At the first Republican presidential primary debate of the 2024 election, the last biblical reference of the night was also its most significant—and the most often misunderstood.

“In his pitch to get to the Oval Office, President Reagan called America the ‘shining city on a hill,’ a beacon of hope and optimism,” prompted moderator Bret Baier.

“So, in your closing statement tonight, please tell American voters why you are the person who can inspire this nation to a better day,” said Baier’s fellow Fox News host, Martha MacCallum.

Former vice president Mike Pence’s response stuck closest to the theme, evoking the same 1630 speech Reagan quoted, with a reference to Americans’ Puritan forebears. “God is not done with America yet,” Pence said, “and if we will renew our faith in him who has ever guided this nation since we arrived on these wilderness shores, I know the best days for the greatest nation on earth are yet to come.”

City on a hill—this captivating little phrase has a complicated American history, one that often ignores the phrase’s true origin: not among the Puritans, but in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

The phrase was used by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, John Winthrop, in his 1630 treatise “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.” Historians are not certain when (or if) Winthrop delivered the speech, but the popular story is that he gave it on the flagship Arbella to his fellow Puritan travelers on their way to Salem, Massachusetts.

Winthrop’s words have been called the “most famous lay sermon in American history” and the “book of Genesis in America’s political Bible,” but his treatise went virtually unnoticed for centuries. There are only a few scattered references to Winthrop’s speech before the middle of the twentieth century. That is, until John F. Kennedy drew on increasing interest in the religious roots of America’s founding—comparing the “hazardous” voyage America was embarking upon in 1961 to the voyage Winthrop took in 1630.

But it was Ronald Reagan who would transform city on a hill into “one of the most familiar lines in the liturgy of the American civil religion.” Reagan used the phrase to lend moral weight and divine sanction to his political project, and few politicians since have been able to resist doing the same. For instance, in the 2016 election, Hilary Clinton encouraged an audience by saying that “we’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill.”

Article continues below

That said, Americans might be forgiven for forgetting that these were not originally Reagan’s words, but Jesus’.

When Jesus called his followers to be like “a city that is set on a hill” (KJV) in the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5, he was (unsurprisingly) not talking about America. But neither was he exhorting his original audience toward pride in their own goodness or optimism about the future (he had just finished telling them how blessed the poor and meek and persecuted are).

Fourth-century theologian John Chrysostom said of this passage, “Jesus says in effect: You are not accountable only for your life but also for that of the entire world.” Rather than rallying his disciples around a vision of their own shining righteousness, Jesus was connecting his ministry to the larger story of the people of God and orienting it toward the redemption of all creation.

Our misuse of city on a hill is representative of a common failure to interpret the Bible for our political lives—when a verse exhorting the people of God to faithfully serve the world gets twisted into a defense of American dominance. Even our genuine efforts to let Scripture inform our political lives can easily become props for whatever political positions we already hold.

Biblical references like those invoked on Wednesday night will certainly not be the last as the election season draws near. The first GOP debate demonstrates what happens when biblical references are shorn of their context and leveraged to lend moral weight to our political projects.

This should remind Christians to interrogate the biblical language and images used in our public square. Scripture is not free-floating language available for any political project or timeless truth that can be wrenched from its context. When we treat it as such, we lose sight of its intended purpose.

Jesus, unlike Reagan, never called America a “shining city on a hill.” Jesus called his followers to live faithful lives that would glorify God. When we mix this up, we import our own ideas of what constitutes a “shining city”—military might, economic prosperity, political power, or secular humanism—back into Jesus’ words. And perhaps more importantly, some end up laying claim to promises not intended for them.

Article continues below

Winthrop not only appropriated Jesus’ words to his followers, but also a promise God made to the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 30:16: “the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.” When we are not careful with how we handle biblical references, we can end up assuming a divine sanction to “possess” what was never ours in the first place.

As we enter another presidential campaign, Christians seeking to engage in the political conversation should approach the biblical references used by politicians and pundits with discernment. There is great power in Scripture—and great peril in misusing it for our own ends.

That is not to say we should take the Bible out of our public lives. Rather, we should repeatedly return to the original context of the text itself, testing our speech against the whole counsel of Scripture.

Kaitlyn Schiess is the author of The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor and the newly released The Ballot and the Bible.