In which Shep Smith inadvertently (re)discovers the real meaning of a shining city on a hill

Here’s Shep Smith, yesterday, on torture:

Is there gonna come a time when we can just look and go, ‘we did bad things. We shouldn’t have done those bad things. We better make sure these bad things don’t happen again, because, as Ronald Reagan said, we’re a shining city on a hill. We’re America, we don’t torture.

Good ol’ Shep has just transgressed against the civil religion. In Reagan’s conception of the shining city on a hill phrase, it might be said that America is great, therefore America can torture. We’re an exceptional nation, favored by God, so we can do what we want, including conducting extraordinary renditions, operating black sites, rectally feeding detainees, lying to Congress, and so on, in the name of preserving our exceptionality.

This use of the phrase — a shining city as implying the right to meddle in the affairs of other nations because of our supposed moral superiority — is totally unmoored from any conception of the phrase prior to John F. Kennedy. In fact, in the original document by John Winthrop, it’s not even a very important one, and if anything is an exhortation that the new nation beware, for it would be judged by both God and the world for its failings. And that’s what Shep seems to be implying here.

Richard Gamble wrote an excellent book on this forgotten history, so I sent this clip to him. He replied:

Smith did capture the older, weightier sense of humility and moral character — that the American people have a responsibility to be an example of right conduct in the world, a nation of integrity and self-respect where the means do matter and not just the ends. That older ideal is a far cry from the “arrogance of power.”

More from Christopher Lasch, in The True And Only Heaven:

When the Jews referred to themselves as the chosen people, they meant that they had agreed to submit to a uniquely demanding set of ethical standards, not that they were destined to rule the world or to enjoy special favors from heaven. The seventeenth-century Puritan settlers of New England, much indebted to the Old Testament for their conception of a collective identity, understood their mission in the same way. From this point of view, history mattered because it was under divine judgment, not because it led inevitably to the promised land. Whether the chosen people wold prove themselves worthy of the blessings arbitrarily bestowed on them was an open question, not a foregone conclusion; and the prophetic tradition, central to Judaism, to Augustinian Catholicism, and to early Protestantism, served to recall them, again and again, to a painful awareness of their own shortcomings. Prophecy made history much more the record of moral failure than a promise of ultimate triumph.

Here’s Tom Woods’ review of Gamble’s book.

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