On Not Thinking in Slogans
This is a most appropriate time for the appearance of this short book, ably edited by Gleaves Whitney, aide and speechwriter to former Michigan Governor John Engler. As Mr. Whitney narrates in his introduction, Russell Kirk’s learned statement of Americans’ beliefs and strengths has served as a source of stability and good sense during two previous periods of radically fomented indecision and doubt. Today, it is time once again to turn to a clear exposition of what has made America great.
In his first two chapters, Kirk suggests that he is engaging in “a modest way” in “a work of renewal, of restoration” because “good natured ignorance is a luxury none of us can afford.” Americans are the heirs to a long, rich tradition of principles that guide our public life and form the basis for civilizing culture. These embody, in particular, moral, political, and economic convictions which, comprehended intelligently, can arm Americans against the radical impieties of the day. The alternative, an unwillingness to move beyond the issues of the day’s spin cycle, can only court disaster, for, in Kirk’s telling epigram, “Thinking in slogans ends with thinking in bullets.” This background material is followed by chapters that examine the heritage and contemporary ramifications of Americans’ moral, political, and economic principles.
For Kirk, the moral principles guiding Americans are founded on the nation’s Christian heritage. The principles of the Judeo-Christian heritage, while not always followed, have never been wholly forgotten. Americans understand the critical importance of human dignity, and that the world is often a place of trial and testing. In the succeeding chapter, on the relation of church and state, Kirk emphasizes the importance of toleration in the pursuit of religious beliefs. Conservatives believe that religion is an essential part of any civilized society, but it surely does not follow that they must compel others to follow their particular doctrines. Law’s function is to provide a balance of “order and justice and freedom.” Americans should avoid the posture of “self righteousness” and should instead promote the need for tolerance while taking pride in their general adherence to a religiously based morality.
In chapter five, Kirk traces the classical and English antecedents of American ideas about government and politics. He notes that America has been a practical experiment in democracy emphasizing justice, order, and freedom in contrast to the dangerously abstract ideals of the French Revolution. Equality before the law, acceptance of naturally occurring social hierarchies, and a relatively stable political order are achievements of which Americans can justly be proud. Kirk then examines the institutions that have evolved from these political principles. America is a federal republic with important checks and balances provided by the constitutionally ordained legislative, executive, and judicial branches, as well as by the extra-constitutional emergence of political parties.
Economics and democracy are Kirk’s next concerns. He reminds us that Americans have accepted the inseparability of political freedom and economic freedom. Free enterprise restrained by basic moral principles has given Americans material wealth and political freedom. Yet, he asserts, America has “no moral imperative” to force its system on the world. By example, it can demonstrate that a free economy is both just and orderly and highly successful. While specifically denying that wealth alone can be a measure of either greatness or contentment, Kirk uses chapter eight to outline the tangible ways in which a free economy can be “the material fabric of an elevated civilization.”
The final two chapters address issues that are unfortunately going to be of greater and greater concern to Americans. In chapter nine, Kirk critiques the proponents of “modern discontent” who have centered their sights on America and Americans. The revolutionaries of today are motivated either by naivete or by a vicious craving for power. The latter are able to play upon the ignorance of the masses and upon the envious hatred stimulated by America’s success. In Kirk’s words, “Envy, inverted admiration, is one of the most disastrous impulses of our modern age.” He concludes with a chapter urging Americans to take pride in their accomplishments. There is much virtue in honest profit, and, although it has become the most powerful military nation in the world, history records America’s consistent refusal to impose imperial ambitions on the world.
In his Afterword, Gleaves Whitney reinforces Kirk’s conclusions with a detailed description of the achievements of American “exceptionalism.” Listing seven important contributions of the American experience to human freedom, he makes the telling point that each has advanced mankind’s efforts to resolve basic problems in the human condition. He also provides six pages of selected works that allow the reader to delve deeper into the issues raised in the book.
The American Cause is much more than a testament to the American experience. Its continuing relevance confirms the essential importance of that conservative tradition articulated so well by Russell Kirk. Here, once again, Kirk identifies those norms and practices that have guided Americans over many generations. Located within these pages is an arsenal of intellectual weapons for defending America and its achievements and for reinvigorating both pride and optimism among its citizenry.
Robert Heineman is professor of political science at Alfred University.
Posted: March 29, 2007