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The Angry RightWhy Conservatives Keep Getting It Wrong
By S.T. Joshi
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2006 S. T. Joshi
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTIN-POT JEREMIAH
Russell Kirk (1918-1994) is the patron saint of the American conservative movement. Adopting his principles in the 1940s and adhering to them fixedly to the end of his life, he expounded them in a multiplicity of venues. One critic notes "the sheer volume of his published works: 32 books; 800 essays, book reviews, and articles; and more than 3,000 newspaper and magazine columns." The curious thing about this output, however, is that nearly all his books were published by avowedly right-wing publishers (chiefly Henry Regnery) or small presses. Kirk first came to public notice with The Conservative Mind (1953), a purported history of conservative thought from Edmund Burke (who, for the whole of his life, became Kirk's intellectual mentor) to George Santayana. But as this historical survey did not allow sufficient room for the expression of Kirk's own views, he quickly remedied the matter with such works as A Program for Conservatives (1954) and The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Conservatism (1957). By the 1980s Kirk had become an icon to conservatives, and he was frequently invited to speak at the Heritage Foundation; his speeches werecollected in such volumes as The Politics of Prudence (1993) and the posthumous Redeeming the Time (1996). Along the way Kirk also wrote a historical treatise, The Roots of American Order (1974), and, engagingly enough, a number of ghost stories.
I do not pretend to have read the entirety of Kirk's voluminous work; but there is no need to do so, for he is massively repetitious, using the same arguments, and on many occasions the same language, the same personal anecdotes, and the same quotations from his perceived mentors and predecessors (Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke, T. S. Eliot) to hammer home the same points over and over again, as if their mere repetition would serve in place of cogent argument. There is also surprisingly little development in Kirk's thought over the fifty-year course of his writing. No doubt he himself would take this as a compliment-a testament that he discovered correct moral, religious, social, and political opinions at an early age and adhered to them in the face of the "winds of doctrine." But the disturbing perception develops that Kirk had a relatively small stock of ideas in his intellectual arsenal and that, in spite of the turbulent period of American history through which he lived and wrote, his views quickly hardened into a rigid dogmatism impervious to new evidence or new arguments.
Kirk embodies many of the more unsavory facets of conservative "thought": inflexible devotion to "principle" (in reality a poorly conceived dogma); tendentious and disingenuous mischaracterizations of his opponents (usually "liberals"); the establishment of false dichotomies; exaggerated worries over the imminent collapse of civilization; and, worst of all, a desire to maintain conservative purity of thought without any regard for the misery and privation it might cause if implemented as public policy.
Kirk's conservatism was of early formation, as he admits in a curious document, "Reflections of a Gothic Mind." Here he states that from youth "I felt a strong suspicion of change, and a longing for continuity" (CT, 7); and, later, "the object of all my writings was the conservation of the moral and social heritage of the ages" (CT, 26). Elsewhere he writes that conservatives are those "whose view of life is reverential, and who tend to be guided by the wisdom of their ancestors, instead of abstract speculation" (PC, 38). "We have no right, in this brief existence of ours, to alter irrevocably the shape of things, in contempt of our ancestors and of the rights of posterity" (PC, 42). In this whole conception Kirk appeals to G. K. Chesterton's view of the "democracy of the dead," which Kirk interprets as "the considered judgment of the wise men who died before our time" (PC, 43). In fact, Chesterton's view was much wider than this, referring to the beliefs of the majority of peoples of the past, intelligent or otherwise; but that is a small point.
There are, of course, obvious difficulties with this kind of reliance upon the "wisdom" of one's "ancestors," for a quick glance at history shows that many of the beliefs of those ancestors were either false or repugnant, or at best imperfectly applicable to present-day society. One only has to read Bertrand Russell's "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" or "Ideas Which Have Harmed Mankind" to gain an inkling of the benighted depths of ignorance in which past ages were plunged. Exactly what elements of the "moral and social heritage of the ages" does Kirk wish to preserve? Since he is oddly silent or imprecise on the matter, one can ask whether he wishes a society in which slavery, the divine right of kings, religious coercion and warfare, subjugation of women, and race prejudice are central or even peripheral elements. Each one of these things has had a very long history in human society and must certainly be considered part of the "moral and social heritage of the ages." Kirk, constantly referring to his adherence to the "Permanent Things" (the expression, frequently in capitals, is derived from Eliot), neglects to specify what these permanent things are. He may think they are self-evident, but they are anything but that.
The curious thing about Kirk is that his religious beliefs-a central component of his entire conservative thought-themselves appear to have been a result of this deference to ancient authority. He claims that he was brought up in a nonpracticing family, although he admits candidly that "the Bible, indeed, I had been taught by my mother from early years" (CT, 15). Nevertheless, as a teenager he "became a perfect mechanist and atheist" (CT, 14). What happened? Given his own admission that "I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties" (CT, 23), the result seems inevitable:
Something made me inquire within myself by what authority I presumed to doubt-though I had not yet read Newman's observation that it is better to believe all things than to doubt all things. Upon authority all revealed religion rests; and the authority which lies behind Christian doctrine is massive. By what alternative authority did I question it? Why, chiefly upon the promptings of people like H. G. Wells and Leonard Woolf, with whose opinions I did not agree in the least. Why should I prefer their negations to the affirmations of men whose precepts I took for gospel: the principles of Johnson and Burke, of Coleridge and More? (CT, 21-22)
As a justification of religious belief, this must be one of the poorest on record. Because I happen to admire Samuel Johnson's prose style (as in fact I do), am I therefore also compelled to acknowledge the truth of his theology? Even if I admire Johnson's social and political views, my acceptance of his religious stance would surely have to derive from independent examination of its validity. I may admire the ethics of Epicurus, but that doesn't mean I subscribe to his belief in the gods, who dwell in the spaces between the stars and contemplate their own perfection.
There is an added difficulty in this "appeal to authority"-a difficulty summed up in Kirk's own recommendation to kowtow before "the considered judgment of the wise men who died before our time." Does he imagine (as his curious citations of H. G. Wells and Leonard Woolf suggest) that secularism does not have as long and distinguished an intellectual tradition as what he takes to be the tradition of religious piety and conservatism? If Kirk appeals to Plato, Cicero, Burke, and Eliot, the secularist can appeal to a tradition of two and a half millennia beginning with Leucippus and Democritus and proceeding through Epicurus, Lucretius, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alembert, La Mettrie, Gibbon, Darwin, Huxley, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leslie Stephen, Anatole France, Sigmund Freud, H. L. Mencken, Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, Gore Vidal, and countless others-including such neoconservatives as Allan Bloom and Christopher Hitchens. Late in life Kirk pontificated: "Believe what wise men and women, over the ages, have believed in faith and morals, and you will find a firm footing on which to stand while the winds of doctrine howl about you" (PP, 289). I for one will be happy to follow the "wise men and women" just named, and it would of course be sophistical to maintain that these worthies are not "wise" merely because they happen not to agree with Kirk's own morals and religion.
Kirk's difficulties stem from his failure to realize that the validity of a religion (he of course has only Christianity in mind) must rest not upon the illustrious individuals who subscribed to it in the past but upon its consonance to the facts of the universe as we now know them; but it is exactly in this regard that, over the past five hundred years, religion has been consistently failing the test. Kirk's knowledge of the hard sciences appears to have been minimal; he is fond of tossing off such bon mots as "The end of science, says Paracelsus, is to teach the fear of God, through knowledge of God's handiwork" (PC, 118)-another appeal to authority, and a particularly unfortunate one, given that Paracelsus also believed that base metals could be turned to gold and that the quintessence of organic entities could be bottled into an extract. The effect of scientific discovery is not merely the accumulation of individual facts, but-as John William Draper long ago established in A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874)-the fashioning of a worldview. In effect, what has occurred in the past half millennium of Western thought is the gradual replacement of supernatural by natural causation. God has been rendered supernumerary: there is no need to appeal to divine authority to account for natural phenomena. Accordingly, the social, ethical, and political prescriptions of any given sacred scripture, to the degree that they appeal to that divine authority, are very likely to be false. Some of these prescriptions may in fact be sound, but they must now be defended on other grounds.
But Kirk will have none of this. For him, a scientist who does not seek to reveal "God's handiwork" is merely subscribing to the Baconian idea that science is power (CT, 118). Exactly how the secular physics of an Albert Einstein or a Stephen Weinberg is a search for power is, however, not apparent. For Kirk, the decline of religious belief in the past century or so, especially among the intelligent classes, is not a product of increasing awareness that the advance of knowledge has rendered religious conceptions about the formation and operation of the universe implausible, but rather a product of "a vague feeling that Christianity does not profit a man in any material way, and a vaguer conviction that somehow religion is unscientific" (CT, 204). The "continuity" that Kirk so fervently seeks is impossible in matters involving scientific discovery. H. P. Lovecraft addressed this very issue, in remarking on an anonymous article in a 1915 issue of the Atlantic Monthly that, in tones reminiscent of Kirk's, yearned for preservation of religious belief in the modern age: "He weeps vainly for departed values, and pleads weakly for continuity in what he calls 'spiritual evolution'. Alas! he does not see that the 'spiritual' is exploded, and that continuity is never possible in matters of discovery. Before America was discovered it was unknown-then suddenly it was known! And so with the facts overturning religion."
Late in life Kirk made a clumsy effort to appeal to the uncertainties of modern astrophysics to bolster religion's shattered claims to truth:
Twentieth-century physicists instruct us that you and I are composed of negative and positive articles of electricity, as is all other matter; that, in short, we are energy, rather than solid substance; and that energy may neither be added to nor destroyed-merely transmuted. What once has been assembled, and then dispersed, may be assembled once more. Conceivably these bones may rise again. (PP, 204)
This reveals such a misunderstanding of the scientific principles involved as to underscore Kirk's own ruminations on the deficiencies of modern education. To use the theory of relativity to support the doctrine of bodily resurrection of the dead is surely an act of desperation. Does Kirk, or anyone, know of a single instance in which any complex organic entity has been "assembled once more" after its cells, molecules, and atoms have been dispersed by death? Moreover, the doctrine of resurrection is customarily thought of as a "miracle" brought about by a benevolent God; but Kirk, now suggesting that it may be a "natural" process after all, unwittingly cuts God entirely out of the picture!
The upshot of all this is that Kirk, like his mentor T. S. Eliot, cannot concede even the theoretical possibility of a secular ethic or a secular political theory. He states ominously: "But a society in which the religious impulse is forgotten or frustrated is sure to be, soon or late, a miserable domination. For man yearns after something to worship; and if, in T. S. Eliot's words, 'you will not have God-and He is a jealous God-then you must pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin'" (CT, 205). And again: "Either Justice is ordained by some power above us, or it is mere expediency, the power of the strong over the weak" (PC, 166). And yet again: "When men have repudiated the divine element in social institutions, then indeed power is everything" (PC, 299). The example of European society for the past half century (which, as Kirk recognizes, has become largely secular: "Probably there is less religious belief, and less influence of churches upon the civil social order and upon the person, than in any European period since man became something better than a beast" [CT, 204]) has proven this view embarrassingly false. Indeed, the situation is even worse for Kirk than he realizes, for the professed piety of the American people-many studies have shown that over the course of the past century, Americans' belief in God has hovered at or above 90 percent-has not stopped them from having immensely higher rates of violent crime than any western European nation. How could this be possible, if religion really does act as some kind of guarantor of moral probity? Kirk exhibits a quick disdain of a sociological study that established that "people who reject orthodox religious beliefs are not more apt to engage in crime than people who hold fast to such beliefs" (CT, 205), but study after study has underscored this conclusion with unshakable evidence.
Kirk in fact is so devoted to religion and a religion-based morality that he turns a blind eye upon the long history of religious strife, oppression, and folly-a history that has, in itself, turned many thoughtful people away from religion as the arbiter of truth and values. He actually asserts that "a high degree of ordered, civilized freedom is linked closely with religious belief" (RT, 30), going on to state: "Medieval liberties, in great part, were the product of Christian belief" (RT, 31). Can Kirk really be unaware of the stranglehold on civil and intellectual liberty exercised by the church throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods, resulting in the persecution of hundreds of thousands of "witches" and heretics, forced conversion of Jews and other "heathens" to Christianity, the imposition of stringent codes of moral and social conduct in the name of religious orthodoxy, the stifling of intellectual advances that threatened religious dogma, and the bloody religious wars that scarred so much of the early modern period of Europe?
Indeed, the one time that Kirk reveals the anger so typical of present-day conservatives is not over a point of politics but over a point of religion. Consider his reaction to the 1962 Supreme Court ruling banning prayer in public schools. In a brief squib of less than five hundred words, "What's Wicked about School Prayers?" Kirk can scarcely restrain his fury. But in his whole discussion he betrays not the faintest realization that such a prayer (for him it will always be a Christian prayer) is coercive not merely to "the tiny minority of militant atheists" (CT, 224) but to a rather wider group of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and the adherents of every faith other than Christianity, whose children had for two centuries been compelled, in defiance of the First Amendment's prohibition of the establishment of a state religion, to profess belief in a religion they did not accept. Once again, the only alternative Kirk can see to religion is ideology ("For only religious faith can withstand the menace of ideology" [CT, 224]); the idea of a sane and nonfanatical secularism seems beyond the powers of his imagination. The matter becomes still more bizarre because Kirk elsewhere ridicules the Pledge of Allegiance as an empty gesture ("A dismal compulsory salute to the flag, and mumbled collective pledge of allegiance to an abstract state, is a wretched substitute for the feeling of loyalty which grows out of love of family and love of local community" [C, 310]). How, then, can a mumbled prayer-even, or especially, one that has been so watered down as not to contradict the tenets of any major religion (assuming that such a prayer could even be coherently formulated)-be of any efficacy in affecting children's behavior? It is a question that our devotees of school prayer have yet to answer.
Excerpted from The Angry Right by S.T. Joshi Copyright © 2006 by S. T. Joshi. Excerpted by permission.
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