What Conservatism Is For

A Luncheon Talk at the Philadelphia Society 40th Anniversary Gala in Chicago
May 1, 2004

by Annette Kirk

We all know that no one can stand in for Stan Evans—so when Bill Campbell asked me to do this, I immediately called Stan and said, “I need a story, a quip, something clever from you to lessen our dismay at not having you present at the luncheon!”

Stan replied, “Well, here’s a reflection that might work. . . . After doing research for the book I’m writing, entitled Joe McCarthy, The Untold Story, my research has confirmed ‘Evans’ Law of Inadequate Paranoia’—which reads: ‘No matter how bad you think something is, when you look at it, it’s always worse’ and you’re not now sure you agree with what McCarthy was trying to do—but you really do like his methods.”

I first met Stan in 1960 at Great Elm, the Buckley’s family home where 100 student activists from almost every state had gathered to form a national youth organization. Frustrated with ineffective government programs and irresponsible spending, the erosion of such cultural institutions as the church and the family, and with declining standards in education, the group came together for a weekend of reflection. On Friday night and all day Saturday, we debated the principles we wished the group to espouse and animatedly argued over the content of the charter and even the name for the group.

After dinner, when we realized that we still did not have a consensus, we slowly began to panic as the schedule said that a statement of principles was to be presented to the group for approval on Sunday morning at breakfast.

Suddenly, at 10 PM, the door burst open and in strolled Stan. Weekend deadlines for the Indianapolis Star Ledger meant that he wasn’t able to get away earlier. As the youngest editor in the country at the time, he was a star to us Young Americans for Freedom—as we had decided to call ourselves just a few hours earlier.

Stan sat suavely smoking a cigarette, looking like Humphrey Bogart, listening for some time to us telling him what we wanted in our statement. Soon he began doling out carefully crafted words of wisdom. We youth, a decade younger, hung on his every word.

As secretary for the group, I recorded his clear, concise sentences. The next morning, we all enthusiastically approved the document as “The Sharon Statement.” Several in this room were present on that occasion, including the president of this Society, Lee Edwards.

Stan continued to serve the conservative movement both as a wordsmith and by founding the National Journalism Center and training thousands of young, aspiring writers—among them three of our daughters.

We all owe a great deal of gratitude to Stan for his efforts to inform and inspire the rising generation.

Too, we are grateful for groups like the Philadelphia Society where conservatives of all ages can gather to hear speakers, to participate in panels, and to debate the premises upon which rest our morals and our markets.

We know that it took some years in the wilderness before the word “conservative” came into general usage, and that it only became a movement because of the perseverance of the legions of persons and groups who carried its banner, many of whom are present here this weekend.

Today when conservatism has become a political and economic force and seems to be everywhere—being discussed on the airwaves and written about in the print media, and when much is being made of our internal disagreements, it might be time to remember what Russell said in 1993 at the Dearborn meeting of the Philadelphia Society: “Conservatism is not merely a matter of party or faction but a state of mind, a way of looking at reality, . . . sustained by a body of sentiments.”

It may also be helpful to reflect at this point in our historical journey that among conservatism’s unique and distinguishing characteristics is its concern—not only for the mind—but for the heart and the hearth, for the moral imagination, for “the sublime and the beautiful”—from the title of the treatise on aesthetics that Edmund Burke wrote at the age of nineteen, long before he became a statesman.

While such humane and cultural concerns may not lend themselves to sound bites on the nightly news, they relate to the deeper longings of humanity and are the premises upon which most conservatives agree—even if they don’t always give them as much attention as they might.

A young man once asked, “Dr. Kirk, do you have a recipe, a plan for political action?” Russell replied that if we wish to make long-term reforms in society, we must turn again to “custom, convention, constitution, and prescription.”

When in 1953 The Conservative Mind was published, Henry Regnery claimed that the book gave the growing conservative movement coherence and identity and provided the unifying concept for a variety of groups on the right who, in Bill Rusher’s words, “knew what they were against but not exactly what they were for.”

Listed as the first canon of conservatism was: Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead. In the seventh and last edition, this canon was broadened to belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, as well as conscience. Russell then went on to list five other canons of conservatism.

It is, however, this first canon that continues to define traditional conservative thought and around which we must rally if we are to maintain the vitality of our movement.

Ten years ago on this same weekend, as the Philadelphia Society was holding its annual meeting in Chicago, Russell, who had been ill for some month, left us for eternal life.

But just days before he died, he gathered around him our family and the Wilbur Fellows who always lived with us, to read us Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse.” He wished to communicate truths that he was still discovering and that he wanted to share with us. We listened in charmed awe at his dramatic reading of one of the last great epic poems in the English language, a timeless allegory about the ongoing battle between believers and nihilistic heathens. The poem incorporates imagination, moral concerns, continuity, wisdom, and fancy—all the tools needed to inspire the rising generation to reclaim the culture, “to redeem the time.”

The challenge to the present generation of conservatively minded young people to do this is indeed great.

Theirs is a complex landscape to navigate in a world in which new rules are continually being introduced concerning not only national security, the economy and technology but in areas previously thought secure, such as gender and genetics. Yet, if we—their mentors—teach them to love and desire to defend the permanent things, they will take up this task enthusiastically and perform ably.

For four decades The Philadelphia Society has provided a forum to share such larger concerns, a place to enjoy the warmth of being with old and new friends and an opportunity to meet a wonderful assemblage of bright young scholars.

We are grateful to the Society for arranging these gatherings and pray that it may continue to prosper for many more years yet to come.