The American Cause
by Russell Kirk.
Edited with a new Introduction by Gleaves Whitney.
ISI Books (Wilmington, Delaware), xxii, 169 pp., $13.00 paper,
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.