-inaugural] address delivered to the General Court of Massachusetts:
"...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 hillâ€”the eyes of all people are upon us". Today the eyes of all people are truly upon usâ€”and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill â€” constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less fantastic than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. History will not judge our endeavorsâ€”and a government cannot be selectedâ€”merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required...And when at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each one of us â€“ recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the state â€“ our success or failure, in whatever office we may hold, will be measured by the answers to four questions: First, were we truly men of courage?...Secondly, were we truly men of judgment?...Third, were we truly men of integrity?...Finally, were we truly men of dedication?... And these are the qualities which, with God's help, this son of Massachusetts hopes will characterize our government's conduct in the four stormy years that lie ahead. Humbly I ask His help in that undertaking â€“ but aware that on earth His will is worked by men.â€
President Ronald Reagan used the image as well, in his 1984 acceptance of the Republican Party nomination and in his January 11, 1989, farewell speech to the nation:
"...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, wind-swept, 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...."
The â€œNew Jerusalemâ€ referred to in Scripture seems clearly to identify an end-times entity which appears after the first earth and the sea has passed away (which hasn't yet occurred).
11 â€˜I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown.12 â€˜He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name.â€™
â€œThen I saw â€œa new heaven and a new earth,â€ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, â€œLook! Godâ€™s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 â€˜He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more deathâ€™ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.â€
A discussion of the New city later in Chapter 21 revealsit to be a large land area (much larger than what we would normally refer to as a city):
Revelation 21:16â€œThe city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia [a]in length, and as wide and high as it is long.â€
Footnote: a) That is, about 1,400 miles or about 2,200 kilometers on a side.
[This is a large area roughly equal to half the continental US.]
In conclusion, no American government nor historic or modern leader that I can find has claimed that America is the Biblically referred to â€œNew Jerusalemâ€. Nor does the timing and a reasonable reading of Scripture support such a claim. Considering John Winthrop's first words on the matter - if we are going to set out to form a society based on God's principles and we don't follow through [in his words â€œif 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 worldâ€] then our failure will be clear to all.
Where then does this connection between â€œNew Jerusalemâ€ and America come? The answer is found in, of all places, the Mormon teachings of the Church of Latter Day Saints!
The following excerpt from the Church of Latter Day Saints website [http://www.lds.org/scriptures/gs/new-jerusalem?lang=eng] reveals where the connection between â€œNew Jerusalem" being in America actually comes [emphasis mine]:
The place where the Saints will gather and Christ will personally reign with them during the Millennium. Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent, and the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory. It also refers to a holy city that will come down out of heaven at the beginning of the Millennium.â€
Such a claim from such a source was clearly not an influence on early American history or the nation's early leaders and founders nor on modern American attitudes.
A strong case can be made that America has contributed much toward achieving a stable economically prosperous world and that such a contribution stems in no small part from our embrace of Judeo-Christian principles and ideas.Â Any nation, or people, or individual is free to join us in purposing to choose God's model for success. Despite it's manifold benefits such a choice is not mandatory.