Presenting A ‘City on a Hill’

7 Sep

In a little over  a month I’ll be at the Western Historical Association‘s 50th annual conference in Lake Tahoe, California, presenting a paper entitled “Los Angeles, a City on a Hill?: Evangelical Outreach and Religious Claims to Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics.” Several colleagues and I proposed the panel, “Staking Claims, Creating Names: Confronting Colonial Christianity in the New West,” as a way to organize our explorations of strategies of making religious identity claims in different areas of Western history.

The research for my contribution thankfully overlaps quite a bit with the work I’m doing on the first chapter of my dissertation. The 1984 Olympics was the occasion for a significant evangelical outreach effort coordinated by Youth With A Movement (YWAM), the international missionary group founded by Loren Cunningham in the early 1970s.

As you might guess from my paper’s title, I’ll be arguing that YWAM’s outreach efforts hoped to use the global attention on the 1984 Games to elevate Los Angeles into the role of a City on a Hill. Folks were recruited to, among other more conventional outreach activities, offer prayers at Olympic venues to protect the athletes. However, participation was mostly limited to regional Christian congregations. So we may rightly ask who the audience was for the Olympic outreach. Was it local Angelenos? American TV and News audiences? Foreign Olympians? Foreign audiences? In short, for whom was Los Angeles claimed by YWAM during the Games?

Los Angeles skyline and San Gabriel mountains.

Los Angeles via Wikipedia

We often blithely use the image of Winthrop’s City upon a Hill, overlooking this metaphor’s deeply colonial take on Christianity’s promise. Likewise, we tend to forget how uniquely American the image is. The colonial and national are prominent here, and, as a way of examining YWAM’s activities, the metaphor turns out to be a useful interpretive tool–one which I’m sure to re-examine here in the future.

My only regret about the conference is that our panel’s time slot pits us against a roundtable featuring Patricia Nelson Limerick and a panel on “Identity in Urban Spaces.” If I weren’t giving my paper, I’d surely be attending one of those sessions. In any event, who can resist a weekend of conferencing in Tahoe after the summer holidays and before all the skiers arrive?

Sidenote: We now say on rather than upon in most circumstances, except when we really do mean “up and on”. Since the city of L.A. is not up and on any particular hill and the use of the metaphor by folks in 1984 was casual in its application (and not direct quotation), the change seemed appropriate.

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