Here are some of Reagan’s words from his “City on a Hill” farewell speech from January, 1989:
The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.
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.
And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was 8 years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
The power of Reagan’s words about the pilgrim and the immigrant and the doors being “open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here” did not stem just from a belief about the basic nobility of immigration, per se. The power of these words came from his rock solid belief in the transformative power of America that ultimately derived from a Biblical worldview (or a secular version of it) – the “shining city on a hill” that was to be a beacon of light to the whole world. He so believed in America as a people and as an idea that encompassed the best hope for freedom on this planet, that he believed that those who came here were drawn here by that light and that they would ultimately be transformed by it into what we all were together – Americans.
And, this belief that America was a transformative place rooted in transcendent values was not a recent idea that Reagan stumbled into in the 1980s. In June, 1952 in a commencement address at Williams Woods College in one of the earliest speeches from Reagan on record, he said,
“I, in my own mind, have always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land. It was set here and the price of admission was very simple: the means of selection was very simple as to how this land should be populated. Any place in the world and any person from those places; any person with the courage, with the desire to tear up their roots, to strive for freedom, to attempt and dare to live in a strange and foreign place, to travel halfway across the world was welcome here.”
Reagan expressed this belief of America as a “city on a hill” and a sort of “promised land” where anyone who had the courage and desire to leave their home country and come and work and strive along with us – that they were welcome here and that they too could become Americans. This is Biblical imagery. He says this at the very beginning of his political career, says it over and over again throughout, and he expressed it again 37 years later at the very end. This idea of the Transcendent and Transformative America as a refuge for people from all over the world who wanted to be free was a core belief of Reagan’s and it animated his fight against Communism and was the very vision by which he led our nation. And, it is at the very heart of his Conservatism.
Some other quotes expressing Reagan’s idea of a transcendent and transformative America welcoming to immigrants:
July 30, 1981 — Statement on United States Immigration and Refugee Policy – “Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands. No free and prosperous nation can by itself accommodate all those who seek a better life or flee persecution. We must share this responsibility with other countries.”
May 17, 1981 — from a speech at Notre Dame University – “The years ahead will be great ones for our country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West will not contain Communism; it will transcend Communism. We will not bother to denounce it, we’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.
August 23, 1984 — in his speech to the Republican National Convention – “The poet called Miss Liberty’s torch ‘the lamp beside the golden door.’ Well, that was the entrance to America, and it still is. And now you really know why we’re here tonight. The glistening hope of that lamp is still ours. Every promise, every opportunity, is still golden in this land. And through that golden door our children can walk into tomorrow with the knowledge that no one can be denied the promise that is America. Her heart is full; her torch is still golden, her future bright. She has arms big enough to comfort and strong enough to support, for the strength in her arms is the strength of her people. She will carry on in the ’80s unafraid, unashamed, and unsurpassed. In this springtime of hope, some lights seem eternal; America’s is.”
January 20, 1981 — First Inaugural Address – “If we look to the answer as to why, for so many years, we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here, in this land, we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price.”
July 17, 1980 upon accepting the Republican nomination — “The time is now, my fellow Americans, to recapture our destiny, to take it into our own hands. And to do this it will take many of us, working together. I ask you tonight, all over this land, to volunteer your help in this cause so that we can carry our message through out the land… I have thought of something that’s not a part of my speech and worried over whether I should do it. Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe free? Jews and Christians enduring persecution behind the Iron Curtain; the boat people of Southeast Asia, Cuba, and of Haiti; the victims of drought and famine in Africa, the freedom fighters of Afghanistan, and our own countrymen held in savage captivity. I’ll confess that I’ve been a little afraid to suggest what I’m going to suggest. I’m more afraid not to. Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer? God bless America.”
November 19, 1990 upon the dedication of the “Breakthrough” sculpture at the Cold War Memorial at Westminster College in Fulton, MO. His “Brotherhood of Man” speech.
“In dedicating this magnificent sculpture, may we dedicate ourselves to hastening the day when all God’s children live in a world without walls. That would be the greatest empire of all.
“And now, let me speak directly to the young people and the students here. I wonder yet if you’ve appreciated how unusual — terribly unusual — this country of ours is?
“I received a letter just before I left office from a man. I don’t know why he chose to write it, but I’m glad he did. He wrote that you can go to live in France, but you can’t become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Italy, but you can’t become a German, an Italian. He went through Turkey, Greece, Japan and other countries. but he said anyone, from any corner of the world, can come to live in the United States and become an American.
“Some may call is mysticism if they will, but I cannot help but feel that there was some divine plan that placed this continent here between the two great oceans to be found by people from any corner of the earth — people who had an extra ounce of desire for freedom and some extra courage to rise up and lead their families, their relatives, their friends, their nations and come here to eventually make this country.
“The truth of the matter is, if we take this crowd and if we could go through and ask the heritage, the background of every family represented here, we would probably come up with the names of every country on earth, every corner of the world, and every race. Here, is the one spot on earth where we have the brotherhood of man. And maybe as we continue with this proudly, this brotherhood of man made up from people representative of every corner of the earth, maybe one day boundaries all over the earth will disappear as people cross boundaries and find out that, yes, there is a brotherhood of man in every corner.
“Thank you all and God Bless you all.”
The more that you read through Reagan’s speeches throughout his career, the more that you see it. America was great because America was good. And, part of what made America good was the way that she welcomed the immigrant – the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free. Reagan saw America in quasi-religious terms, established by Divine Providence as a “city on a hill,” a refuge for mankind to live free and by the better angels of our nature. Ronald Reagan had a powerful perspective on immigration to America not just because of some inherent value in immigration – but because he believed in the inherent value of America as a nation that could transform anyone who came here from any part of the world into something historically unique and significant – an American.
Donald Trump does not understand this vision, even though he claims to be carrying forth Reagan’s project of making America great again. He does not understand America or what motivated Reagan. He believes that America’s greatness is in our wealth and power and “winning” and who we keep out and the size of the walls that we can build. He appeals to a growing fear of demise and draws his power from that fear instead of tapping into a faith in who we are as a people. The fact that so many who call themselves “conservatives” are being taken in by Trump and his charade is a testimony to how much the Conservative movement has given way to fear and extreme selfishness and how far it has fallen from Reagan’s vision. Reagan understood that what needed to be conserved was the idea of a transcendent, transformative America that was a land of free people working hard to be all that God created them to be.
Government was to aid all of that – not get in the way. And, he believed that those free people would come from every nation on earth to this place to be that people together.
Critics believe Reagan’s words were wrong on immigration and that he would not believe the same thing today. They are saying that his words in the speech represents a desire for “open borders” and that it twists Reagan’s words. But, they misunderstand Reagan’s point. He was not advocating for open borders. He believed in border security and enforcement of immigration law. He did not want people coming here illegally and believed that those who came should come orderly and legally. But, his view on immigration flowed out of his belief that America was already a great nation and that part of what made us great was that we were made up of people from all over the world looking for freedom and a better way of life.
Reagan had his critics back in the 80s, too. They came from the labor unions on the Left who feared that immigrants would take jobs from Americans. He countered that fear with a reminder of who America really was and a call for America to be that essential nation. No, Reagan’s views on immigration were not just located in his time. They were core to his own beliefs about conservatism and who America is as a nation. To reject Reagan’s perspective on immigration is to reject him and his political philosophy at its core and to promote an altogether different version of America – one that Reagan would not have been familiar with.
The reason that we now struggle to assimilate people who come to America is not because of the numbers or because of where they are from. We struggle to assimilate newcomers to America because we have forgotten who WE are and we fear and withdraw from them so we can protect ourselves and our own “way of life.” We have forgotten our own purpose and vision and we stopped believing in the power of the American Experiment in liberty. We stopped believing in the future, so we fear anyone new or anyone who isn’t exactly like us. It is our fear that causes us to entertain the idea of asking people like Donald Trump to lead us. That fear will ruin us. We need more of Reagan’s confidence.
Now, if I were to do a theological analysis of Reagan’s perspective and compare it to full Christian theology, his view would come up short and be misplaced. The Bible says that the “city on a hill” is the church (Matthew 5:14-16) and that the light that shines out of us is the light of Christ. America is not the church and never will be and it is wrong to confuse the two. But, the thing about Reagan’s perspective that is striking is that he attempts, perhaps unknowingly, to bring the effects of the gospel and apply them to the nation overall. This is impossible apart from Christ, of course, but Reagan’s philosophy reminds us of the effects and results of Christianity (love for neighbor, welcoming of the sojourner, care for the poor, dignity of man, etc) and perhaps invites them to be re-incorporated into the fabric of our nation through the witness of the church on this issue of welcoming the immigrant.
Invoking Reagan’s memory on immigration is a good move and a good way to change the conversation. But, we must also remember WHY Reagan had the views on immigration that he did: He believed that America was a great nation – a nation of immigrants – and he also believed that America was a transformative nation that existed to be that shining light to the nations of the world. Whether America’s light shines or not has a lot to do with how we welcome the stranger and sojourner to our land – and also how we treat the migrant, the refugee, and the dispossessed and oppressed in other lands around the world.
That is how Ronald Reagan seemed to see it, anyway. Maybe we should listen to him.
Memphis immigration Project exists to engage issues of Immigration from a biblical perspective