Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

We have come to rely on Alan Wolfe as just the sort of "expert" on religion who can be trusted to keep America safe from the kinds of people who read First Things . Now he is branching out. A recent issue of the New Republic features his review of The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays (subscription required). Wolfe works very efficiently with his machete-like analysis to belittle one of the oddest and most interesting figures in mid-twentieth-century American conservatism.

The National Review Online posted some rejoinders . Alan Wolfe has responded with the observation that none of Kirk’s defenders has responded to his criticisms of what he takes to be the fundamental incoherence of Kirk’s brand of conservatism. I neither knew Kirk nor am a great fan of Kirk’s writing. But Wolfe’s arguments are so sloppy that even this ambivalent reader of Russell Kirk feels compelled to come to his defense.

The review in the New Republic opens with a long summary of Kirk’s Gothic romance cum political morality tale Old House of Fear , the sole purpose of which is to introduce his overall assessment of Kirk’s contribution to political thought. "His explicitly political writings are just as fantastic as Old House of Fear ," Wolfe writes, suggesting that Russell Kirk provides us with nothing other than wishful thinking, made-up facts, and comically ill-reasoned social analysis. No, wait, that’s not the only reason for the plot summary. It also gives Wolfe a chance to insinuate that Kirk was a racist. Thus does Wolfe set the tone. Russell Kirk, and by implication the modern American conservative movement he did so much to inspire, is best understood as stupid and wicked.

Wolfe begins his case against Kirk with a discussion of Kirk’s analysis of the modern political tendency toward ideology. Kirk has a very specific definition of ideology. A political imagination is ideological, according to Kirk, when it latches on to a belief that political, economic, and social processes can be organized to create a perfect world. (Recall the Marxist dream of the withering of the state.) The left, according to Kirk, is fatally tempted by just this sort of belief. We dream that we can perfect our humanity through social engineering.

Kirk knew that the left has no monopoly. He saw that Nazism harbored ideological dreams. It is not the case, as Wolfe suggests, that Kirk’s view that the Nazis sought to perfect society by social engineering is bizarre and false. The Holocaust was an extreme and evil project in social engineering, the repeatedly announced goal of which was to purify the racial composition of Europe. If that does not count as brutalizing humanity for the sake of an abstract social ideal¯the essence of ideology, in Kirk’s view¯I don’t know what does.

Against ideology, as Kirk argued again and again in his many publications, we should focus on the cultivation of what he often called "the permanent things." Modern conservatism should seek to develop complex, particularized judgments about how best to govern in light of these truths. Instead of social planning, we should want wise leaders.

In his review, Wolfe initially concedes the definition of ideology, but after his digressive comments and jabs, he turns around and accuses Kirk of inconsistency. Wolfe points out that Kirk’s cultural particularism sounds like contemporary multiculturalism. Kirk’s right wing is really the new left wing. Wolfe observes that Kirk insisted that conservatives do not believe in abstractions, but Kirk firmly asserted that the Constitution should be narrowly rather than broadly interpreted, which seems like an abstract idea. Kirk said that conservatives cannot produce a right-wing form of the Communist Manifesto ¯but Barry Goldwater did. "It should be plain," he wraps up his meditations on Kirk’s theory of ideology, "that when Russell Kirk writes, contradiction flies off the page." Kirk ignores the obvious truth that "ideology can be found on both sides of the political spectrum," and thus Wolfe concludes, "to locate it only on one side means that reality will have to conform to a priori assertions, to dogmatic definitions."

Wolfe’s own logical error is painfully obvious. He has cogently outlined Kirk’s theory of ideology, which is asserted a priori. That is what people who want to think systematically do: They define terms. Alan Wolfe is perfectly entitled to disagree with Russell Kirk’s definition of ideology, and he can certainly criticize Kirk’s old-fashioned, aristocratic political tastes, which ran more in the direction of Aristotle than John Rawls. But it is jejune in the extreme for Wolfe to use his own definition (ideology as any intensely held political position) to create the illusion of contradiction in Kirk’s thought.

Things get worse when Wolfe turns to the topic that he has a long track record of mismanaging: religion. Wolfe wants to show the further, deeper implications of Kirk’s supposed contradictions. "Unable to escape from the dungeon of ideology in which he confined himself," on matters of religion, especially religion in an America organized by a liberal Constitution that prohibits the establishment of religion, Kirk "can offer only cliché dressed up as conviction."

Leaving aside the snide tone, Wolfe is correct to note that "everything Kirk says about religion and the social order is breathtakingly unoriginal." Like so many before him, Kirk thought religion a crucial pillar of a healthy society. But Wolfe is quite wrong when his ends his observation by saying that Kirk is conventional, "except for the remark that without religion we would be in a constant state of war. Given the fact that so many wars have been fought over religion, there is no disputing the creativity of that observation." Wolfe needs to be careful with his clever, superior lines. Was Hobbes an obvious idiot for saying that without the absolute power of the sovereign we would experience the war of all against all? But wait¯don’t sovereigns launch most wars?

I don’t think you need to be a terribly subtle thinker to see that neither Hobbes nor Kirk is a fool. In fact, there is an important similarity between the two that Wolfe’s dismissive review fails to recognize and explore. Both Hobbes and Kirk view the power that imposes order as necessary to control base human impulses and to minimize their destructiveness. But there is also a very important difference. Hobbes saw human beings as pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding machines; as a consequence, order could only be imposed externally and harshly by the Leviathan. In contrast, Kirk viewed us as complicated spiritual, social, and physical beings. We can fear God and develop self-disciplining inhibitions that allow us to bring order to our lives, and, as a consequence, we can become free, cooperative agents in a democratic process that shapes society into a moral order capable of perpetuating self-disciplined, free social actors. This is the deep anthropological insight of the conservative ideal of ordered liberty.

Instead of helping his readers see and understand the central role of religious submission as a form of empowerment in Kirk’s political philosophy (in marked contrast to the way in which Hobbes can envision only a simple and perpetual political submission), Wolfe tries to move forward with his demonstration that Kirk was a failed thinker. "Anyone who believes that religion is essential to social order," Wolfe claims, "needs to answer the question of which religion it should be, since the truths taught by one are rarely the same as those taught by others." Wolfe then runs through the options: Judaism or Christianity? And if Christianity, then Catholicism or Protestantism? By Wolfe’s reckoning, Kirk dodges these questions and ends up affirming by default the deracinated civil religion that he explicitly denounces.

Either established religion or the naked public square: This is very sloppy reasoning on Wolfe’s part. To make a sociological argument about the crucial role of religion in society¯or for that matter to make a philosophical argument for faith as a crucial incentive for devotion to truth¯does not logically require one to answer theological questions. One can warn against the dangers of the naked public square, and one can do so without deciding that only Jews or only Catholics or only evangelicals can live in it. Furthermore, it certainly does not follow that a political commitment to religious pluralism entails a theological commitment to a minimalist civil religion.

Assuming the same specious logic, Wolfe implies that a robust theological commitment necessarily leads to theocratic ambitions. Reflecting on Kirk’s vague statements about the need for religion in public life, Wolfe writes, "Give me Father Neuhaus anytime: when he defends the need for religion in the public square, you are not left in doubt about which religion it is." Really? Does Alan Wolfe suppose that a Catholic public figure lacks the theological resources necessary to distinguish between the natural human duty to worship God and the rights of religious conscience that prevent civil society from requiring and specifying the discharge of that duty? If so then Wolfe has never read the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, which makes precisely that distinction. But perhaps Wolfe just thinks modern Catholic social teaching on religion and public life is itself a bundle of contradictions worth about as much serious analysis as he gives to Russell Kirk.

The final contradiction that Wolfe tries to pin on Kirk is the most painful because most ill-tempered. It concerns Russell Kirk’s patriotism and his nostalgia. Basically, Wolfe says that Kirk was repellently dishonest in his attempt to provide a conservative justification for loyalty to the American Constitution. The Constitution, Wolfe claims, was a fundamentally liberal project of disentangling the American project from "the permanent things" of old Europe: aristocracy, the unbreakable bond of person to place, and established religion. By Wolfe’s reading, Kirk tried to suppress and disguise this basic fact about our country.

It strikes me as small-minded for Wolfe to mock Russell Kirk’s efforts to understand and justify his loyalty to the American project. And it is short-sighted, because the alternative is a conservative rejection of our constitutional system along the lines of Joseph de Maistre, Carl Schmitt, or other spokesmen for the European tradition of conservatism that utterly rejected modern liberal political institutions. Does Alan Wolfe want Russell Kirk to be "consistent" and lay all his chips down on a Franco-style vision of America?

Here I must thank Alan Wolfe. I now see more clearly, through his disdain, why Russell Kirk was so important for American conservatism. Kirk feared the ideological brutalities of the modern political imagination, and he was repulsed by the deracinated, mechanized routines of modern industrial life. He knew that America is, at least in part, both a product of and a key player in the modern world, but he also knew himself a man rooted in this country. He tried to articulate a nuanced love of and loyalty to the American project that would not betray his conservative convictions. Kirk may not have been successful. In fact, I have always had my doubts. But about the need for such a project I have no doubt at all.

On Kirk’s nostalgia, Wolfe is not so much small-minded as empty of humanity. He implies that Kirk was morally evasive when not simply corrupt in his often misty-eyed loyalty to the rooted, aristocratic culture of the Old South, a culture built on slavery. Kirk was, notes Wolfe, a defender of "lost causes," and especially "bad ones."

Wolfe begins by quoting Kirk’s deepest commitment: "The conservative impulse is a man’s desire to walk in the paths that his father followed; it is a woman’s desire for the sureties of hearth and home." Then Wolfe launches into his morally superior judgment that Russell Kirk never adequately criticized the racism and sexism and economic injustice of the "old ways." "Any writer serious about political philosophy who believed this," Wolfe writes, "would move immediately to the harder question: what if the father’s path is a path to evil, or the sureties of the hearth and home are degrading to most who live there?" Wolfe leaves no doubt that he judges that Kirk evaded the harder question. In effect, then, Wolfe pins the ultimate contradiction on Kirk. Wolfe suggests that Russell Kirk was more in love with an idea of the past, an abstraction purified of its real evils, than with real human life and its requirements of moral judgment. He was, concludes Wolfe, "contemptuous of people, or at least those whose very existence prevents gentlemen aristocrats from sitting in front of the fire reading Aristotle while their slaves, or their wives, prepared their dinner."

This is a serious accusation, all the more so because it implies that the conservatism that Kirk inspired is similarly contemptuous. Conservatives are best understood as morally obtuse people who sit in their expensive clubs and look down on real people. But again, Wolfe is sloppy, and now tellingly so. Wolfe quotes Kirk’s efforts to exculpate the southern aristocrats he admired. In short, Wolfe provides the actual evidence that Kirk knew about the harder question¯and did try to answer it. So much for Alan Wolfe’s own consistency as a reader, thinker, and writer.

Of course, Wolfe thinks he can count Kirk’s efforts to answer for the moral failures of the Old South as equivalent to no answer at all, because he dismisses Kirk’s answers as simple whitewash. Maybe they were inadequate. Maybe Kirk did avert his eyes from what he did not want to see¯could not allow himself to see¯in the past he so loved. But here I must turn to Alan Wolfe and not charge him with inconsistency but instead with a more fundamental failure, a failure of humanity. Why does Wolfe assume that a weak, inadequate answer to a very hard question is no answer at all? Does he not know that what we love in this world is always deformed by sin? Whose fathers have not walked in paths that did not wind the way through evil places? Whose sureties of hearth and home are not weighted down by the wickedness that infiltrates every aspect of human life? Does Wolfe not realize that what he rightly calls the harder question, the question of whether we should love and be loyal to that which we inherit, is a very, very difficult question to answer, much more difficult than doling out moral judgments from our supposedly superior present?

Like his patriotism, Kirk’s efforts to bring his longings for a better past into a consistent relation with his moral judgments may have failed. Love blinds. But unlike Alan Wolfe, who seems to have nothing but contempt for the effort, I now see better the nobility of accepting the task. Love these days is much more difficult than the critical stance, which every street-corner professor retails these days. I can understand why Alan Wolfe might prefer the risks of the sort of moral judgment that can alienate us for our past over the dangers of a blind love that can lead us to perpetuate past evils. He is entitled to sacrifice the older bonds of loyalty to the critical project of modernity. But I cannot fathom his apparently complete insensitivity to Russell Kirk’s obvious desire to think his way down the difficult path of love and loyalty. I can only explain it as a failure of humanity.

For all my criticisms of his sloppy reasoning and superficial analysis, I’m the kind of person who might half agree with Alan Wolfe. I’ve never been taken by Russell Kirk. As a writer, he had a style more discursive than precise. He always reminded me of Matthew Arnold. When I first read Kirk and he adverted to "the permanent things," I couldn’t help but think of Arnold’s way of conjuring with words: "the best that has been thought and said." There is a tendency toward incantation in Kirk that frustrates an impatient reader in search of something more than a literate conservative sentiment. But Wolfe’s grotesque lack of sympathy has challenged my own relatively modest lack of sympathy and brought me to a deeper appreciation of Russell Kirk. The impatient mental habits and strangely stunted emotional range of the kind of American liberalism that Alan Wolfe represents throws into sharp relief the essential and permanent intellectual obligations that Russell Kirk sought to discharge in his no doubt imperfect way.

We do well to be reminded of the fact that we, too, inherit those obligations. We really do need to give an account of our patriotic loyalty that remains true to our greater, more permanent faiths. We need to cultivate loyalty to what our culture has given us, and do so in a way that combines the intimacy of love with the honesty of moral judgment.

R.R. Reno is professor of theology at Creighton University.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles