One of the conventional right’s gripes against Democrats like Barack Obama has been their alleged lack of faith in “American exceptionalism.” The United States, say these critics, is not as other nations, which content themselves with the prosaic pursuit of bourgeois life, but is endowed with a global, world-historic task from which Americans, if they are to be true to themselves, cannot flinch.

In fact, both political parties invoke the world-historic mission of the United States—just recall the preposterous claims and promises made in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address—and neither would consider for a moment the possibility of reducing America’s overseas presence in any significant way.

American exceptionalism is a bipartisan phenomenon, and in modern America its most potent expression is the “city on a hill,” a biblical image employed by John Winthrop in “A Model of Christian Charity,” the lay sermon he composed in 1630 on his way to New England. In fact, so iconic has that image become that Americans no doubt assume it has been invoked and appealed to in an unbroken tradition from its 17th-century drafting down to the present day.

Historian Richard Gamble, in his new book, In Search of the City on a Hill, finds the truth to be quite different. He traces the history of that Winthrop sermon from its composition aboard the Arbella—there is no evidence Winthrop actually delivered the sermon, it turns out, as opposed to merely writing it—all the way down to John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Sarah Palin. In so doing, he found it was the proverbial story of the dog that did not bark.

For over two centuries after Winthrop composed the “Model,” it was altogether unknown to the American public. Only in 1838 was the manuscript published, and in the ensuing years it was cited and discussed only sparingly. And even then, the “city upon a hill” imagery was almost never emphasized as the document’s rhetorical or philosophical crescendo. For the most part, Winthrop’s remarks were described as an admirable exposition of the demands of Christian charity, and that was that.

Even more surprising to the modern reader, who is often inclined to view the rest of the sermon with impatience as he awaits the reference to the city on a hill, is that as late as 1968, when historian Lee Tuveson wrote his important book Redeemer Nation about the messianic strain in American thought and practice, Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” was not mentioned at all.

Before proceeding from the relative obscurity of Winthrop’s “Model” to its sudden elevation to iconic status, let’s consider for a moment what Winthrop had in mind in 1630. The John Winthrop who told his wife that God would “provide a shelter and a hiding place for us and ours” had a finite goal, namely a place of asylum for the Puritans and the establishment of proper Christian worship and civil government as called for in the Bible. For him, that meant worship expunged of popish superstition, churches emancipated from the authority of bishops, the Word of God as the central focus of the church service, and a political society in which sin was to be punished and Christian charity promoted. Ambitious, to be sure, but finite.

This new Christian community of New England, said Winthrop, ought to imagine itself as a city upon a hill, with the eyes of the world upon it. The Puritans had to be faithful to their covenant with God in order not to bring shame on the cause of the Gospel. God would surely bless them if they remained faithful, but he would just as surely withdraw those blessings and punish them if they failed.

Winthrop held that the mission of the Puritans was do to service for the Lord, to build up the body of Christ (i.e., the church), to preserve their posterity from the corruptions of the world, and to live their lives according to “his holy ordinances.” Not exactly the mission statement later glosses on Winthrop’s words would have in mind.

In the scholarly realm it was Perry Miller, the prolific 20th-century historian of the Puritans, who did so much to link Winthrop’s city on a hill to the idea of a messianic American consciousness. Miller, although not a believer himself, was fascinated by and held a great respect for the Puritans, whom he sought to rehabilitate after their treatment at the hands of iconoclasts like H.L. Mencken.

According to Miller, Winthrop and the Puritans sought to establish a “revolutionary city” in New England that would regenerate the world. Miller conceded that the Puritans themselves probably did not understand the full significance of what they were doing—an admission that throws his own interpretation into rather serious question, though he believed Winthrop himself did hold this messianic vision. Gamble is skeptical. “Winthrop understood the mission behind the mission, Miller claimed, although it sounded more like Miller was the one blessed with the special gnosis.”

During Reagan’s presidency, Theodore Dwight Bozeman accused Miller of having invented the “idea of an exemplary Puritan mission” and noted that the “city on a hill” language was a “rhetorical commonplace,” not the document’s interpretive key.

Winthrop, said Bozeman, had drafted no “installment upon an American plan of restless progress” but was focused on returning church practice to what the Puritans considered its primitive purity. Andrew Delbanco found Winthrop “considerably more focused on what was being fled than on what was being pursued,” and Winthrop biographer Francis Bremer noted that the “city on a hill” phrase was quite common and Winthrop’s message overall doubtless seemed fairly conventional to his Puritan audience.

It was Ronald Reagan who seared the image of the city on a hill (the “shining city on a hill,” in his rendition) into the national consciousness. To be sure, John F. Kennedy had earlier appropriated the image for his own use, but thanks to Reagan it became one of the most common refrains in the American cultural and political idiom, to the point that foreign leaders and dignitaries today make reference to it when giving pleasant speeches about America.

Reagan spoke of the city on a hill nearly two dozen times in presidential speeches. His was “a city aglow with the light of human freedom, a light that someday will cast its glow on every dark corner of the world and on every age and generation to come.” Gone for good was the idea of divine judgment to be visited upon a disobedient city. This was a city that boasted only promise, and a distinctly secular promise at that.

Gamble is at pains not simply to trace the evolution of the “Model of Christian Charity” and its “city on a hill” in American culture but to insist that the original city on a hill was a biblical image, not a political symbol. It was not a physical place at all but the Christian church itself, conceived of as the community of believers wherever they may be found. The Christian community, Gamble insists, ought to be outraged at the secular appropriation of one of its most arresting images.

“Ronald Reagan,” says Gamble, “took hold of a metaphor and reworked it to such a degree that a nation of 300 million people has lost the ability to hear that metaphor in any way other than how he used it. … Its political use has been potent enough to all but eclipse its biblical meaning, even among American Christians who might reasonably be expected to resent seeing their metaphor dressed up like Uncle Sam.”

There is no such resentment, of course. The intellectual debasement of American conservatism, combined with the grotesque and impious neoconservative conflation of Christianity and “America’s mission in the world,” have decimated the kind of religious sensibilities that would alert the properly formed Christian conscience to blasphemy.

Thus when Abraham Lincoln is found to have said that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” America’s ideals, this does not shock or scandalize American Christians. When George W. Bush said “the light shined in darkness and the darkness did not overcome it,” and by “light” meant American ideals, few American Christians batted an eye.

So we have the following spectacle: a religious image is adapted by an earthly government for secular purposes, in order to urge Americans to pursue a messianic world mission that would have been dismissed with contempt by a classical conservative like Edmund Burke and which bears more in common with the French Revolution and its wars of ideological expansion than it does with anything conservatives would have recognized—and so-called conservatives cheer.

If anything, the references to the city on a hill grow more inane over time. Neoconservative Robert Kagan calls the New England Puritans the “first imperialists” and “global revolutionaries.” For his knowledge of the Puritans he relies almost entirely on Perry Miller. David Gelernter—the Yale professor who said in 2004 that “George W. Bush has already earned his Great President badge”—describes the Puritan city on a hill as the beginnings of America’s “sacred mission” to spread “liberty, equality, and democracy.”

“John Winthrop,” Gelernter goes on, “was a founder of this nation, we are his heirs, and thank God we have inherited his humanitarian decency along with his radical God-fearing Americanism.”

Instead of arguing over how best to frame the American mission in terms of the city on a hill, Gamble suggests we ought to ask a different question. We ought to have a debate “between exceptionalists of all sorts on one side and skeptics on the other, that is, between those who believe that the United States is somehow exempt from human finitude, the lust for dominion, and the limits of resources and power, and those who do not.”

Richard Gamble’s book is an important first step toward that long-overdue debate.

Thomas E. Woods Jr. is a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and author of Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming Fiscal Collapse.