Conservatives are awfully fond of referring to America as a “city upon a hill;” it would be a wonderful thing if they actually made some attempt to understand what that image is supposed to signify.  When it is used by contemporary conservatives, it is invariably intended to invoke notions of “American exceptionalism.”  The preeminence of a city built on a hilltop is interpreted as a kind of superiority, as though it were nation set above other nations, and even above the ordinary historical forces that beset other nations.  A city on a hill thus becomes an apt symbol for a country which enjoys an indisputable superiority in wealth and military power, implying a sort of vaguely providential sanction upon that wealth and power.  The reference to this image by conservatives almost always carries connotations of national self-congratulation, and almost always serves to enhance that most distinctively liberal attitude – complacency.

But this is not at all what John Winthrop meant when he first applied that image to the Pilgrim settlers, in his famous sermon of 1630.  What he wrote was as follows:  “Consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and byword through the world.”  Winthrop intended the preeminence of a city on a hill to signify not the inherent superiority of the Plymouth settlement, but its notoriety. His point was that the whole world would be aware of the outcome of the Pilgrim’s expedition, so that a failure to establish a just community in the new world would inevitably become known throughout the old world, and become an occasion for the Puritan’s enemies to deride their faith.  And that it was quite possible – even probable – that the Pilgrim’s could fail in their endeavor, Winthrop was at pains to emphasize: “But if our hearts shall turn away so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship other Gods our pleasures and profits, and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land we pass over this vast sea to possess it.”  He did not wish to soothe the Pilgrims’ complacency by extolling their virtues, but rather to awaken their moral vigilance by reminding them of the iniquity towards which the human soul is always inclined, and what would be its catastrophic consequences in their perilous situation.  The image of a city upon a hill is, for Winthrop, the image of preeminent responsibility.

So it is a disgrace of the first order that modern conservatives have so perverted the words of the good preacher to make him seem to mean very nearly the opposite of what he in fact did mean.  Particularly since Winthrop explicitly warns his followers to avoid as a pitfall precisely the thing which conservatives are now in the habit of regarding as the highest of civic virtues – a desire for material affluence.  He implored the Pilgrims not to be “seduced” by “pleasures and profits,” and told them that they must “be willing to abridge (themselves) of superfluities, for the supply of other necessities.”  Moreover, Winthrop dilates upon the necessarily communal nature of the Plymouth project, in a manner which would inevitably be dismissed as “collectivist” by the typical modern conservative: “we must delight in each other, make other conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body, so we shall keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”  The profiteering individualism at the heart of contemporary conservatism would have been anathema to Winthrop, and to all the Pilgrim settlers.

That political gravity and urgency which suffused Winthrop’s sermon  – and indeed, his entire vision of things – once belonged to conservatism, but no more.  Modern conservatism has largely undertaken the duties of therapy, bolstering the patriotic self-esteem of the American people, even as they watch their culture become increasingly depraved, their economy increasingly unsustainable, and their liberties increasingly tenuous.  By belligerently asserting “American exceptionalism” at every opportunity, the modern conservative engenders an invincible self-satisfaction in his adherents, who come to believe that such “exceptionalism” entails an exception from the consequences of general imbecility, moral flaccidity, and national financial malfeasance.  Such an ardent promotion of complacency would constitute dangerous nonsense in the best of times, but at this moment in our history, it is likely to prove positively disastrous.

No one can doubt any longer that we are entering into one of the most supremely trying phases in our national history; civil transformation, deprivation, and sacrifice lie before us all, in frighteningly uncertain form.  When these things do come, the American people are sure to react as all peoples historically have reacted to such social convulsions – by looking for scapegoats.  Those who are now repeatedly assuring the American public of their unparalleled virtue are only preparing to make that reaction more volatile than it otherwise would be.  People who are convinced of their own goodness, when they suffer, assume that they suffer undeservedly, and instantly begin searching about for the true culprit in their misfortunes.  A country which has come to regard itself as uniquely excellent will never find anything the least bit expected or merited in some dramatic decline in its welfare.  The citizens of such a country will inevitably interpret their downfall as the work of some powerful and nefarious segment of the population, towards which they will direct a resentment that will be all the more ferocious, for being perfectly ungrounded.  Those conservatives who relentlessly assert the unique excellence of the American people are, knowingly or unknowingly, sowing the seeds of violence to come.

What is necessary at this time is a general acknowledgment that we Americans, having been placed in a situation of unprecedented felicity, have utterly failed to order our society in such a way as to perpetuate and improve our happiness.  We need to admit that there is nothing the least bit unexpected or undeserved about our present trials, but rather that they are the wholly predictable effects of behavior which has been prevalent for several generations now, that these are the sorts of things that happen when a people gives itself over to latitudinarianism, unrestrained acquisitiveness, cynicism, ignorance, disrespect for tradition, selfishness, and pride.  Above all things, we need to confess that we have been woefully negligent of the first duty of a civil society, the proper rearing of the young, and that the incompetent schools and corrosive culture which have successively debased three generations of American minds are criminal atrocities which no decent people would endure for a day.  We cannot pretend any longer to act surprised that generations raised in habits of self-indulgence and irresponsibility prove unable to perform the duties of social life.  We need to confess that even those institutions which are uniquely culpable for the despondent condition of our country – Hollywood and the universities, for instance – are patronized and admired by the population at large, a population which thus becomes similarly culpable.

Similarly, we need to stop pretending that the corruption of our political establishment is an external imposition upon us, rather than the outgrowth and adequate reflection of our own civic deficiencies. Every one of us needs to reflect on the various ways our own lives have become implicated in the grotesquely unjust order which is about to crumble before our eyes.  Every one of us needs to be willing to accept full responsibility for the evils we will experience in the times to come.  Such austere self-criticism is the thing most needful now, and those voices should be most welcomed, and most approved, who urge us most strenuously towards that spiritual discipline.

The failure of modern conservatism is the failure to provide those voices.  Its sin is the sin of unrepentance.  But it is only repentance – the willingness to “think again” – that can save us now.  We must turn therefore to the wisdom of the past, to the guidance of minds impressed with such fundamental humility, to find our way now.  We must learn from such sources how all appearances of security and stability in a world such as ours are inherently deceptive, that even in the finest season, the maintenance of a civil social order is a work as doubtful and as dangerous as a journey into a dark, untrammeled wilderness.  We must be reminded that, at all times, “there is set before us life, and good, death and evil,” and that our abiding prosperity hinges desperately, at every stage of our national existence, upon how firmly and consistently we choose the former, and reject the latter.  And we must never, ever forget, that the only hopeful and dignified course available to such creatures as we are is in “obeying His voice, and cleaving to Him, for He is our life, and our prosperity.”


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Mark A. Signorelli
Mark Anthony Signorelli is an essayist, playwright, and poet, who is committed to reviving the old ways of writing essays, plays, and poems.  He has spent a very large portion of his life producing work in such highly unfashionable genres as the traditional "fourteener" ballad and blank-verse tragedy (which may, in part, explain why you have never heard of him).  He currently serves as a Contributing Editor for the New English Review, a web journal, where he has written on the poverty and absurdity of contemporary philosophical materialism and on the need to return to the broad tradition of humanist, literary learning.  He lived for five years in the seaside town of Ocean Grove, NJ, one of the most charming and distinctive locales on the east coast, where he frequently sat on his very non-figurative front porch, and conversed with his neighbors sitting on their adjacent and equally non-figurative front porch (this is probably his only real qualification to write for FPR).  He now resides elsewhere in central Jersey with his wife - like Penelope, a woman of great arete. Visit Mark's website to see more of his writings!


  1. So much badmouthing, without a single reference to a single statement or deed of an actual conservative, not even by way of example. This must be the stuff they call “civility.”

    It could have been an excellent article if it hadn’t been an exercise in smear politics from a position of smug superiority. I would suggest rewriting it to correct this fault. The result could easily be a keeper article. /s/ A conservative who is a non-believer in American Exceptionalism.

  2. I should also point out that if an article like this is going to consist of an attack on a broad group of people, it could also have attacked the leftwing version of American Exceptionalism. Many leftists detest the term but hold to a version of it none the less. (Their version often goes under the heading “It can’t happen here.”)

  3. I hardly think Mr. Gorentz’s comments qualify as “dumb.” Like him, I would very much like to see some links, or even just quotes, or people misusing “city upon a hill” in this fashion. Yes, I can Google it. But it’s customary, in building an argument of this sort, not to rely on your readers to do so.

    This is not to say I don’t believe that conservative leaders do this. It would just be nice to see it in action.

  4. Excellent article. I don’t need footnotes to get the point: We spend more than we have, both collectively, and as many individual families; we’ve developed an entitlement mentality that undermines commitments to hard work and creative excellence; we’ve a political system that is increasingly beholden to the interests of the insanely wealthy and corporations at the expense of a rapidly disappearing middle class; our lust for the cheapest food, goods, and services has conspired with our educational system’s devaluation of trades and manufacturing, resulting in outsourcing, a spiraling trade deficit and the commensurate rotting of some city cores; the demise of our family structures and values leaves millions in isolation and pain, which is often numbed any number of “drugs of choice” including television, recreational sex, prescription and illegal drugs. I could go on, but if you don’t get the point by now, you won’t get it at all.

    I don’t read this article as an attack on conservatives only, though they use the phrase more often than liberals. It’s not an attack at all. It’s more of a wake up call, an invitation to own our pathologies rather than hide behind the veil of exceptionalism – but the sad truth is most people are so deeply in slumber that when nudged with an article like this, they’ll disparage the messenger rather than get out of bed.

  5. There is so much right-wing exceptionalism going around that Mr. Signorelli is entirely justified in generalizing from the obvious results of observation. Since he is on entirely solid ground, it is hard to see what the fuss is all about. Examples abound and if someone asked him politely for one or two specifics, he might well oblige.

    American exceptionalism is very old but at least in its earlier phases people sometimes knew they had to do something in order to keep benefiting from a set of lucky breaks not entirely of our own making. Just being American wasn’t enough.

  6. I’m frankly at a loss to understand how the apparently inevitable, violent collapse of America and the evils described in this essay are uniquely attributable to modern conservatives.

    I did chuckle a bit at one unintended irony: Mr. Signorelli writes with some insight, “People who are convinced of their own goodness, when they suffer, assume that they suffer undeservedly, and instantly begin searching about for the true culprit in their misfortunes. ” He then goes on, apparently convinced of his goodness (in the face of anticipated suffering), to helpfully identify the true culprits — conservatives!

    Apparently these modern conservatives, like the marketing department of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, are “a bunch of mindless jerks who will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.”

  7. Jeff Schultz, where does the author attribute the evils in this essay uniquely to conservatives?

    I’m pretty sure he calls out conservatives because of the gap between our historical ideals and modern practice.

    The “Who us? What about the other guys?” reaction to a call for repentance is telling, and it’s more evidence for Signorelli’s argument.

  8. I think most Christians are conservative in the sense of conserving traditional marriage structures and family values. There are people who call themselves conservatives who are better thought of as “corporatists”. Politicians cannot enter into the discussion since politicians are never honest until they are hanging from lampposts.

    I completely agree with Mr. Signorelli that many of our problems stem from our current state of child-rearing and education. It pains me to see children who have essentially no purpose in life other than to entertain themselves. We grew up on the farm and our efforts, even as very young children, were part of the productivity of the family enterprise. Whether it was feeding stock, weeding the garden, or helping to bring in crops, what we did mattered. We had responsibilities. While we were kids, and we didn’t always take things too seriously, we still knew we were part of the process.

    How does a boy or girl in the typical modern urban/suburb American family (or what passes for a family) have that sense of worth? Sure, they may work for spending money when they are a little older, or to contribute to their college fund or buy a car. But I helped my family earn a living and build a successful farming enterprise. They depended on me to get things done. How do you substitute for that?

  9. Albert,

    “Where does the author attribute the evils in this essay uniquely to conservatives?” Are we reading the same article? How about the beginning and ending paragraphs and the ones in between?

    If I came across as responding “Who, us?” that wasn’t my intent. I don’t disagree with many of Mr. Signorelli’s observations. But most of them are so broad-brush that they apply equally to conservatives and liberals (whatever those terms mean anymore), and some of them have nothing to do with conservatives — who are, after all, the target of the article’s criticisms. Self-examination and repentance are entirely appropriate — for sins and wrongs one has actually committed.

    I especially don’t see how ‘The failure of modern conservatism is the failure to provide … voices” which recognize and attempt to rectify problems in child-rearing, incompetent schools, a corrosive culture, universities and Hollywood, and the entrenched political class in Washington. Those are the very things conservatives have been speaking about for decades.

    Blame conservatives for selfishness, arrogance, greed, ignorance, and jingoism (although even those tend toward caricature), but let’s not single out conservatives as solely responsible for the violence and evils which will accompany the inevitable downfall of a crumbling, unjust order.

  10. ~~I would very much like to see some links, or even just quotes, or people misusing “city upon a hill” in this fashion~~

    It is very common in mainstream “pop” conservative circles. For instance, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck both use the phrase quite often. One may pooh-pooh them as non-intellectuals, but they are influential and both do get a very large hearing.

  11. Now that I have time to comment a little more fully, I’d like to mention that John Winthrop’s message is best viewed in juxtaposition with what happened with between Pilgrims (and Puritans) and the native Americans. They set out to do good in coming to America. They had the example of the Spanish treatment of Indians in South America in mind when they came. They were determined to do better. They didn’t. Already in the early years the Pilgrim pastor back in Holland, John Robinson, was dismayed by what he was hearing about how relations between his flock and the Indians had broken down. Winthrop himself conveniently justified the taking of Indian lands because the natives had mostly died of the small pox. However, the native peoples were still present in large enough numbers to react to English encroachments in the conflict we now call King Phillip’s war (which Winthrop didn’t live to see).

    So what was the problem? A lack of high enough ideals? I would say not. I wouldn’t want the Pilgrims and Puritans to have given up their high ideals, but the temptations are just too great when one side is in a position of such power over another.

    It’s for that reason that the conservative in me says it may be unfortunate that the U.S. can wield such military power as it is now doing in Libya. I don’t foresee a good end. Nor do I see a good end to a country that has the power to control people’s lives as it can under a “single-payer” health system or even something like ObamaCare. I see military adventurism in Iraq and Libya, and nationalized health care and nationalized banking system, all as an exercise in hubris, and expect it will all go the way of the European treatment of the original Americans.

    As to Mr. Signorelli’s essay-long bashing of conservatives, I sometimes have slight regrets about not writing more tactfully in my comments. After re-reading his essay tonight, I must say this is not one of those times. Twelve times he singled out conservatives, and only one of those time did he mean anything good by it. That was in the one instance in which he referred to older conservatives.

    I suspect part of his problem is that he is just plain uninformed about the great diversity of conservatives. His comments are on-target for some of them, of course, but he paints with a very broad brush in one sense, and a too-narrow brush in another.

    One reason I picked on Mr Signorelli is that he was the first target who showed up after a recent round of getting sick and tired of people who go around bashing conservatives without even thinking carefully, yet who will get all in an uproar about a loss of civility when conservatives do the same to leftwingers.

    I realize that for some people, bashing conservatives is just a social convention, like invoking the Trinity as a matter of course in an orthodox Christian prayer, or praising motherhood and apple pie by old time politicians. It’s just one of those things you do to show that you belong.

    I’ve been observing that sort of thing since I was a kid in elementary school in the late 1950s in rural Nebraska. In some circles (television, school) it was always socially acceptable to bash conservatives (though the word conservative wasn’t so often used back then). Conservatives just had to grin and bear it.

    In a way that has been good for conservatives. I think it has made at least some of them more tolerant and open-minded than the left, who dominate our entertainment and educational system, to say nothing of the everyday workings of government.

    Let me give an example of what I mean. When I was a professional church worker (a teacher) in the 1970s in a community that was dominated by German Lutherans who were in some senses of the term very conservative, I got to talk to some people who were outsiders in the community. They found it very difficult to be accepted, especially if they didn’t conform to all of the German Lutheran mores. Life was difficult for them. But I don’t think the dominant group was having a very good time, either. Not a lot of happiness to be found anywhere.

    Later, after I was no longer a professional church worker, we moved to a community that was dominated by German Catholics. It, too, was a fairly closed community, even though there was a public university in its midst. But the political and economic system was dominated by this traditional group. My wife and I joined a small, rag-tag congregation of Lutherans, and it was an entirely different atmosphere from the one we had left. Very refreshing, really. But the warm and friendly atmosphere, as well as the greater sense of tolerance and openmindedness among ourselves was due to our being outside the dominant socio-economic group. My grandfather, at whose knees I learned much of my conservativism, was living with us, and I was concerned about how he might react to this congregation. He, too, liked it. In fact, he took to some aspects of it better than I did.

    So in a way I think it’s good for conservatives to be in a position of powerlessness and to have to undergo the reflexive bashing that we get from people like Mr. Signorelli. In a way it’s a shame to have right-wing talk radio people turn around and give the formerly dominant class a taste of its own medicine. But on the other hand, I also think it’s healthy for the other side to realize there are multiple ways of looking at things, and to see itself as others see them.

    BTW, I don’t want to bash that conservative German Lutheran community too much. Some of them were as intolerant as any university leftist, and there was an atmosphere of intolerance, at least as seen by outsiders, but I remember the time when a grandmother came to talk to me, as sweet and tactful as she could be, wondering why I was teaching the kids to celebrate Christmas in springtime, which I think we did for a lesson or two. She was concerned that I was one of those — I don’t think she actually said liberals, but I knew what she was getting at. I was pretty conservative, but it’s true that I was recovering from a bout of McGovern liberalism, and had toyed with joining (and finally rejected) the more liberal theological faction in our church. The grandmother and I didn’t use the words conservative and liberal in this conversation, but I thought I was probably more conservative than she, even though I often came up with weird innovations. But it kind of depends on which version of “conservative” you’re speaking of, which again brings me back to Mr. Signorelli’s article. I presume the point is obvious.

    BTW, for the topic of Pilgrims, Puritans, and Native Americans, I highly recommend Nathaniel Philbrick’s book on the Mayflower.

  12. Mr. Schultz and Mr. Gorentz-

    Please pull yourself together and think for a moment about what type of forum this is. It is, by and large, a conservative website. It seems to me to be a pretty sensible place to discuss the failings of contemporary conservatism. Such a discussion does not constitute “conservative bashing.” As should be obvious from this article, and all of the others I have written for FPR, I am a rather conservative fellow myself. In fact, if you read carefully, you will notice that the crux of my issue with contemporary conservatives is that they are not very conservative (more on that in a moment). As for my failure to mention liberals in my article, I simply take it as a given that most of the readers here share a certain antipathy to liberalism, so I didn’t think that was a horse that needed flogging. And if you tell me that liberals are guilty of lots of the same things for which I have blamed conservatives – well, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?

    Mr. Schultz writes: “I especially don’t see how ‘The failure of modern conservatism is the failure to provide … voices” which recognize and attempt to rectify problems in child-rearing, incompetent schools, a corrosive culture, universities and Hollywood, and the entrenched political class in Washington. Those are the very things conservatives have been speaking about for decades.”

    But how have they been speaking about these things? Take education for example; most conservatives who discuss the matter blame our schools’ decrepitude on teacher unions, the Dept. of Ed., or some other distinct body of liberal-minded people. Get those people out of the way, the conservative assumes, and the bright youth of America would flourish. But the story is a lie; the reason our schools stink is because they are filled with millions of lazy, dim-witted, incurious students, and the parents of those students will go to any length to prevent their children from being subject to serious academic standards. Its not some discrete body of people ruining our schools; its the American people at large. If it makes me smug to say this, so be it; I may be smug, but I’m not untruthful.

    Or consider Hollywood and mass culture; sure, conservatives have been railing against these things for years, but have they been railing against the populace that consumes these things? Conservatives lament the vulgarity of rap lyrics or salacious television shows, then turn around and laud the society that consumes endless amounts of rap lyrics and salacious television shows as the greatest nation in the history of the world. In short, the prevalent feature of contemporary conservatism is its populist impulse, and populism is not conservative, at least not in my book (or in Cicero’s, or Edmund Burke’s, or Ortega y Gasset’s). The man praising Athenians in Athens is always a suspect character. But at least the Athenians were Athenians, that is, a highly civilized people; we are not, and so unmitigated praise of ourselves seems extremely inappropriate, to say the least.

    We are a broken society, gentleman; as the FPR page states it, we’re in a really bad way. No, conservatives are not to blame for this state of affairs; I don’t know how you could have misconstrued me as claiming this. But conservatives are not doing anything to move us out of this state of affairs, largely because they have adopted many of the assumptions of liberalism, in particular, the assumption that “the people” cannot err, and that any broad defect in a society must be an imposition upon “the people,” rather than a manifestation of the failings of “the people.” What I called for in my article is a conservatism with the courage to say to the American people, “it is not Washington, and Wall Street, and Hollywood that have caused our ills; it is our poor character that has given rise to Washington, and Wall Street, and Hollywood, and all their evil works.” As evidenced by the sermon of Winthrop, such men did once live in the world. But where are they now?

  13. Mr. Signorelli,

    I don’t know that I’ve read anything you’ve written before, so I can assure that my complaints with your piece are not based on any assumption about your beliefs, but solely on what you’ve written.

    Perhaps the problem — as I no doubt inarticulately attempted to point out — is that you’re painting with too broad a brush? Who exactly are these “modern conservatives”? Glen Beck listeners? Tea Partiers? If so, then I think you would do better to identify them as such. I am a conservative, and since I don’t live in Winthrop’s day, that would seem to make me a modern conservative. Your criticisms (including the ones you make in your response) miss the mark, at least as far as myself, the conservatives I know, and, I think, the ones who read and comment on FPR. If you’re going to accuse “modern conservatives” of failings that will bring about the inevitable, violent collapse of our society, you should at least define what you mean by “modern conservatives,” so that conservatives who don’t fall under your criticisms aren’t unfairly caricatured. It would be unfair of me, for example, to tell others that “writers on FPR” publish grossly oversimplified caricatures of others when that’s not true of the group as a whole or a defining characteristic of it.

    And if you really don’t see how your article blames “modern conservatism” for our broken society, then I don’t know what more I can say. It seems pretty clearly to be the thesis of your piece — conservatives are guilty of arrogance, profiteering individualism, rejecting of responsibility in favor of therapeutic patriotism; unconcern with cultural depravity, an unsustainable economy and threatened liberties; engendering invincible self-satisfaction which is the cause of general imbecility, moral flaccidity, and national financial malfeasance, and at the same time a complacency which will prove disastrous. Conservatives are “sowing the seeds of violence to come” when our grotesquely unjust order will crumble before our eyes.

    It’s a good sermon, but it was preached, I think, to the wrong audience.

    Finally, thank for your concern, but you may consider me pulled together.

  14. Mr. Schultz-

    If you still think that the thesis of my article was that conservatives are to blame for the present ills of our society, then I’m not sure what more I can say to you. What I wrote was: “What is necessary at this time is a general acknowledgment that we Americans, having been placed in a situation of unprecedented felicity, have utterly failed to order our society in such a way as to perpetuate and improve our happiness.” We Americans. All of us. Conservatives, liberals, Rosicrucians – every last one of us Americans. When I provided that long litany of our social predicaments, it was obvious that the “we” meant all Americans; we are all responsible for these problems. I’m happy to confess when I’ve been unclear (its one of the perils of authorship), but in this case it seems obvious that you have not read as carefully as you might have.

    My specific beef with conservatives is simply that they aren’t saying these things; they routinely rail against “the elites,” and pretend that it is this group or that group that is running things into the ground, instead of stating plainly that we are all running things into the ground. They flatter their audiences, instead of edifying them. And yes, I think that may one day exacerbate the collapse of our society, but that is clearly not the same thing as saying conservatives alone are responsible for the impending collapse of our society.

    You urge me to provide examples; let me toss it back to you. What well-known conservative routinely emphasizes the fact that our manifold crises spring from the moral and intellectual failings of the American people at large? I’ll tell you exactly what I have in mind; my colleague at the New English Review, Theodore Dalrymple (aka Anthony Daniels), has been writing for years about the staggering rot of English society, and though he does not spare the “elites” running the liberal institutions in that country, he also makes it perfectly clear that the source of the rot is the moral failings of the English people at large. So what American conservative is preaching the same message to our country? Take the example of education again; what conservative who has written on this topic has pointed out that it is not the teachers unions and the Dept. of Education (nefarious as they are) that are the source of the problem, it’s the kids and the parents that are the source of the problem? I have not seen one.

    If you think my sermon was preached in the wrong place, then that is flawless evidence that it was preached in the right place. Because the people who most desperately need to hear these things are exactly the people who think they have no need to hear these things.

  15. “If you think my sermon was preached in the wrong place, then that is flawless evidence that it was preached in the right place.”

    Hmmm. If people listen to you, you are obviously preaching to right people. If people reject you, that’s also evidence you’re preaching to the right people. Those are some neat criteria you’ve established. Kind of makes it hard to ever be wrong, no? I seem to recall reading something along those lines recently.

    Sorry I don’t have any published pieces to which I can refer you. It’s not my desire to get into a battle of name-dropping or references. I live, work, preach, encourage, and exhort mostly in my little corner of the world (my place) — which, I thought, was the point of FPR. You’re concerned that there aren’t enough famous conservatives willing to challenge the failures of modern conservatism. My point is that perhaps it would be more fair, relevant, and helpful not to chide the few conservatives (like the ones at FPR) who actually aren’t arrogant, selfish, greedy, narrow-minded jingoists. You chose to direct your criticisms at conservative readers of FPR, so you apparently see things differently. To each his own.

    On the issue of whom your article appears to blame, you started with a criticism of conservatives, you led into your statement about “we as Americans” with five paragraphs of criticism of conservatives, and concluded with a summary critique of conservatives. Perhaps one could understandably have read your piece as being about “we American conservatives”? If in an article clearly focused on the problems of conservatives the author intends to broaden his scope of critique, there are surely ways to signal that more clearly than the use of the first person plural. You believe I have not read as carefully as I might have. I think you have not written as clearly as you could have. Again, we will have to disagree.

  16. Mr. Signorelli, perhaps you could have written along the lines of “We conservatives, including myself, need to X…” Or, “I wish my fellow conservatives would join me in doing X.”

    I’ve sometimes used the latter construct myself when I’ve wanted to criticize conservatives, yet didn’t want to feed the unthinking conservative-bashing frenzy.

    As to quoting major conservative figures, why do they have to be major?

  17. Mr. Gorentz,

    I enjoyed reading your longer reply, because I also grew up in a German (and Swedish), conservative, Lutheran-dominated small town in rural Nebraska, though a Catholic (and in the 1990s rather than the 1950s). What town did you grow up in?

    Reading Mr. Signorelli’s article as one written by a conservative as a wake-up call to conservatives (like myself), I must say that I thought it to be an excellent piece. I cannot disagree with any of the sentiments expressed.

  18. Forgive me if this has already been pointed out in the comments. I tried slogging through them to check for myself, but I quickly wearied of the task.

    I always assumed that the statement by Winthrop, a Christian thoroughly steeped in the Scriptures, was referring to the command by Jesus that our lives should reflect the Glory of God through our good works:

    “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-15)

    I sincerely doubt that he had anything like “American Exceptionalism” in mind. How could he? The American nation would not exist for another hundred and fifty years, and the earlies settlers had no notions of ever breaking ties with Mother England.

    The Pilgrims came to establish a colony where they could worship God in freedom. The Mayflower Compact spells it out quite succinctly. The fact that they failed to live up to their own high expectations doesn’t change their original motives or purpose.

  19. It seems that Mr. Signorelli is unaware that long before John Winthrop used the phrase “city on a hill” a generally well-regarded Jewish rabbi spoke those words (Matthew 5:14.) I suspect that the portion of “modern conservatives” who are more familiar with this source than with Goodman Winthrop is significant.

    Indeed, I count among my acquaintances a large number of “conservatives.” Let me suggest that if Mr. Signorelli would turn off Fox News and wander into his nearest “conservative” church, he would quickly strike any notion that the words of Jesus and John Winthrop “almost always carries connotations of national self-congratulation, and almost always serves to enhance that most distinctively liberal attitude – complacency.” Rather, for these conservatives, the words of Jesus are a call to evangelism, missionary endeavor, and the exercise of personal virtue.

    Certainly there are Becks and Hannitys of the world, who whatever other alloyed good they may or may not do, do wrong in mis-appropriating these words of Jesus. But to argue that the preferred understanding of Matthew 5:14 among self-identified “conservatives” is self-congratulation and complacency is inconsistent with experience. The fact that Mr. Signorelli only waves his hands when asked for citations supporting his assertion leaves me uncertain whether he actually believes it himself.

    Mr. Signorelli does well to call for repentance, critical self-reflection, and virtuous living. Conservatives and liberals alike need to heed this call. Therefore it seems counterproductive to hinge the argument on a charge against conservatives that many of them would find preposterous.

  20. Re: I don’t foresee a good end. Nor do I see a good end to a country that has the power to control people’s lives as it can under a “single-payer” health system or even something like ObamaCare.

    That the US is the only developed country without some sort of universal health care system is every bit as absurd as if we were the only such country without full suffrage, indoor plumbing, or universal education for children. Not to mention it is also a strong affront to that same Christian values many here insist upon. How in the name of the God of Jacob and Joseph anyone who calls himself a follower of Christ can gripe and whine about people receiving healthcare justly and without financial ruin boggles my own mind. It is perhaps another sign of just how decadent America (and American Christianity) has become.

  21. Marion,

    It’s hard to say what town I grew up in. We moved around. But we lived in Knox County, Nebraska from 1956 through 1963. Elementary school was a two-room school just across a hayfield from our house. We left there when I was a sophomore in high school. By then I had learned to just roll my eyes when my more liberal teachers (who were probably conservative enough) felt called upon to make snide remarks about right-wing people. Those skills came in very handy (and were well tested) in the following year in rural Minnesota, when I was active in supporting Barry Goldwater for the 1964 election.

    If I may indulge in some self-serving anecdotes, I suppose I should also credit some of those people with being kind enough to make me into a PIA on the internet today. I did hear that one of the English teachers had been saying, in the tone of JonF above, that he didn’t see how a Christian minister could support Barry Goldwater for president. My father was that minister, though he kept his politics to himself, I guess because he had to be pastor to all people. He wouldn’t even let me put a Goldwater bumper sticker on the family car. But his son was outspoken enough, so it wasn’t too hard to figure out who the teacher was talking about. Goldwater lost badly in the school election, though he carried the town where I went to school. Then as now, teachers tended to be more liberal, even though teachers were decently educated back then. (But there were true liberals back in those days, too.)

    The day after the election I got on the bus and said to a classmate with whom I had been having hot debates all through the campaign, “Well, I suppose you’re happy.” He said, quietly, “No, I voted for Goldwater.” I was stunned. For once I didn’t know what to say. But it taught me a lesson that I’ve kept with me ever since, about what one can and cannot accomplish by arguing, and about why people argue. (As I prefer to remember it, our discussions had been more substantive than a lot of what goes for political debate these days.)

    As my senior year drew to a close, I was somewhat embarrassed by a couple of the girls who told me they admired the way I had always stood up for my beliefs, or something like that. I don’t remember exactly what they said, other than the word “admire”, but it completely flustered me. And the same when the principal stopped me in the hall to tell me the same thing.

    So I suppose I can blame them for encouraging me to continue to be a PIA, for which I was well primed when the Internet came along. So I don’t care if it’s just me against everyone else. I’m right and you’re wrong (except for those occasional times when it’s the other way around).

    The German Lutheran community where I taught was in Minnesota. I prefer not to get more specific. The German Catholic community was St Cloud — Garrison Keilor country.


    You said your mind gets boggled by people who “whine about people receiving healthcare justly and without financial ruin.” I can help you unboggle by pointing out that nobody whined or otherwise spoke against that. In fact, I’ve heard some crude libertarian types speak fairly callously about health care issues, and never heard of one of them complain about that, either. I hope you understand that people can be adamantly opposed to universal health care as it is commonly understood, and also be in favor of governmental reforms to help more people get better healthcare, either justly or unjustly, and without financial ruin. If you don’t understand that, you need to get out your torches and pitchforks and head on over to your preferred news outlets to demand better coverage of the issue.

    Keep in mind that it wasn’t Christian charity that motivated Otto von Bismarck or Adolf Hitler to provide universal healthcare. That’s just a post hoc rationalization. When social welfare is provided by the nation-state, it tends to destroy communities and turn us into individualists. It destroys all relationships except those between individuals and the state. Which is sort of what Bismarck had in mind when he invented the concept, though I don’t know that he thought about it specifically in those terms. (It’s something I’d like to study more thoroughly.)

  22. Dmitri Orlov…

    understands what “exceptionalism” is about. It’s the same empty overmodulated imperial boasting that the USSR did in the last decades before it finally imploded.

    We have taken over the old Regus Patoff joke and made it ours. We claim to have invented everything when we’re only inventing financial crimes and Viagra. We claim to be USA! USA! USA! Number 1! Number 1! Number 1! when we’re at best Number 6 in anything that matters.

  23. Re: Keep in mind that it wasn’t Christian charity that motivated Otto von Bismarck or Adolf Hitler to provide universal healthcare. That’s just a post hoc rationalization.

    You are skirting Godwin’s Law here. And Adolf Hitler also liked dogs; are we supposed to shun all other dog-owners as a consequence? There’s a name for this fallacy, but I forget what it is.
    Meanwhile, universal healthcare (though not the liberals’ perpetual dream of single payer) is well established throughout the civilized world and it’s no scarier than having sewage systems or schools established through public funding. (Don’t like the public schools– sure. But even people who want to get rid of them plan on keeping the public funding for education through vouchers) I honestly don’t get the trepdiation on this subject. However I would suggest you pay a bit more attention to what real people actually say. An elderly gent at my church, when discussing “Obamcare” opined that it was simply a way for Obama to get reparations for slavery to those [bad word deleted] people in West Baltimore. This is what the Glen Beck audience types are saying, so I think my suspicion that a fair amount of opposition comes from people who just don’t want to share healthcare with people who do not look like themselves, and sadly, some of these people also claim the name of Christian.

  24. Mr Signorelli
    I applaud your invocation of Winthrop’s “sermon…and entire vision of things.” You are absolutely right to invoke it in our divisive, individualistic age. And you are right in calling out the hypocrisy of many who lay claim to Winthrop’s sermon. We should not have come this far in the discussion without mentioning the name by which Winthrop’s “entire vision of things” has been passed down to us: covenant theology. The idea of covenant, which is the theme your sermon shares with Winthrop’s, is seminal to the entire American project, including the Constitution and Federalism—seminal, indeed, to American identity. The covenant tradition is truly a cornerstone of the Front Porch on which we virtually sit. And so thanks for bringing it to the fore.

    Sad to say, however, you betray your own call to take Winthrop’s vision seriously, to satisfactorily “turn …to the wisdom of the past, to the guidance of minds impressed with such fundamental humility, to find our way now.” Enpedocles’s early comment, above, correcting your error that Winthrop was a puritan, not a pilgrim, is no mere quibble but germane to the whole understanding (or failure thereof) of covenant: the Pilgrims (of Plymouth) were SEPARATISTS while Winthrop and the puritans (of Massachusetts Bay) took on the monumental ambition of MAINTAINING THEIR COVENANT with the Church of England and with the whole of Christendom EVEN WHILE they pursued their conviction that ONLY by embarking on their Errand Into the Wilderness, establishing their City On a Hill in New England (the name itself embodies the attempt to straddle old and new, to purify the covenant while upholding it) could they honor their covenant.

    This most difficult, tenuous, even dubious dilemma defies glib treatment and is a central theme of the substantial scholarship in puritan studies, which one would think a person so passionate in calling for serious reflection on it would be more familiar with. (You might start with ES Morgan’s concise biography of Winthrop, The Puritan Dilemma; the title goes to the heart of the matter.) In so doing, you would come to think twice (repent, as you like to say) before adding yet another sanctimonious jeremiad to that tiresome tradition—one that the pre-eminent American scholar of puritanism, Perry Miller (please read at least the first chapter of his Errand Into the Wilderness), ably takes to task for its hypocrisy.

    Hypocrisy is a strong word, but is indeed your theme, and difficult to avoid in the interest of the truthfulness and self-reflection—repentance—you call for.

    The unvarying formulation of this tradition of jeremiads invoking the betrayal of Winthrop’s foundation covenant relies on framing the corruption of character of the whole population in such dire, apocalyptic terms that the preacher can’t possibly be faulted for at least leaning toward Separation, as the Pilgrims did, or for attempting to purify the covenant by radical relocation, as Winthrop’s puritans did. (In our time, separatism has led to such extreme movements as Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, the Branch Davidians, etc.–extreme & radical examples, perhaps; separatism, though, is radical by nature.)

    But look no further than your own essay, take a dose of self-reflection and consider the untenable position you place yourself in by holding up for admiration with one hand Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” (might have mentioned the name, which is germane) and its assertion of God’s commandment “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together,” etc, while in the other hand holding up for scorn and thorough contempt your own fellow citizens, apparently irredeemable by any covenant. What is the point if not, as Perry Miller suspects, to purge your own soul, make “a token payment upon the obligation [imposed by the covenant] and so liberate the debtor”? (The acrimonious discussion hardly gives anyone here credibility as stewards of Winthrop’s “brotherly affection.”) The result, for you, is the smugness you confess. And what of the covenant in which alone true Christian charity—the foundation of Christian character—is possible?

    Finally, truthfulness and honesty would allow you to recognize that Winthrop’s “entire vision of things,” his covenant, which you apparently among very, very few comprehend sufficiently to uphold was a distinctly pre-modern, aggressively anti-capitalist Christian…well, there’s no other word for it than COMMUNISM (your “collectivism” perhaps makes it more palatable, but let’s be honest). And the government of such a body was to be, as Miller says, “deliberately, vigorously, and consistently intolerant”. To see this vision turned into a bone of vociferous contention between modern self-identified “conservatives” is farcical. (I’m sorry, I have trouble using the word without quotes anymore; as this discussion amply illustrates, the word is a hollowed out tribal label used by a people with little work and few local communities to provide them with real identities.) If “conservatives” have a unique claim to it (and liberals from President Kennedy to the founders of the University of California at Santa Cruz have freely invoked it too), I’d like to know who they are. The Amish?

    Fact is, if Winthrop were to reappear today, it’s hard to know, out on the extreme fringes where we’d no doubt place him, what covenant he might possibly find to sustain him.

    Please don’t take this as uncharitable, but you had the good sense to broach a deeply important, yet poorly understood, matter. Perhaps you’ll study up, repent, and re-write. I would welcome your further pursuit of such a worthy, complex and difficult topic. “It would,” as you say, “be a wonderful thing.”

  25. Mr. Gorentz,

    I certainly won’t press you for specifics. Knox County, eh? I grew up in Wakefield; Dixon County. Good baseball teams where I’m from. 🙂

  26. Mr. Signorelli,

    I thought this was a wonderful piece, and it’s a shame to see such a narrow, tribalist response to it here in the comments section. Your criticisms are legitimate and convincing, and I’m sure you would not be so attacked if your attackers didn’t somehow feel threatened by your statements. They are right to feel threatened. This piece of writing provides the self-criticism and insight they have failed to provide. Write on!

  27. Marion,

    I had to look up Wakefield. That’s not so far away in Nebraska miles. We lived at Bazile Mills, but our address was Creighton. I have a photo of the schoolyard, or what was left of it in 1995, along with some surroundings, at

    Since you lived in that area, you might be interested in the Roy Meyers book on the Santee Sioux that created a “view quake” for me. I might not have become a front porcher without it. It certainly made me a different kind of conservative, and checked my libertarian inclinations. I still have those inclinations, but I don’t follow them at the expense of porcher values. My freshman year I went to high school at Center, on the edge of the reservation. There were about 30 students in grades 9-12, about 1/3 of them from the rez. Despite our going to the state tournament in basketball in 1962, the school closed that summer. I then went to Verdigre, and the Indian kids all went to Niobrara. I think the reservation now has its own school.

    JonF, we should not shun nationalized health care because Bismark and Hitler promoted it. We should shun nationalized health care because it destroys communities in favor of the state the same way it did for Bismark and Hitler. And for that matter, the same way it is already doing it in the US (stow any nonsense about American exceptionalism, please), in Canada, in the U.K., in the Netherlands, and for all I know, wherever else it has been tried. We should shun nationalized health care because it creates an extreme individualism and destroys individual and community human freedom. Does anyone really want our country to become a hellhole on the order of the UK, with its system of anti-social behaviour ordinances, the adoption of which tossed out a thousand years of progress in the rule of year, making one wonder what exactly was the point of going to all the trouble of defeating Hitler? Those ASBOs are what you get, though, when you destroy the communities that bind people together. They are what you get when you use a massive system of social welfare to destroy families, so that people no longer have any meaningful need for each other.

  28. Contemporary conservatives are quoting Ronald Reagan, not John Winthrop, when they refer to a “city on a hill.” And I believe Reagan was quoting the book of Matthew, not Winthrop, when he referred to America as a “shining city on a hill.”

    When Reagan used this phrase, I believe he was describing America as a beacon of political freedom, not necessarily an example of personal virtue. For example, “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life… After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true to the granite ridge, and her glow has held 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.”

    I can’t say for sure what Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin mean when they use the phrase, but I know many conservatives who still believe America is the standard-bearer for political freedom in the world, and yet would agree with Mr. Signorelli that we need to seriously reform our culture and values.

  29. Eric Seymour–
    Reagan’s words explicitly cite Winthrop:
    “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.”

    So perhaps there’s a little hope that modern “conservatism” is not as debased as it appears.

    Also, in reply to your suggestion that he wasn’t pointing to personal virtue, you may or may not be right (can anyone locate online a transcript of the whole speech?), but the whole point of the covenant that forms the City Upon a Hill is that personal virtue—charity—is inseparable from communal virtue.

  30. Good essay. Thanks.

    @Gorentz: Conservative bashing? Really? Calling on conservatives to re-orient themselves to conservative values is not bashing.

    Here is a specific quote where the city on a hill metaphor is expressly used to mean American exceptionalism (by a “contemporary conservative”):

    “But even more important is that world view that I share with John McCain. That world view that says that America is a nation of exceptionalism. And we are to be that shining city on a hill, as President Reagan so beautifully said, that we are a beacon of hope and that we are unapologetic here. We are not perfect as a nation. But together, we represent a perfect ideal. And that is democracy and tolerance and freedom and equal rights.”
    — Governor Sarah Palin, October 2, 2008

  31. I saw this piece quoted in Ross Douthat’s book and am glad that there is actually one person out there who read the sermon and picked up the actual meaning. Not only is the speech misinterpreted by those in the mainstream right who praise it, but it is misinterpreted in more or less the same way by many on the paleoconservative right who condemn it. (It doesn’t help that some of these paleocons are in search of any club to beat New England with.)

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