He was once thought of as one of the founding fathers of contemporary American conservatism, but the traditionalist Russell Kirk, who died in 1994, would be alien to conservatism today, argues David Jenkins. Excerpt:
This type of egotism seems to be running rampant among those—particularly in the right-wing media—who profess to be conservative. I believe this unfortunate phenomenon is the by-product of traditional conservatism being shoved aside by a radical, libertarian-inspired ideology that is deeply antithetical to traditional Burkean conservatism.
This ideology elevates personal freedom and financial gain far above all other values, and in doing so, empowers its followers to dismiss or even belittle anything that does not directly serve those parochial ends.
One of our nation’s most authoritative conservative voices was Russell Kirk, an author and political theorist credited with giving rise to conservatism’s intellectual respectability in post-World War II America. President Reagan called him “the prophet of American conservatism.”
In his seminal book “The Conservative Mind, From Burke to Eliot,” Kirk pointedly described how the nation deviated from true conservatism in the 1920s. He wrote:
The United States had come a long way from the piety of Adams and the simplicity of Jefferson. The principle of real leadership ignored, the immortal objects of society forgotten, practical conservatism degenerated into mere laudation of ‘private enterprise,’ economic policy almost wholly surrendered to special interests—such a nation was inviting the catastrophes which compel society to re-examine first principles.
These words are no less applicable to the situation we have today.
Just listen for 10 minutes to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Mark Levin and you will hear private enterprise exalted with the level of reverence and passion typically afforded religious belief, and the accumulation of monetary wealth promoted as the ultimate measure of human success.
Ambition is good and necessary, but as Kirk put it “ambition without pious restraint must end in failure.”
The libertarian-inspired ideology that is masquerading as conservatism today is just as dangerous to religion as the secular humanism we find on the left. Traditional conservative values are being cast aside, such as humility, reverence, responsibility, stewardship and other moral principles—most of which stem from Biblical teaching.
The most fervent adherents to this doctrine, while giving lip service to traditional values, family and religion, will only accommodate them until they become inconvenient to their more immediate goals of gain and personal gratification.
In Kirk’s conservatism, you won’t find policy prescriptions. What you will find is a disposition, both believing and skeptical. Believing in God, and what Eliot called the Permanent Things, but skeptical of mankind’s powers, because of our tragic natures. We need laws, and government, because man’s heart is corruptible. But laws will not save us if our hearts are lawless. I’m thinking of the Kansas City diocese that adopted a new set of laws and bureaucracy to protect against child molesters in the priesthood, and which, if prosecutors are correct, is now living through the spectacle of those rules and that bureaucracy having been violated by the bishop, who appears to have been determined to evade them to protect a particular priest. But of course there are plenty of examples.
The great conservative insight is that man is imperfectible. Conservatism is not an end, but a means — the most reliable means, I believe — to a tolerably decent society. Even, if we’re lucky, a good one. What’s most wrong with contemporary American conservatism, I think, is a thing that afflicts the American character: a lack of a tragic sense. It is in this sense that MacIntyre says a discussion of politics today usually amounts to a conversation among radical liberals, liberal liberals, and conservative liberals.