The American Cause by Russell Kirk
Henry Regnery, publisher of Kirk’s magnum opus, The Conservative Mind and friend of his, urged him to write a short book easily understood by the average person, setting forth the foundational spiritual, moral, social, political, and economic principles of the United States. Initially Kirk demurred, having other projects in mind, but changed his stance after carefully considering the situation. His concern grew about the susceptibility to enemy propaganda of “well-intentioned Americans who lack any clear understanding of their own nation’s first principles.” He further stated that “good-natured ignorance is a luxury none of us can afford.”
Gleaves Whitney, former and chief speechwriter for Michigan governor John Engler, wrote the introduction and the afterword of this new edition (there had been a second edition in 1966) and deleted or abbreviated some parts of the book that were dated. For example, he altered some references to the then current Soviet threat to warnings against radical revolutionaries or radical ideologues. The vast majority of the book, though, was left untouched since it presented abiding principles that never will be dated.
Today in the United States, we confront the danger of cultural disintegration brought about by multiculturalism. A significant segment of academe, the media, and the political establishment argues that the abandonment of civilizational values, especially those of Western civilization, in favor of diversity and toleration as the highest good, will lead to a better society. In furthering this goal, these people over the last generation have succeeded in reducing the teaching of our religious, historical, and literary heritage.
While it is true that the United States is a multiethnic country, it has not been and must not become a multicultural country. If this were to happen, then there would be no national culture; we would be just a conglomeration of separate, unassimilated groups of people. A successful country, though, must be based on voluntarily accepted values which unite individuals from diverse backgrounds. There must be that which transcends the differences which separate us. Historically, above and beyond these differences, we all have been Americans, supporting the same political and legal system, most of us believing in a common set of civic virtues—church and family, duty, honor, and work. Kirk wrote in America’s British Culture that “A nation’s traditional culture can endure only if the several elements that compose it admit an underlying unity or fidelity to a common cause.” The American Cause well furthers this purpose.
Throughout his writings, Kirk evinced the Christian worldview. In The American Cause, he averred that “The United States is a Christian nation.” He regarded this as a simple, obvious reality based on the fact that by far most Americans are either Christians or strongly influenced by Christian beliefs. Commenting upon this in a footnote, Whitney stated his preference for “Judeo-Christian.”
In other parts of this book, Kirk effectively discussed the political and economic principles that characterize the United States. Of particular significance in the realm of politics are what Kirk referred to as three cardinal ideas that are the cement of American society, three ideas that are not peculiarly American—they are part of Western Civilization—but which have been developed to a high level here. These are justice, order, and freedom.
Justice he defined as “the principle and the process by which each man is accorded the things that are his own—the things that belong to his nature.” Furthermore, justice must protect life, property, proven rights, and dignity while providing for the punishment of evildoers.
Order is the maintaining of peace and harmony. Kirk stated that “It implies the obedience of a nation to the laws of God, and the obedience of individuals to just authority.” Lacking these two, freedom cannot exist.
Freedom means that adult people have the right and the responsibility to make their own choices as long as justice and order are not violated.
It is interesting to note that later in his career, Kirk used the sequence order, justice, and freedom, emphasizing that order can exist without justice, but that justice necessitates order.
In his defense of market economics, Kirk argued that only an economically free society can be just and orderly, and that slavery died as free enterprise grew.
Although not to be confounded with the kingdom of heaven, the United States does in general represent good—something beyond the ken of the ignorant and rejected by the choleric critics who automatically assume American culpability whenever anything goes wrong anywhere. Kirk refuted these people and presented simply and briefly what is good about this country. Comments by Whitney, a solid Kirkian, add to the value of this work.
John Pafford teaches at Northwood University. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Continuity: A Journal of History.