You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden, nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14
With these words during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus inspired his followers to be a new people, to create a Kingdom of goodness for God’s glory. He was signaling to his hearers that not only was he the looked-for Messiah, the one in whom God delights, anointed by the Holy Spirit that would “bring forth justice” and be a light to the nations, but that it was time for the people corporately to be that light as well.
When the church switched from being the persecuted and the powerless to directing the course of nations itself, it saw that directive as not only spiritual, but physical and actual. The spread of Christian nations was seen as bringing God’s kingdom to earth.
The problem was, those in positions of power were not content to stop with sworn fealty to a temporal ruler, often they required submission in forms of worship and belief. But in spite of the religious wars and persecutions, the core of the Christian faith is that a man came, died and rose again so that each man could be in relationship with God.
That belief is so central to not only Christian worship but the Christian’s view of the purpose and identity of man, that regardless of the attempts of suppression and control, that freedom of worship continued to rise. Happiness could only be found in the service of God and true worship. As Augustine of Hippo wrote in his treatise, “City of God”:
as it is, cannot be happy except by partaking of the light of that God by whom both itself and the world were made; and also that the happy life which all men desire cannot be reached by any who does not cleave with a pure and holy love to that one supreme good, the unchangeable God.
We see echoes of Augustine in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, that all are “equal” and have a right to “life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The desire to pursue God as the end with the happiness being the outcome is was the goal of the Puritans who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Led by John Winthrop, he too had a vision of his group as a new people establishing a new land that could be a “city on a hill.”
In his sermon delivered in 1630 at the launch of their endeavor, Winthrop saw it as a Promised Land, one where they had “entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission.” And that if they were faithful, God himself would bless their endeavor.
In order to do this, Winthrop warned
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection.
Were they successful? The ideal of the equality of man led to a framework of a constitution that supported a rapid expansion West that united the states with their immigrant settlements from a variety of nations rather than fragmenting into a patchwork of nations.
While the constitution provided the governmental framework, the Christian voluntary aid societies such as the American Bible Society, the American Colonization Society, the American Sunday School Society, and the American Education Society knit the disparate communities together through good will and good works. Lyman Beecher referred to these societies as “the grand influence of the church.”
When Christians remembered the words of Christ and actively worked to care for those in need and bring justice, the country flourished, it truly did “shine bright” and as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, had a great influence “over the souls of men.”
But when they forgot this truth, that each man has value as an imager of God, a blight fell. Certain people were seen as “less than,” and not quite deserving of those “inalienable rights” that the Founding Fathers believed that the Creator had given. Native Americans were exploited, African Americans enslaved. The bloody religious wars of Europe were over which expression of religion was correct. The blood shed on American soil was when Christians forgot their religion. As Augustine wrote:
And so, when one who has this intelligent self-love is commanded to love his neighbor as himself, what else is enjoined than that he shall do all in his power to commend to him the love of God? This is the worship of God, this is true religion, this right piety, this the service due to God only.
 Augustine, The City of God, ed. Anthony Uyl, trans. Marcus Dods, Revised. (Woodstock, ON: Devoted Publishing, 2017), 166.
 Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, ed. R.L. Hatchett, 4th ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013).
 Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, Digital., vol. 1 (Project Gutenberg, 2006), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm, Ch 17.
 Augustine, The City of God, 168.