Ronald Reagan who died a year ago last month loved to refer to America as a city on the hill. It’s a powerful image – one taken from the Scriptures and he used it powerfully, though perhaps a bit imprecisely. Jerusalem, a town built on top of Mount Zion, was perhaps the original ‘city on the hill”. But, for the prophets and later the apostles and the Early Fathers, Jerusalem stands for the City of God, and not for a City of Man.
As St. Augustine pointed out in a book he wrote as he watched the Roman Empire collapse around him, we, Christians, are citizens of both, the City of God and the City of Man. Having just celebrated the 229 th anniversary of our nation’s independence, we do well to thank God that the City of Man where we dwell is the United States of America and not the Rome that sent Christians to the lions. God has indeed shed his grace on this land of ours. We enjoy many blessings here, not the least being our freedom of religion, guaranteed by the Constitution’s First Amendment. Yet, there are inevitable tensions for any City built by men, even a city that shines, as it were on a hill, as a beacon of liberty like our United States of America. For any City built by fallen men will inevitably reflect man’s fallen nature.
200 years ago slavery was written into the constitution and of course women could not vote. More recently, the right to abortion has been read into our Constitution by our Supreme Court judges.
Having a dual citizenship – one in the City of Man by birthright or naturalization, the other in the City of God through baptism – can bring about tensions. No surprise here –but thank God that our forefathers, in establishing our republican form of democracy, did not pretend that they were building heaven on earth. In the 20th century, dreamers of that ilk – men like Stalin and Hitler and Castro – ended up making their nations hells on earth.
Our Founding Fathers got it right in setting up a limited government –with checks and balances -in order to provide ordered freedom for its citizens. Even what has come to be called “separation of Church and State”, although these words are not to be found in the constitution, was to limit the power of the state over purely religious affairs. In other words, it was meant to keep the State from dictating to the Church. It did not mean that government must be insulated from religious values, or the separation of faith from society. Indeed, from the beginning the participation of God-fearing people in the formulation of our nation’s laws and policies was welcomed and encouraged.
However, today in America, the role of faith is increasingly under attack. More and more the price of admission to public life is to check one’s faith-based values at the door. When we speak about abortion or rights of immigrants, we are accused of imposing our religious views; when we call for parental rights and choice in education, we are told that we are violating the separation of Church and state. If we defend the traditional understanding of marriage, we are accused of being intolerant. If we raise a warning cry against the destructive manipulation of human life in embryonic stem cell research, we are ridiculed for standing in the way of scientific progress.
Religion is a private matter, we are told. But such a “privatized religion” would no longer be “the Faith of our Fathers”; and, a regime that would exile faith from the public square would no longer be the Republic of our Founders that Ronald Reagan so exuberantly described as that “City on the Hill”.