How Russell and Annette Kirk's unlikely marriage became a powerful force in American conservatism
Nothing Has Changed (At Least Fundamentally)
The votes are in, at last. Americans are exhausted, having endured a vicious presidential election cycle that was at least as bitterly contested as the elections of 1824, 1876, and 2000.
The postmortems have already begun. That’s as it should be, given all the issues this campaign highlighted—the striking rise of populism (and anger) among voters, the uncertainty of millennials, the explosive growth of the federal government, the pernicious effects of nearly twenty-five years of constant war, and much more.
I’m writing now with a plea: Don’t become focused on politics, political parties, or politicians to the exclusion of everything else. Yes, the election postmortems, the agenda for the new president and Congress, the forecasts for the 2020 race—these are all important. But as Russell Kirk reminded us, conservatives understand that “politics is not the whole of life.” Politics is merely one expression of the conservative mind—and certainly not its most important. All things tie together. Paraphrasing Irving Babbitt, Kirk wrote, “The true conservative knows that the economic problem blends into the political problem, and the political problem into the ethical problem, and the ethical problem into the religious problem.”
Kirk saw that most accounts of conservatism and libertarianism privileged politics and economics as the threads that hold all together. He knew better. And we should, too.
The Wisdom of North Africa
To recognize how ephemeral politics is, one need only go back 1,500 years before Kirk, to Saint Augustine. As Augustine watched the Barbarians and Vandals sack Rome, the supposed Eternal City, the North African responded by recording all that mattered in his day and age, brilliantly mixing the pagan words of Virgil with the Christian theology of Paul. For Augustine, real history came not from the raw will of man but from man’s submission to God’s unlimited grace.
While the City of Man would rise to the highest heights and sink to the lowest lows, the citizens of the City of God sojourned through this world, leavening what they could, but knowing that while God would win the ultimate war, each generation might very well lose the battle. No matter the cost, the citizens of the true eternal city, the New Jerusalem, must act in love.
Augustine warned us not to make a false idol of governments or political institutions. Without justice, he wrote, “what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed upon.”
The Real Normal
America must contend with a myriad of problems, to be certain. Racial tensions, the tapioca conformity and mediocrity promoted by mass media and universities, the decline of liberal education, the love affair of corporations and government, the national security state, the flabbiness of our empire well beyond our shores, and the rise of aggression and fundamentalism abroad should worry us deeply. Many of these issues must be worked out in the political sphere.
But don’t make the mistake of believing that yesterday’s elections will magically solve those problems—or condemn us to defeat.
At a much more profound level, nothing has really or truly changed.
Your duty as a human being in this world has not altered, no matter the outcome of November 8, 2016. No human law has repealed God or the natural law, though we might very well have forgotten, mocked, or distorted each. As a human being, you must still pursue what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. You must still love what should be loved and hate what should be hated. Whatever appearances might seem, truth and lies have not changed positions, nor have beauty and ugliness, nor have good and evil. The seven virtues remain the seven virtues, and the seven deadly sins remain the seven deadly sins. A vote, a candidate, and a party cannot in any way, shape, or form determine these things.
If you’ll permit a middle-aged professor to offer some words of advice, here they are. Try not to dwell too long on the election results or the news stories that are already flooding the Internet and will continue unceasingly in the days ahead. If you need to express your own views about politics, type or write them out but give yourself a bit of time before hitting “send” or “post.”
Indeed, before committing your thoughts to life beyond your laptop, take a walk. Look at the beauty and perfection all around you. There’s often no better way to give yourself the perspective that we all desperately need in times like these.
Bradley J. Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and the cofounder of the Imaginative Conservative. He is the author of several books, the most recent being Russell Kirk: American Conservative, which won ISI’s 2016 Henry and Anne Paolucci Book Award.
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