Ordered Liberty

Remembering Russell Kirk

Today Bill Buckley, Annette Kirk, and I are giving lectures at the White House about one of the preeminent philosophers of the twentieth century: Annette’s husband, the late Russell Kirk.

Fifty years ago — the same year I graduated from Brown University — Kirk published The Conservative Mind, a now-classic analysis of the core doctrines he believed most necessary for a healthy republic.

When I read The Conservative Mind, I began to realize that someone else believed all of those things I had argued for during my undergraduate years. The book gave me great intellectual support in the early days of my political life. When I was at the White House, Kirk came to meet with President Nixon, and his thinking energized President Reagan in the 1980s and continues to guide the principles of George W. Bush.

Kirk was convinced 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. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral.”

Societies, Kirk asserted, should acknowledge their origin and their responsibility to God. This tenet of faith grounds our law in God’s will and character.

Liberty has meaning, he believed, only if ordered by eternal principles. It frees us to do right, not merely to do as we please. Rights, Kirk believed, do not stand alone but always involve social and moral responsibilities.

And those rights and responsibilities come to us as a gift from previous generations. Tradition is vital, because in it we respect our ancestors’ ongoing right to participate in our contemporary culture.

Most of all, Russell Kirk argued, neutrality on moral issues is impossible. Law and policy cannot escape moral judgments. Whether banning smoking in hospitals, setting speed limits, or legalizing abortion, public policy teaches citizens a worldview and a moral code. Kirk sought to derive policies from the moral and religious wisdom of Western civilization — as opposed to the utopian schemes of coffee-house dreamers.

Kirk’s social vision, like that of our founders, depends on a critical mass of virtuous citizens who govern themselves. Instead of a policeman on every corner, a society must imbue each citizen with law-abiding inner disciplines.

But government, you see, can’t do that. What can are other institutions: families, churches, synagogues, schools, and community organizations — what Kirk, quoting Edmund Burke, liked to call the “little platoons” of society.

Russell Kirk identified three pillars of conservatism: order, tradition, and religion, the moral regulator of a society. These pillars are the things we most need to strengthen today.

Ideologues on both the left and the right tell us that they can come up with great utopian schemes for poverty, terrorism, and a host of other problems. Russell Kirk, however, helps us put such foolishness in perspective.

We stand on the shoulders of men like Kirk. He went before us. He fought well in the battle of ideas. And most marvelously of all, he sustained the faith.


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