The Letters of Russell Kirk
James E. Person Jr., editor
University Press of Kentucky, 2018
432 pages, $39.95
To order: amazon.com
By Paul Kengor
Any serious student of conservatism knows the name Russell Kirk. Kirk (1918-1994) was one of the most influential thinkers of modern conservatism. And yet, not every serious student of Catholicism knows the name Russell Kirk. Nonetheless, Kirk was Catholic as well as conservative, and his faithful, informed conservatism had powerful intellectual moorings in his faithful, informed Catholicism.
The Catholic side of Kirk, which is unavoidable from any in-depth reading of his writings, comes across clearly and elegantly in a new collection edited by James E. Person Jr., titled Imaginative Conservatism: The Letters of Russell Kirk.
The 421-page volume contains hundreds of examples of Kirk’s correspondence from the 1940s, before his conservatism and Catholicism matured, into the 1990s. His correspondents run from T.S. Eliot to Ronald Reagan, from Jacques Barzun to Richard Nixon.
Among these, an enduring bond in Kirk’s thinking was to Eliot, who wrote of “the permanent things.” These were the first principles carried forth from our forefathers that, for the conservative, are to be conserved.
As Kirk told conservative publisher Henry Regnery in a 1952 letter, he endeavored to “conserve the spiritual and intellectual and political tradition of our civilization.” He said that “if we are to rescue the modern mind, we must do it very soon.”
Kirk respected the patrimony of what G.K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.” Citing that Chesterton phrase, Kirk described it as “the considered opinions of the wise men and women who died before our time, the experience of the race.” He said we “owe a moral debt” to our ancestors. Our ancestors could teach us more than a few things, especially the permanent things.
As Ronald Reagan put it, we should preserve and conserve the “time-tested” values and ideals truly worth preserving and conserving.
Particularly time-tested, in Kirk’s view, was the Catholic Church; such was a prime reason for him being attracted to it.
One of the most interesting writings in this volume is a March 1988 letter from Kirk to Benjamin Hart of the Heritage Foundation. Hart had published an article in Crisis Magazine titled, “The Evangelical Temptation: Why I’ve Stopped Attending the Catholic Church.” Hart lamented that the Catholic parishes he had attended seemed more concerned with a leftist political-cultural-social agenda than with the teachings of the Church.
“I can well understand your dismay at the present state of the Catholic Church in these United States,” conceded Kirk. “But if you go over to fundamentalism, you fall into feebleness; it cannot stand against modernism.”
Those words couldn’t be more prescient for today, as one mainline Protestant denomination after another succumbs to the winds of the dictatorship of relativism and as even many “fundamentalists” argue over issues as rudimentary as male-female marriage and male-female gender. The ensuing sophistry resulting from vastly divergent interpretations of basic Scripture is astounding and a predictable result of not merely modernism but of every individual rendering unto himself or herself a personal interpretation of the Bible.
“To rely upon the Old and New Testaments through private interpretation of passages is to force every man to make his own religion — or to entice him to do so,” Kirk continued. “Scripture is only one aspect of religious understanding. And Scripture cannot be understood and interpreted without the Authority of the Church. I possess a large library of theology, and the various dictionaries and commentaries upon the Bible, and have long meditated and written upon these subjects. I could not possibly interpret any book of the Bible for myself, without Authority to refer to.”
Kirk offered an example: “Consider such a passage as ‘Resist not evil.’ How are we to understand this without turning to Authority for ascertaining the signification of that simple sentence[?] I stand astounded at the presumption of persons who, though totally ignorant of Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic or even the Latin of the Vulgate, fancy that they can spell out for themselves, infallibly, every symbolic or mystical line of the Bible. I had sooner trust a motorcycle enthusiast to be my pilot in a Concorde. Nay, Fundamentalists and the like cannot stand long against the sophistries of modernism.”
That’s an impressive letter from Kirk that Catholics will like. Even then, it’s not the most exhaustive statement from Kirk on Catholicism in this book. For that, a must-read is a lengthy March 1992 response by Kirk to William F. Buckley Jr. on the question of why Kirk was Catholic.
Here, Kirk repeats his concerns about the authority problem inherent in Protestantism, especially in the modern age, with “every man creating his own morals.” He also explains that he was not “converted” into the Church but made his way into it through a combination of personal experience, conversations, mediation and much reading. He remarks on everything from confession to celibacy to birth control to the Tridentine Mass to Freemasons.
It’s a remarkable statement for any student of Kirk, particularly Catholic students of Kirk — as is this entire book. Kudos to James Person for collecting this interesting material on not only an important conservative but an important Catholic.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.