Much will be written, and should be, as we mark the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. During this centennial observance, let’s recapture the vision of America’s 40th president and use it as a roadmap for the 21st century and beyond.
Throughout his eight years in the Oval Office, Reagan brought a renewed sense of optimism to a beleaguered nation disillusioned by war and scandal. He repeatedly described America as the “shining city upon a hill.” In his poignant 1989 farewell address, Reagan said:
“…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.”
Reagan’s imagery came from “A Model of Christian Charity,” a 1630 sermon by Puritan pioneer John Winthrop. When he wrote these memorable words, Winthrop was poised to arrive on the American shore. The man who eventually became governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony accurately predicted that the new community would be a “city upon a hill” watched by the world.
Winthrop’s inspiration came from Matthew 5:14. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his listeners: “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.”
From John Winthrop to Ronald Reagan, our land has been blessed with a long line of faithful individuals devoted to freedom. Although these leaders had flaws, they illuminated the path to the shining city.
That dedication has always come with a price. The road to the Promised Land is often filled with bloodshed and heartache, as evil forces fight desperately to retain power. Tyrants will always be threatened by those seeking the liberties endowed by our creator. But as we saw in the 1980s, people yearning to be independent can be motivated to tear down that wall of oppression, even when it has been an obstacle for a long time.
Free countries aren’t perfect and the United States has shortcomings. But despite grievous errors, we’ve lived in a nation where religious freedom has flourished. While acknowledging mistakes is a sign of maturity, our country should never feel compelled to apologize for its existence or the hand of providence so instrumental in its founding.
As Reagan once said, America is “still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurling through the darkness, toward home.”
That light can be snuffed out, if we forget our roots and neglect the author of our liberties. A wiser course would be to remember the admonition from another president’s farewell address. In 1796, George Washington said, “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Because Ronald Reagan understood this precept, his message resonated during a self-indulgent age when some people sought a spiritual renewal and began asking tough questions about ethical decline.
The hunger for freedom remains strong around the globe and deep within our souls. While our leaders can articulate a vision, we must be the foot soldiers to carry out the mission. By knocking down our inner walls of pride and prejudice, we become more useful to others seeking entrance to the city on the hill. The glow of our obedience will help usher many from valleys of struggle to peaks of glory and be a shining testament to the power of faith.
Kendall Wingrove is a freelance writer from East Lansing, Michigan.