The Conservative Mind: A Conversation with Bradley J. Birzer about Russell Kirk and American Conservatism

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Bradley J. Birzer holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he is also director of the American Studies program. Dr. Birzer is co-founder of the online journal, The Imaginative Conservative, a fellow of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and he serves on the board of several organizations, including The Center for the American Idea, Sapientia Press, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He is the author of several books, including J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth, Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. His most recent book is Russell Kirk: American Conservative. Bradley Birzer, welcome to Thinking in Public.

MOHLER: As I look back to my college years, it’s hard to imagine anyone as a secular writer who had a greater impact on my mind than Russell Kirk. Professor Birzer, how did you come to write this frankly magisterial biography of Russell Kirk?

BIRZER: Well, thank you so much, Dr. Mohler. And I’m glad to hear that you’ve liked Kirk for so long. I first encountered Kirk when I was a senior in college, and that would have been the Fall of 1989, the same time that the wall was coming down, and, of course, Reagan had just left the presidency. So it’s pretty amazing, I think, for anyone who’s conservative. What a magical time. So I first read The Conservative Mind that fall semester of my senior year, and I was very taken with it. I’d never encountered any right-wing thought besides Libertarianism, and to think in terms of a Christian cultural view was pretty new to me. So I was quite taken with that, and then really over the next 10-15 years, I read Kirk and I had talked and met with Mrs. Kirk, his widow, Annette Kirk, and had asked if I could go through her papers, and she said no repeatedly. Then about six years ago, I got a call and she said, “Bradley, if you want to come go through the papers, they’re open to you.” It was such a blessing and privilege to have that call and that invitation and then to work with Mrs. Kirk on her late husband’s papers.

MOHLER: Well, when I saw the biography come out, my first thought was that this should have been done long ago. Yet, I also want to say, I think it was just perfectly timed because you did have the distance from Russell Kirk’s life and death in order to gain some even greater appreciation for the stature of the man and his role in 21st-century American conservative thought.

BIRZER: Well, I hope so. You know, I never had the chance to meet him. When I first read his book—and I was still a rather die-hard libertarian at the time—I started composing in my mind a very long response in which I was chastising Dr. Kirk, and I never sent that. And I’m not sure if that was good or bad because I am not sure how he would react had he received that. Of course I was in my early 20’s at that point and full of energy and ready to take on the world, but I’m so glad I encountered him when I did. And I think it did give me a certain bit of distance and clarity about him that I would not have had had I known him personally. On a few things I wanted to tread fairly lightly because I’ve gotten to know Annette Kirk so well, and originally whenever I planned the biography, Dr. Mohler, I thought I would only go up to 1964 when he met Annette. But after talking to the publisher and with Annette, we decided to go ahead and take it through his whole life. And now I’m very glad that we did that. But at the time I was leery because I thought, “Do I really want to get into his personal life with his wife and his four daughters?” But I think I was able to do that without getting too personal about who he was beyond what mattered for his intellectual life.

MOHLER: You know, I was a high school student when I discovered National Review magazine in the high school library—I think I was probably the only reader of that magazine in my high school. But that was my introduction to Russell Kirk, and then I probably began in a strange place in terms of his writings. The first Kirk book that I read was The Roots of American Order. That had come out when I was in high school. So I didn’t start with The Conservative Mind. I worked backwards. By the way, I can think of The Roots of American Order as probably the book that would have incited you the most as a young libertarian, as a matter of fact.

BIRZER: You know, I do love that book. There is something very magisterial about that book, but I didn’t come to it until much later, in fact, probably not until I got to Hillsdale did I read that book. So it would have been late 1999 or early 2000 when I read that for the first time.

MOHLER: You told me a great deal about Kirk that I did not know. We all enter into thought in a particular period in the stream, so to speak, and by the time I came along in high school and college—and that was before the Reagan revolution, but it was taking shape; I had worked in the Reagan campaign in 1976 and there were comments and references to Kirk and always with great reverence—but you told me the backstory that I really did not know and didn’t have much access to until your biography. Russell Kirk’s life was a bit more interesting than I knew in the early years. Tell us about his experience in the Army and as a young man and how that became somewhat of a platform for the development of his mind and of his writing as well.

BIRZER: That’s such a good question, and of course we never would have had a Goldwater movement or a Reagan movement, I think, without Kirk. Goldwater expressly said that Kirk and Hayek were really the two touchstones for him, and Reagan later acknowledged Kirk as well with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. So a lot of connections there. Kirk was born in an extremely poor family, as poor as we can possibly imagine now—pre-welfare, pre-New Deal. He was born in 1918, and really his father struggled all his life with various working class jobs. On his mother’s side, there was always a deep intellectual stream there that went back probably way back to the Puritans.

But Kirk came of age during the Great Depression and went off to Michigan State. After Michigan State, he got a Master’s Degree from Duke, but then he was drafted into the military. He at that point—so about 1942, Dr. Mohler, he would have been well probably a quasi—I don’t think they would have used the term as lightly then—but he would have been a peaceful anarchist at that point: a hard core libertarian, had no use for government, often equated FDR with either Hitler or Stalin, and certainly was very reluctantly to become involved in World War II, not because he thought that the Nazis or the Communists were good guys—he hated them very much, properly so—but he wasn’t  quite sure that we knew what we were fighting for.

But when he was drafted he was sent off to the Great Salt Lake, off to Deseret, Utah. And he was sent to the Tule proving grounds where he spent the war as a chemical testing sergeant at a camp there, which is just irony of ironies when you think of some of Kirks views. He ended up spending four years either in the Salt desert or down in Florida testing chemicals—either in the desert or down in swamp Florida. And it was during that time that he really grew as a thinker. And he was still, by the end of the war, he was still pretty much a kind of a pagan Stoic, but he had some experiences that set him on the path towards Christianity.

And so a lot of things happened for him during the war, not just his analysis of the war, but his time to read, his time to write, and his time to correspond with people, which he found he had a lot of. But also just the majesty of the Great Salt Lake Desert which really, I think, did for him give a sense of the divine. So he did not come to his Christianity until some time in the 1950s, and then formally he joined a church in 1964. But it was a long path for him, but I think a very honest one. So that was a really a growing and thriving time for him in World War II. And though he came after it probably still not totally convinced that the United States had used her power wisely, he certainly had used that time reflectively, and I think that set him up a good career from that point forward.

MOHLER: You know that reminds me of the fact that many modern conservatives probably find it difficult to believe that conservative impulse in the period of the late- and mid-1930s was to do everything possible to avoid international entanglements, including what was considered a war in Europe, until it no longer could be considered that way. In retrospect, it looks completely naive to have undertaken Russell Kirk’s position. It wasn’t quite so naive, at least before 1941, but it certainly still seemed somewhat so after that, and so that was a surprising twisting tale for me.

BIRZER: You know, I kind of expected that, but it was also more extreme than what I thought it would be. And I had a chance to go over his diaries—of course he had never thought someone would be reading these things 60, 70 years later—but just to see his anger towards the US government. And even though he was very poor, he just did not believe that the government could do anything effectively at home or abroad. So the fact that the New Deal he thought was such a mess at home, how could we ever hope to solve the problems in Europe? So he did have—and I always want to stress this with people too, Dr Mohler—he had a genuinely, very humane, and especially for his time, extremely anti bigotry, at least in his own views, whether it was toward the Jews, or blacks, or anybody. And he was so offended by the way that FDR had treated Asian Americans here, he thought that anything that he would do for Jewish Europeans was just PR. Nothing more, nothing real.

MOHLER: Now the great turning point intellectually will come at the University of Saint Andrews, or at least during that time period for Russell Kirk. But I want to go back to another figure who I have found fascinating since I was in college, and that was Lionel Trilling. And it was Trilling who made the point that in his judgment there wasn’t such a thing as conservative intellectual thought. If there had been such a thing, it basically died with Edmund Burke and a few continental thinkers. And that was pretty much the assumption of the American intellectual elites in the early decades of the 20th century

BIRZER: It was, and in hindsight it’s so false because, of course, there were so many figures, whether we’re talking about H. L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, or Willa Cather. There were so many figures who were deeply conservative in the Nineteen-Teens and Twenties and even into the Thirties. But Trilling really had to have blinders on not to see that. Especially for you, Dr. Mohler, at the seminary, what an interesting history, I’m sure as you well know, Protestantism had really gone underground as a public way of thinking. Not that there weren’t Protestants, of course, they were everywhere. But after the Scopes Trial, there had been such a blow against stereotyping Protestants, that it really wouldn’t be until the late 1940s or early 1950s where you have Billy Graham and of course you have Christianity Today where Protestants enter the public square again. And I think that Trilling probably had that in mind as he was thinking about conservatism in the late 40s. Even when conservatism rose as a political force in the 1950s, it was predominantly a Jewish and Catholic movement, with Protestantism joining slowly over twenty years and then with Roe v. Wade.

MOHLER: There’s a little bit more to that story, and that would be a fascinating conversation, but Protestantism split in two during that time. So after the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, Liberal Protestantism went off and joined the adversary culture, as Irving Kristol would call it, and it became a part of the Left. On the Right, you did have some towering figures. I think of someone like Gresham Machen, the Presbyterian, and even someone like Walter Lippmann. It’s hard to come up with a better barometer of public intellectual opinion in the U. S. than Lippman in those years. He had great admiration for Machen, but those confessional Protestants who were theologically Orthodox began to take refuge in what they called the spirituality of the church, which basically meant that the church forfeited any overt political responsibility. So you really don’t find Protestants in that era, to make your point, contributing to statecraft. The ones who are are from the liberal mainline denominations, whether it’s John Foster Dulles, or you come up with the list. It’s a very different world. But I want to go back to the University of St. Andrews, as we’re speaking about Protestantism, at least in terms of its role since the Reformation. How in the world did Russell Kirk end up doing a Doctorate at the University of St. Andrews, and how in the world did that book, I think it’s fair to say, change the political world unto this day?

BIRZER: You’re absolutely right, and thank you for the clarification. I think what you said was exactly right on Protestantism. So where does Kirk come in on that? What an interesting thing that prior to his travel to Duke, which would have been about 1940 when he went down to get his Masters, he had never left Michigan. So he was not a traveler; he was a homebody. And once he started traveling in World War II, going out to Utah then back to Florida and so forth, he fell in love with it. He was always a very romantic figure, and he wanted to look abroad as he was thinking about where to earn his Ph. D. and where to write his doctorate. And he found St. Andrews because he had come across a book by Professor Darcy where he had described the beauty of Scotland and St. Andrews. And Kirk’s family, at least on the Kirk side, was Scottish, even though his mother was of English descent. And he became pretty taken with that. When he read the description of what St. Andrews was like, he thought, “This is what I want to do.” He ended up applying and, of course, got all sorts of fellowships to go. Michigan State, where he was teaching after World War II, gave him leave to go off and live at St. Andrews for a long time, and when he was there not only did he fall in love with that, but he also traveled throughout all of Europe and then became really an inveterate world traveler after that. But thinking about Protestantism, I think it’s pretty interesting here as well because when he got to Scotland, he had never encountered the kind of hardcore, John Knox Presbyterianism. He had met people in America, of course, and would have known of Machen and others, but that was not something that was really a part of his world until he got to Scotland and found that character, and it certainly intrigued him. There’s no question about that.

MOHLER: Well, it certainly intrigued him, but he wanted to press back even further. I think he probably found himself more at home in his real and imagined medieval St. Andrews rather than post-Reformation St. Andrews.

BIRZER: I love the way you put that; it was imagined. Kirk, for all of his strengths, I think his weaknesses were very similar: he just romanticized everything. I’m not even sure what he thought theologically, but I think the idea of maybe standing with the King as an Anglican against what he would have seen as these Presbyterian rabble rousers, he loved that image.

MOHLER: No doubt. You can see that in his later life and his writings. But let’s talk about his doctoral dissertation, because I think even people who have been greatly shaped by The Conservative Mind don’t know its origins.

BIRZER: Yes, I was shocked when I read it in college, and I know every time I have my students read it, they are as well. They see “conservative” and they automatically think they are going to get some kind of a program or party platform, something that they can have a really good grasp of, “What does it mean to be a Conservative?” Yet I think Kirk in that dissertation, which was published in 1953 after he defended it in 1952 at St. Andrews, it’s really more a book of questions than it is of answers. As Kirk himself said, it was really more about a mood than it was about a platform. You’re not going to find how to run the Republican party or how we might defeat the Democrats or Liberals in there, because it’s very poetic and very philosophical—at times, in the first edition, it’s theological. It becomes much more theological through the next six editions and especially with the final edition, but in the beginning it was much more poetic. That book started because he had written his Master’s thesis at Duke on the Speaker of the House under Thomas Jefferson, John Randolph of Roanoke. Randolph had been very taken with Edmund Burke, and that’s how Kirk got interested in Edmund Burke. And by the time he had gotten to St. Andrews in 1948 when he started his doctoral work, he thought, “Well, what happens with Burke? Now here’s Burke, a great figure of the late-18th century. Is it possible that his ideas continued?” So that was really the germ of his dissertation, but like his Master’s thesis he had no direction at all, and this worked well for Kirk. He had an advisor for both his Master’s thesis and his dissertation who trusted him and really hardly read anything he ever wrote. So Kirk would just write chapter after chapter, hand it in, and at the end both Master’s thesis advisor and his dissertation advisor accepted it.

MOHLER: You know, the dream—perhaps the hallucination—of a doctoral student is that a dissertation will become a best-seller that will change the course of thought. But that actually happened with Kirk’s dissertation.

BIRZER: That’s right. How rare, of course. When Kirk first wrote it, he kind of imagined that that Burkine thought was over. He was writing at the very end of this time period in which Burke’s influence was gone, so he ended it with T. S. Eliot, not having met Eliot at that point and still having kind of mixed feelings about Eliot. When he met him a year later he felt they became very close friends and great allies, but he still had mixed feelings about him up to that point. The publisher, Henry Regnery, who at that point had really only published German works of theology translated in English, when he published Kirk’s Conservative Mind, the original title was The Conservative Rout at the Conservative Defeat and Regnery suggested they give it a more positive title, and I think that made all the difference in the world when that book hit the market. Of course the timing was right, right after Eisenhower had come into the presidency, coming out of the New Deal, coming out of World War II, then coming out of 1953, everything just worked perfectly for Kirk and for that book to make a major mark in public life.

MOHLER: Well, of course it did, and it caught the attention of others who were also in what would become a renaissance of conservative thought in the United States, and you can’t talk about that without talking about National Review and William F. Buckley, Jr. That story was more complicated than most American conservatives would probably like to think. We would be tempted to think that if you take the original year of National Review and you take the writers who are contained therein, they would all be a happy group of like-minded individuals, but that was not exactly the case.

BIRZER: No, it was not. And when you think of 1953, what an amazing year. You’ve got Leo Strauss, Robert Nisbet, Eric Voegelin, Ray Bradbury—all of these people were publishing, but I think Kirk really captured all of that and gave it a voice through The Conservative Mind. Buckley, of course, had already published God and Man at Yale, but he had taken his conservatism in a much more libertarian direction than Kirk did. And even though there is a lot of blatant libertarianism in Kirk, Kirk is giving a stronger voice to social conservatism and traditionalism, so Buckley ended up coming out to Mecosta, Michigan, talking to Kirk, and convincing him to be a part of National Review. That in and of itself—you know, the conversation between Buckley and Kirk, the kind of negotiations whether Kirk would be on the masthead or not, Kirk had really made a major reputation. Buckley had made a minor one at that point, so I think there was a lot of compromise that had to go into that. And Kirk, he was a gentleman and one of the least discriminatory or bigoted persons I’ve ever encountered in my life, but one of the things he could not abide were former Marxists. He was very leery of anyone who had been a member of the Communist Party, and so that meant Frank Meyer, James Burnham, a number of people who were writing for Buckley, Kirk was leery that he would be on the same masthead with these guys.


I think it’s fair to say that American liberalism can be better defined as a cohesive and coherent system of thought in contrast to American conservatism, and that’s because conservatism has always been about as much a habit of mind as a system of thought. It’s always been about a confluence of conservative instincts and conservative traditions and, of course, conservative ways of thinking. But they weren’t always considered conservative when they were current, and conservatism is not itself an ideology. Russell Kirk made that very clear, even as he helped to give conservative credibility and as he helped to further the intellectual aims of what became known as the conservative movement in America.


MOHLER: When you look at this and at the life of Kirk, I can’t think about explaining that life without reference to The Modern Age, which probably is not so well-known now as it was then. I’m honored in my library to own copies of The New Criteria and so many of the journals throughout history that have made such an important intellectual contribution. The Modern Age belongs on that list, but once again, it’s not such a happy story. But tell that story.

BIRZER: Sure. Kirk had wanted to start a journal. He and his friends, as far back as when he was at Michigan State as an undergrad, had talked about forming some kind of journal that would promote what was then called “the new humanism” of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, not that humanism of John Dewey, the kind of secular humanism, but the Christian humanism of those earlier figures. And they felt that with people like—not Steinbeck, but earlier than Steinbeck with Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, and others—that a lot of the great writers of the [nineteen]-teens and ‘20s, like Willa Cather, had been kind of shunt aside, so they had been thinking as early as the early 1940s let’s start a journal. So as soon as The Conservative Mind made it big in the summer of 1953, Kirk’s first idea was to take that success, make it into some kind of periodical, because he was very taken with the periodicals of the ‘30s, and specially T. S. Eliot’s Criterion and Christopher Dawson’s Dublin Review and a few others. And he thought that that was probably the great way to influence opinion, but he had a very difficult time raising money for it. One of the things that is little known is that Kirk actually intended from the beginning for it not just to be a voice of Christian humanism, but he also really wanted to get the voice of a number of Jewish scholars like Leo Strauss out as well. And he had a very ecumenical view of this, but as it turned out a lot of the financial backers, and in particular one of the editors, that came along with this was extremely anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic. And for two years Kirk really struggled with this guy and not only over religion but over foreign policy, editorial policy, and when this guy—I’d rather not name him right now, it’s in the book, this guy, who has passed away right now—he at one point in a meeting made an extremely loud anti-Semitic comment, and that was it for Kirk. He was done at that point.

And it is a noble effort, I think, on Kirk’s part. I think his response was proper. But what a change to have him made this journal last for two years, and then he walks away after that. So, who knows what would have happened with conservatism if Kirk maintained control of The Modern Age. It was doing well. It was noticed everywhere: London Times, Times Literary Supplement, New York Times. People were reading it, Ray Bradbury and others. It was a major journal when it came out.

MOHLER: And that was also indicative of the fact that journals were important. You go back to the Criterion and TSL [Times Literary Supplement]—everyone read it. [BIRZER interjecting: Everyone!] You couldn’t be a part of intellectual culture in Great Britain, or for that matter in much in the United States, unless you read that journal. It is very sad that today there are almost no journals with that kind of influence, because people do not think or write this way anymore.

BIRZER: That’s right. You were not necessarily expected to agree with it. It was just as an educated person who read it.

MOHLER: Imagine that.

BIRZER: Imagine that, exactly.

MOHLER: I want just fast forward a bit because Russell Kirk’s life was so large and of course, he wrote a small library unto himself. But let’s talk about the conservative movement, because we are on the other side of what emerged in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, or you might say in the ‘80s, but it’s never been just one thing. Even in 2016, the obvious stresses and strains in the conservative movement, there have always been stresses and strains. Can you help lay out the landscape of conservatism in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in a way that demonstrates Russell Kirk’s role?

BIRZER: Yeah, I can. I don’t know if I would be the best to do that. I can think of some others who might be able to put it together a little bit better. But I can certainly say, Dr. Mohler, that on the edge of The Conservative Mind coming out, there were about five strains of what we might call conservatism. I hate calling it “right-wing,” because Kirk didn’t call it “right-wing” and really didn’t like the idea of a left-right spectrum. But we can basically say that there were about five schools of thought that had rejected what might generally be called “leftism” or “liberalism,” certainly “progressivism,” “secularism,” and were very fearful of that. And it ranged everywhere from the new humanists we talked about a little bit ago, like Irving Babbitt, and Paul Elmer More, Willa Cather, to Christian humanists like T. S. Eliot, to science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury, or Aldous Huxley—especially an older Aldous Huxley—or C. S. Lewis, or J. R. R. Tolkien to libertarians and anarchists like Albert Jay Nock or Rose Wilder Lane. So there were a number of strains of thought and Kirk really had read widely in all of those schools, and not only had read widely, but he also started writing. And of course one thing that’s not known about Kirk is he made most of his money from writing his ghost stories and his horror stories and kind of quasi-science fiction and fantasy—he made a lot of money doing that, actually. It’s pretty stunning to go back and see the numbers of how many paperbacks he was selling of these horror stories. But a lot of that was what Kirk gave voice to and I think that, at least from my reading, that kind of holding together of those various strains of conservatism only lasted for about three years, maybe two years, at best. And it all started breaking apart after National Review came out. It didn’t have anything to do with National Review. But once conservatism kind of went from being a popular fad and household name to actually trying to put it into practice — Goldwater would have been the first major figure to try and put some of this into practice—it lost a lot of its mystique and it became a practical thing. And once it became practical, then at that moment everybody wanted a piece of it in a very on the ground, immediate way. So I really think there was about two years of kind of an almost utopian, Pollyannaish quality to it, and then it fell apart. And it’s not Goldwater’s fault. I mean, I love Goldwater and I think a lot of what he did was great. But I think just everybody suddenly grabbing for that thing, which was the new great thing, and how do we make it real, it was very difficult.

MOHLER: Especially when it doesn’t become real, and instead of leading to [BIRZER interjecting: No, that’s right!] a long-term victory, it leads to a catastrophic defeat.

BIRZER: I think conservatism has always been best as a critical philosophy. It has not always been at its strongest when it’s trying to do something positive. Maybe there could be a conservatism that’s very active, but I think by its very nature, it’s so decentralized and so intensely personal that I think it’s hard to bring people together.

MOHLER: Well, I might be a little sanguine about that, and it may be because I really came into my intellectual formation at a time when there were such great conservative hopes and then there were great conservative gains. By the way, during that time I basically focused on two people: William F. Buckley Jr. and George F. Will. And I just read everything they said to read from a distance. And if they said to read something, I read it. If a book were advertised or reviewed in National Review, I couldn’t afford to buy it at the time, I’d go to the library, check it out, and read it. And so I really got immersed in this, and then I was able to tell, “There’s some differences here.”

One of the things you haven’t mentioned is the distinction that became excruciating in one sense and profitable in the other is the union of traditional conservatism and neo-conservatism during the 1980s. And I’m just reminded as I say that of how little Russell Kirk regarded the neo-conservatives.

BIRZER: Yes, at first he kind of liked them, and especially on their domestic policies and people like James Wilson and others who were dealing with criminology. He was pretty interested, but I think he became very leery of them when he realized that so many of them were working actively in D.C. I think he got very distrustful at that point.

So, there’s a lot of give and take. Of course, Kirk made some unfortunate statements, which, I think, got blown out of proportion overall, but he made some statements about the neo-cons and their connection with Israel and others, and it came across in the late-80s as a little anti-Semitic. I don’t think that he’s anti-Semitic, in fact, I don’t think he’s anti-Semitic at all, in how some of that was seen by especially Jewish authors as being problematic in the 1980s. But Kirk was just as you know, as we talked about, was critical of the U.S. intervening anywhere, and it didn’t matter if it was in the Middle East or World War II. He was always skeptical about that, but that divide between the neo-cons and the conservatives in the 1980s was brutal. By that point, I was in college, and I didn’t know what was going on. Frankly, I’m kind of glad that I missed that because I didn’t have to take sides, but I did try to be as honest as I could writing about it.

MOHLER: There’s an analogy to this, I believe, in modern theology. I think the neo-conservatives play the part in political thought that neo-orthodoxy plays in theology  in that neo-orthodoxy is helpful insofar as it critiques liberalism. So, if you’re going to have a critique of liberalism, you cannot do better than Karl Barth, because Karl Barth had been trained by the leading figures in liberal theology, Adolf von Harnack, etc. And he understood what was at stake. The problem was he tried to create some mediating position and I think the neoconservatives did something of the same, and still do as a matter of fact. They understood political, well, geopolitics with realpolitik far better than historic conservatives did. The problem is they really did see, and maybe do see, government as, at least in large part, the solution to the problem.

BIRZER: That’s right. And that’s exactly what Kirk was worried about. Yeah. And again, I think Dr. Mohler, that Kirk’s very romantic view of the world and of the human person probably didn’t gel with a lot of policy types in D.C. or in New York. So I’m sure they thought the guy was great and they admired him, but come on.

MOHLER: Well, I think there were probably some who just saw him as an intellectual crank.

BIRZER: That’s right.

MOHLER: I see him as a towering figure, but there’s a warning in this that there are no, especially in the digital age, there are no statements that you will not have to live with for the rest of your life.

BIRZER: No, that’s right. That’s right. Absolutely.

MOHLER:  A couple of other chapters that I find really interesting, and in your book you covered this in the most interesting way, so much so that I decided I had to look into it a bit further myself. What about the explosive exit of Russell Kirk from Michigan State University, and why?

BIRZER:  Yeah. Well, there are a lot of things that go into that. So that was in the Fall of 1953. Kirk had come back from Europe. Of course, he’s on fire, having gone all across Europe and seeing so many things. He’s writing like mad. He’s publishing all of these short stories. He’s working on novels. And he’s a young man. He’s 35 at that point. But he’s still relatively young in the way that he’s approaching his career. Of course he’s been in the army this whole time and then he went off to do his dissertation and his grad work. So he doesn’t have a lot of experience in the world, but once the book, once The Conservative Mind comes out and it’s reviewed well over 75 times in the 6 months after it’s published—major publications are reviewing it 2, sometimes 3, times. He’s appearing on national radio. He’s showing up on these early television programs. He’s a major national figure. He comes back to Michigan State, and Michigan State, right when he gets back, is moving on a path that is going from being a small kind of traditional school that always had an agriculture, engineering, and tech side but also had a pretty strong core of humanities. And when he gets back this new president wants to take advantage of the G.I. Bill, expand the college as quickly as possible, and really move it from a college to a university. And that’s just, that’s not Kirk. It’s not Kirk when it comes to government, it’s not Kirk when it comes to business, and it’s not Kirk when it comes to education. And as a young man he fought that, but I think a lot of the older faculty either admired Kirk or saw him as kind of an obnoxious upstart. And Kirk just didn’t handle academic politics well. And so he very openly came out against President Hannah at Michigan State. When he kind of lost the debate in front of the faculty, he resigned in protest and it made national news. And as charitable as Kirk was as a person, he never forgave Hannah and really harassed Hannah until Hannah passed away. It was kind of a brutal, brutal relationship between those two.

MOHLER: You know it reminded me of the statement made by Clark Kerr, the famous Chancellor at the University of California system during the ‘60s, who said the reason that academic debates are so intense is because the stakes are so low.

BIRZER: Yes, I love that!

MOHLER: You can look back at this and see and watch the explosion between Kirk and Michigan State University and understand. I think that faculty meeting could have been held at virtually any university in America over the last 50 years. The same issue.

BIRZER: Yes, that’s right.

MOHLER: One other big issue that I find really interesting is the change in Kirk’s mind that led him into an embrace of the orthodox Christian tradition. Now he joined the Roman Catholic Church, but what he was identifying with was—and this is a huge question for me—not Catholicism. But what kind of Catholic was Russell Kirk? Because there is a part of me that was reinforced in reading your book to think that what Kirk really did was more resign to a tradition than to join a church. Is that at all fair?

BIRZER: I think that’s very fair. He did. It’s hard—I would say this about him and I think this is a fair statement. He was, even when he was an agnostic atheist, he was always an Augustinian. And I know that sounds weird, because obviously Augustine is a great figure for both Catholics and Protestants. Okay, so there’s a line of Augustinian thought that’s always there, and I think for Kirk it’s what allowed him to move from kind of his stoic paganism into what he actually labeled himself publicly in the 1950s as a Protestant. But he was not attending church. But there was no denomination that he was a part of by any means, and I don’t think he was sitting at home doing Bible study. I think it was something he said, “I like these people better than I like those who are atheists.” And then when he met Annette in the early 1960s, Annette was a very hard-core Thomistic Catholic, and to this day she is a force of nature. And I think Kirk was pretty taken with that. He’s never bought into her Thomism; they argued about that until he died. But I think he liked the Catholicism, he liked the traditions. He was very leery of Vatican II. So he joined the Catholic Church in August of ‘64 and then Vatican II of course comes out a year later, and I’m kind of laughing in sympathy, because I’m sure this was just as much a blow to him as was to Tolkien and to Christopher Dawson and some of these other figures. But I do think it’s fair to say that Kirk, even as skeptical as he could be, really did spend his life searching. And there is a kind of, there is a nobility in that, even if I think he was always pretty restless about that. I don’t think with Augustine he ever totally found that safety in God; I think he was still somewhat unsure, not about God, but maybe about worship. So even when he died—and I think this is kind of neat, but I could see how someone would interpret it incorrectly—when he died, he had 3 books next to his bed. He had the Bible, he had Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and he had Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse. And that doesn’t surprise me at all, but those were the things that brought him comfort. And I think even Annette has admitted to me, his wife, his widow, that probably Aurelius gave him as much comfort as Scripture did. So that’s an interesting tension there, I think.

MOHLER: By the way, I think most Protestants who convert as adults to Catholicism do it as a resignation to tradition.

BIRZER: That would not surprise me.

MOHLER: And so, I’m familiar with the pattern. And I think you describe this quintessentially in one sentence in your book where you write in sum, “One might readily state Kirk was a stoic pagan who later added Catholicism to his stoic paganism.”

BIRZER: Yes. Yes, and I still think that’s fair a year later. I think that’s fair.

MOHLER: Now, I’d ask you to fast forward to American conservatism—I’d feel more comfortable in saying what’s called “American conservatism—in the year 2016. And I’m not talking about the election or the candidates. I’m just talking about the state of the conservative mind, or what remains of the conservative mind in 2016. Kind of update the argument to what you think Russell Kirk would say to American conservatives in this hour.

BIRZER: I don’t know exactly what he would say. I’ve thought a lot about this and I wish I had a good answer for you. He was always driven by honesty and politics, and so he would happily—he liked Eugene McCarthy, for example, because he thought he was a deeply honest man. He liked the socialist Norman Thomas because they had actually known each other, and he thought he was an honest man. He voted for both of them because he thought they were honest in the same way that he loved Goldwater and that he loved Reagan because he thought they were honest. Kirk, that was the romantic side, not having any desire to be involved in realpolitik, whether at home or abroad. Kirk always went for who he kind of idealized—not idolized, but idealized—someone that he thought really was a good person. He’d rather have an ineffective leader who was still honest than an effective one who was dishonest. So I think if I could put myself in his shoes, and of course I’m of a different generation and I never knew him, but I do think that the two things he would be appalled by—and I don’t think he’d be happy—but I think the two things he’d be appalled by at present is that, number one, so much of conservatism has become a product, whether it’s someone selling a book or someone being on talk radio. All of those things can be good, of course. Nothing wrong with any of that. He sold books and was on radio all the time. But the idea that we would make it a kind of product that could be sold or marketed, I think he would have been very offended by. And I think he would have been very worried by the current—I know you said you aren’t talking by candidates necessarily, but there’s such a strong strain of populism, which he would have seen as too ephemeral. It’s not something you can latch onto. Personality you can, but populism, not quite. So I think he would have been worried about that. But you know what we’re doing, Dr. Mohler, this is exactly what Kirk thinks politics should be, where we can have a good 40-45 minute, 30 minute, hour discussion. It can’t be, whether it’s left or right, sound bites. It can’t be bumper stickers, it can’t be slogans. It has to be serious discussion. That’s what he relished.

MOHLER: One of the things I most enjoyed in your book is how you connected the dots between Kirk and so many other people, from Flannery O’Connor on and T.S. Eliot, of course. And I appreciate the fact you kind of report those encounters warts and all, so to speak.

BIRZER: Some of them are pretty funny, aren’t they?

MOHLER: Funny, and excruciatingly awkward in a couple of cases, where you kind of feel even awkward reading it from such a remove. But I had a question I wanted to pose to you and that is, because one of the things that I think makes Kirk, Kirk is that he operated in the mature years of life from rural Michigan, and what he saw as land that tied him to a patrimony. How was it that he was not more conversive with and engaged with the Southern agrarians?

BIRZER: Well, he grew up, so he had relatives in the Union army, and he grew up very, very pro-Lincoln and extremely pro-Union. And some of his earliest work that he did was on the Civil War. A lot of people don’t know that, but he had actually edited some things in the ‘40s from the Civil War. And he kind of, he kept that love of Lincoln, not in the way, I’d say, that Harry Jaffa or some of the more neo-conservatives Straussians loved Lincoln, but he certainly had a deep respect for him. And I think as much as he liked the literary qualities of the Southern agrarians, he was always a little bit leery about their positions on race, which you know may or may not have been fair. But I think he never really quite identified with them, until much later, especially towards the end of his career where he started writing for Southern magazine and found a real appreciation. And one of his favorite students was a pretty serious Southerner, he’s still alive, he’s still writing. So I think there were a lot of connections there, but those connections tended to be much more personal at the end than they were in anyway on a bigger scope philosophical. But he certainly liked agrarianism, but I think when he read agrarian, he turned more to Chesterton and Belloc than he did to the Southern agrarians.

MOHLER: You have written on Tolkien. You have written on Charles Carroll of Carrollton. You have written on Christopher Dawson and his Augustinian mind, and you’ve also written, now, on Russell Kirk. I am fascinated by it all. I would define myself, more than anything else, Augustinian. I think the Reformers would say the same. Augustine is, of course, the most often non-Scriptural source quoted in their works. And I think you could also say that Augustine had this massive secular influence, which kind of makes your point about Kirk, which you see in a range of figures, and especially in conservatism during the Cold War, and realism, with someone like Reinhold Niebuhr, who I believe was not theologically orthodox, but was Augustinian. It’s possible to take Augustine’s understanding of sin, depravity, and the inevitable ‘fallenness’ of the world and thus the ‘transitoriness’ of all statecraft and empires and not, as I would have the greater hope, embrace Augustine’s understanding of orthodox Christianity. But I connected every single point of your work and I simply have to ask, “What’s coming next?”

BIRZER: Oh, well thank you. And I would agree with you. I would consider myself an Augustinian, as well, which is one of the reasons I have been interested in these figures. If you’re asking, I’m actually working on a biography of Robert Nisbet right now. And that’s been very interesting, but he’s the most secular person that I’ve studied up to this point. And that’s been a little odd. I haven’t been able to anchor myself to him as much, simply because he doesn’t have that. He grew up in a Christian Science household, and then later attended an Episcopal church, but I don’t think he ever really had any, from what I can tell and what I’ve read, no serious theological beliefs beyond this was kind of a good thing people do. So, I don’t think there’s a lot of Augustinianism there, but I’m looking. How’s that?

MOHLER: Well, I think a great deal of the secular thought of Nisbet. I’ll look forward to reading that book.

BIRZER: Well, thank you.

MOHLER: Professor Bradley J. Birzer of Hillsdale College, thank you for joining me on Thinking in Public.

BIRZER: This has been wonderful—great questions and great discussion. Thank you very much.


MOHLER: I think it’s fair to say that American liberalism can be better defined as a cohesive and coherent system of thought in contrast to American conservatism. And that’s because conservatism has always been about as much a habit of mind as a system of thought. It’s always been about a confluence of conservative instincts and conservative traditions, and, of course, conservative ways of thinking. But, they weren’t always considered conservative when they were current. And conservatism is not itself an ideology. Russell Kirk made that very clear even as he helped to give intellectual credibility, and to further the intellectual aims of what became known as the conservative movement in America.

I really did enjoy this conversation with Bradley Birzer about his book Russell Kirk: American Conservative. It’s a big biography, but Russell Kirk was a big man, in terms of his thought, in terms of his heart, and in terms of his life. As I told the professor, one of the things I enjoyed most about the book is how he connected the dots between Russell Kirk and just about every other significant conservative intellectual in America and, or course, intellectuals far beyond conservatism as well. Russell Kirk can function for us as an example of a mind at work, and a mind in action, and a mind with very huge historical effects. There are very few men who can not only claim that their doctoral dissertation became a best-seller that changed an entire intellectual line of thought, but also that he was someone who saw many of his ideas put into action with a movement, in terms of the larger culture, that in many ways embraced his ideas, even if many of those people did not even know his name. Long before others saw these truths, and were willing to make these arguments, Russell Kirk wrote, “Either order in the cosmos is real, or chaos exists. If chaos reigns, then the fragile equalitarian doctrines in emancipating programs of the revolutionary reformers have no significance.” What Russell Kirk was saying there is that if chaos exists then it will reign, and if chaos reigns, then all those fragile commitments that modern western democracies have made to human rights, and human dignity, are simply going to collapse. In this sense, Russell Kirk was a prophet, but he didn’t mean to be merely a voice crying in the wilderness.

One of the interesting things about Russell Kirk’s life, and his writing, is how he intended for his writing to change thought and to change minds and to become an argument that had to be reckoned with. Even as others had considered conservative thought to have ended in the 18th, or at least the early 19th century, Russell Kirk was absolutely committed to reinvigorating and to recovering conservative thought, and to make it at least a matter of record. But, of course, it became far more than that, as evidenced by the continuing relevance of his book The Conservative Mind. But, conservatism can’t be reduced to an ideology, even though, of course, there are genuinely conservative ideas and ideals. The life of Russell Kirk takes us only so far. Modern conservatism is going to have to chart its way. But, if Russell Kirk could say something to us in this day, I believe he would say there will have to be an intellectual reckoning with truth and with tradition. And without adequate respect for those two pillars of conservative intellectual thought, such thought will become impossible, but so also, I think Kirk would say, the project of civilization itself.

Once again, thanks to my guest, professor Bradley Birzer, for thinking with me today.

For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me on Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.