Russell Kirk: Conservative, Convert, Catholic

A great American thinker ready to be rediscovered

Ordinarily Providence works through men and women—through St. Gregory, through St. Joan. Saints and martyrs will be raised up within this land of ours during the next hundred years, men and women not swept away by the running tide of our prosperity and our triviality. Even you and I, putting aside our vanity, may essay something to advance peace and justice—simply through fulfilling our own duties, however obscure, in the station to which a “divine tactic” has assigned us.

By almost any 21st-century American or western standard, Russell Amos Augustine Kirk (1918-1994) possessed a quirky, eccentric, and original personality. He was—to put it as simply as possible—genius. Descriptors like charitable, tolerant, loyal, intense, playful, mischievous, creative, imaginative, shy, romantic, brilliant, humble, eccentric, traditional, and innovative flow from the lips and pens of most of those who knew him personally. As with every person, of course, Kirk expressed an immense variety of emotions and thoughts during his life. No man or woman can be summed up in a sentence, let alone in a book or even in a series of books. Almost certainly, the person himself fails to apprehend all of his majesty and his failings. Of all appreciations of and attacks on Kirk, Dartmouth professor of English literature Jeffrey Hart says it best. “Russell Kirk was a fantastic individualist—in his own way, of course.”

Yet, of all major converts to Roman Catholicism in the 20th century, Kirk remains one of the least known. There were so many notable converts, as biographers such as Joseph Pearce have explored, that one middle-aged American’s conversion has understandably been overlooked. After all, Kirk is remembered mostly for his 1953 magnum opus, The Conservative Mind, and as the founder of intellectual and cultural conservatism. On the surface, Roman Catholicism is not inherently conservative, at least politically, and most Catholics would probably be more comfortable reading a Flannery O’Connor short story than a speech Kirk ghostwrote for Senator Barry Goldwater.

Still, it is unfortunate that Catholics have not paid more attention to Kirk’s story. His conversion to the Church not only provided a major asset to the faith but also reveals much about the nature of tradition, the continuity of the pagan and the Catholic, the fragility of civilization, and the sanctity of charity.

Stoic beginnings

Kirk’s move toward and to Christian orthodoxy took well over 20 years to achieve, that is, to the point at which he formally entered the Catholic Church. Never did Kirk have a “born again” moment, a “saved” moment—or even an obvious conversion. Instead, his orthodoxy fell into place over the first 45 years of his life, and he continued to explore his faith and the issues involved until he passed away. “I was not ‘converted’ to the Church, but made my way into it through what Newman calls illation,” Kirk explained two years prior to his death, “fragments of truth collecting in my mind through personal experience, conversations, knowledge of exemplars, and much reading and meditating.”

Tracing the evolution, adaptations, and permutations of Kirk’s religious belief is no easy task. In sum, one might state that Kirk was a Stoic pagan who later added Catholicism to his Stoic paganism. Such a view would not be entirely unfair, but as an explanation it is rather limiting. Kirk’s family was originally nominally Protestant, having forsaken its old Puritanism generations before Kirk was born. As was the case with many New Englanders, the family had lost its Puritanism and migrated through upstate New York and into the Great Lakes. Like many other American emigrants, they turned toward heterodoxy and heresy rather than to atheism, adopting an occultist spiritualism similarly admired by other working-class intellectuals. Consequently, Kirk found a belief in some higher power attractive. Atheism, no matter how intellectually appealing, little enticed him, as he rejected the allies he would find in disbelief. A long letter he wrote in 1942 to his close friend Bill McCann reveals much.

I think you would find the Jefferson Bible worth your money. It is simply a Readers’ Digest Bible, of course, but it makes Christ’s doctrines appear far clearer than they do when one reads the Gospels. I should warn you, however, that if you have any lingering remnants of Christian faith, it will dispel them. For years I’ve tried to convince myself that I should be a Christian, that there must be something in Christianity, that the great weight of authority behind the Christian faith, including all my chief authorities—Johnson, Randolph, etc.—excluding the ancients, of course—all of them ardent Christians, must prove its truth. I have attempted to be a missionary, and renew the faith of all those silly young scoffers at religion who are indoctrinated in materialism by teachers of psychology and sociology. But I never had any conviction, and now I am the Gibbon of Michigan. I am brought to confess that H.G. Wells is right in his interpretation of Christ, and if Wells calls himself a disciple of Christ, then I can’t be. Jefferson could, or thought he could; he didn’t seem to see the ultimate implication.

Additionally, Kirk noted in the summer of 1942, the only Christian body that seems to approach the truth and rigors demanded of Christianity is the Catholic Church. “The closer it comes,” he continued, “the further I draw away from it.” He admired Christ as a person, he continued, but “I abhor his doctrines. Christianity is truly a religion for the expropriated.” When pushed to the quick, Kirk turned to the humanism of Harvard scholar Irving Babbitt. Babbitt’s philosophy offered more rigor and discipline than Christianity, as it contained “a ruinous moral laxity, a sort of indiscriminate sentimentalism.” Christ and Christianity simply could not live up to the highest standards of the good life. In this, Kirk sounds much like the Romans who were appalled that Christians admired King David and, thus, believed it a lesser religion.

Yet, the concept and desire for some kind of Providence haunted Kirk. He longed for it, and his Stoicism often pointed him toward it or at least toward some kind of benevolent author of the natural law. “I have been reading mightily in the Stoic writers of late,” Kirk noted in July 1942. Indeed, he thought, “Everything in Christianity is Stoic.” Over time, though, the Stoic god or amorphous, impersonal Logos did not answer Kirk’s longings. In particular, however spiritual the Logos might be in Stoic terms, it remained too materialistic, too tied to the world. In its brilliant regularity and order, Logos did not satisfy the need for miracles to bolster faith. He had seen too many uncanny things for a world to be explained as rationally as the Stoics claimed. Kirk worried, as did Christopher Dawson, that even the students of Thomas Aquinas placed too high a claim on the benefits of reason. “Perhaps the disciples of the Great Ox [Dumb Ox: Thomas Aquinas] too greatly emphasize the Thomistic doctrine that reason may discover so much—right reason, that is,” he explained in a 20-page letter to William F. Buckley, Jr. “It will not do to think of the Author of our being as a kind of computer, perpetually geometrizing.” Such a “faith,” continued would lead, ultimately, to nothing but “madness.”

Into the desert

That desire to find a more personal god than the one provided by the greats of the ancient world followed Kirk into the deserts of Utah in 1942.

The Great Salt Lake Desert was barren beyond belief, but not, I think, God-forsaken. Here it was that I commenced, very languidly, to move from my Stoicism toward something more. It was not toward pantheism that I moved, for the rattlesnake, the lizard, the gray sagebrush, and the bitter juniper-berry do not inspire Wordsworth’s love of divine handiwork. Yet the consciousness of a brooding Presence stirred in me something of the desert prophet whose name I bore—rather, as Chesterton says in another context, like rousing “a great wild forest passion in a little Cockney heart.” The desert knew no benevolence; it was terrible; but awe and veneration being closely allied, truly the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

Though the above was published in 1963, it is best to return to Kirk’s personal letters to McCann two decades earlier to find a moment or moments that led to a greater belief, something beyond the Stoic Logos. The dullness of the army, the copious time to read and write, and the simple strangeness of the Great Salt Lake Desert combined to overwhelm Kirk’s sense of purpose in this world. He had to confront a bureaucracy, a set of men, and an environment deeply removed from the norms of Michigan. In that desire to find himself, Kirk saw something immense. While there was never a single moment of recognition, as far as Kirk knew, there is an indication in his letters that marks a movement toward a “special Providence.” On September 17, 1942, Kirk wrote:

This is written in the dead of night (and why shouldn’t it be the dead of night? All else is dead here, and has been ever since the beginning of time)…. I handle special orders, travel orders, daily bulletins, and the like—a great many stencils to type—and am a star contributor to the Sand Blast, our paper, a copy of which I’ll send you once we get the next issue out; I intend to do some brief literary criticism for it, once the post library opens. Officers are affable, hours required are briefer than those I had as a civilian, and the work is very light and sometimes infrequent…. I’ve grown to endure the country in true Stoic fashion, and take a certain pleasure in feeling that I’m a tough inhabitant of one of the most blasted spots on the continent. There’s enough leisure here, and that’s a lot; the winters are said to be dreadful, but I have found fears exceed realities here, as everywhere. Already we have very cold mornings and evenings, and as I write a great sand-laden wind very chilly, is howling around the shacks of Dugway. Coming here tends to make me lean toward the Stoic belief in a special providence—or, talking of Stoicism for two or three months before I burst into Dugway and there never was a better and sterner test of a philosophy, within my little realm of personal experience—to be hurled from the pleasures of the mind and the flesh, prosperity and friends and ease, to so utterly desolate a plain, closed in by mountains like a yard within a spiked fence, with everywhere the suggestion of death and futility and eternal emptiness. But, others, without any philosophy, live well enough here; and, as Marcus Aurelius observes, if some who think the pleasures of the world good still do not fear death, why should we?

While his writing had always possessed a brilliant style, it had never reached this level of style or depth of thought. As Kirk would note in 1963, he had begun, finally, to see limits to the 18th-century understanding of reason. “Knowledge of this sort comes through illation; it is borne in upon the mind, in hints and fragments, not systematically,” he wrote. “My illative sense began to stir in the story shadow of the Camel’s Back.” 

Commensurate with much of his life, he even experienced a quasi-mystical experience. A month after his critical letter to McCann, cited above, a mysterious visitor came to Kirk’s hotel, seeking him. Named “Simon,” the visitor never found Kirk, nor did Kirk ever find out who had tracked him down in an obscure hotel. “The desert is an eerie place, and the door of headquarters is swinging silently open now, letting in only the dark,” he reflected after the incident. “I do think, however, that Michael and Gabriel would be more likely to visit me than the Disciple.”

Meeting of minds

Little of Kirk’s views on religion appear again in his public or personal writings until moving across the Atlantic and attending St. Andrews between 1948 and 1952. While in Britain and in Europe, he found the theological geography and history of the Church fascinating. He found himself drawn to the Catholic elements of European history, believing the Protestant Reformers a repulsive lot, akin to modern ideologues. They loved destruction for the love of destruction.

In addition to encountering the remains of the medieval world in the churches of Britain and the continent, Kirk also met with and read a number of intellectuals, all of whom seemed to be Catholic. At first, this exasperated him. “What with Greene, Waugh, Eliot, Scott-Moncrieff, and a good many others, these zealots will soon have a monopoly on British letters,” Kirk complained privately in 1949. Meeting many of these writers changed not only Kirk’s life, but also his own personal beliefs. Devout Anglicans such as Canon B.A. Smith and T.S. Eliot inspired Kirk directly, as did the Roman Catholic Scot George Scott-Moncrieff. Many writers indirectly influenced Kirk as well. In his diary in 1948, Kirk noted that his great hero, Edmund Burke, had considered the Roman Catholic Church as one of the most important bulwarks “against social disintegration.” Burke’s mother and sister were Roman Catholic, while his father and brothers were Anglicans. In The Conservative Mind, Kirk wrote of the Catholicism and conversions of John Henry Cardinal Newman, Orestes Brownson, and Alexis de Tocqueville (a skeptical Catholic, but a Catholic, certainly). In the 1950s, he devoured the works of Catholic scholars such as Christopher Dawson, Gabriel Marcel, Romano Guardini, Etienne Gilson, Josef Pieper, Martin D’Arcy, and Jacques Maritain.

One person who especially attracted Kirk, as he has attracted many for more than 1,700 years, was St. Augustine. When he first discovered St. Augustine is unclear, but he would have certainly encountered him as an undergraduate at Michigan State in the late 1930s, through the writings of Princeton classicist Paul Elmer More. Whether a Stoic, a Protestant (nominally or real), or a Roman Catholic, Kirk found much to love in St. Augustine, and his Augustinianism makes his transition from Protestant to Catholic seem—at least from a distance—evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Indeed, Russell Amos Kirk became Russell Amos Augustine Kirk when he formally entered the Roman Catholic Church in 1964. In his autobiography, Kirk contended, “Reading the fathers of the Church, Augustine and Gregory and Ambrose especially, Kirk gave up his previous spiritual individualism.” St. Augustine’s words in particular made Kirk realize the value of community: “‘The calm judgment of the world is that those men cannot be good who, in any part of the world, cut themselves off from the rest of the world.’ Therefore, the Church had been raised up.”

Kirk provides an answer for his own fascination with Augustine in his The Roots of American Order, published 10 years after his conversion. Augustine’s greatest work, The City of God, “speaks to some twentieth-century minds and consciences with a power that the disasters of our own time augment,” Kirk wrote. St. Augustine, “so neglected today, perhaps has more to teach this age than has any other philosopher,” Kirk wrote in the pages of his regular column for National Review in 1967. In his 1956 work, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, Kirk concluded that the defender of the western tradition must view the world as did St. Augustine. “Yet that a darkness without solace or hope, a darkness of the pit, may not descend upon a society in this century, we need to refresh our memories with the recollection of what already had been lost from our culture and our civil social order,” Kirk wrote, “and we have the high duty of keeping alight amid the Vandal flood, like Augustine of Hippo, the spark of principle and conscience.”

Protestant of Protestantism

Though a good many persons assumed Kirk was a Roman Catholic in the 1950s, as he wrote in a very Catholic fashion and for a number of Catholic periodicals (especially Commonweal, The Month, and America), he rather openly identified himself as a Protestant. In late 1951, Kirk admitted to McCann that he had become “an Anglo-Catholic by conversion and conviction” following his masters: Burke, Coleridge, and Paul Elmer More, joking that he might even publish a series of lay sermons. In his 1954 Program for Conservatives, he wrote: “I confess that I myself am a product of ‘the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion.’” Until his formal conversion, he continued to write openly as a Protestant but always as an ally of the Catholic Church. He did so in journals as diverse as Fortune, WFMT Perspective, and The Critic.

When Kirk returned to the United States from Europe after the rather shocking success of The Conservative Mind and quit his academic position at Michigan State in the fall of 1953, he accepted the Daly Lectureship at the University of Detroit. Kirk’s now close friend and academic ally, Peter Stanlis, a devout Roman Catholic, invited his friend to receive instruction in Catholic theology while in residence. While lecturing, Kirk met with a Jesuit priest, Father Hugh O’Neill. The two immediately liked one another, and it would have taken an old-school Jesuit to match Kirk’s mind when it came to all things intellectual, but especially catechesis. Though Kirk would not enter the Church for another 10 years, O’Neill’s wit and teachings impressed him most, bringing a near end to almost a decade of spiritual and theological struggle. The conversations had been so clear and meaningful that Kirk could remember every detail of them two decades later, giving the Jesuit credit for his own understanding.

Kirk continued to ponder these teachings throughout the 1950s, and, after having become engaged to Annette Yvonne Courtemanche, joined the Catholic Church in August 1964, receiving the sacrament of baptism and taking St. Augustine as his patron. In terms of church attendance and observance, it would be difficult to label Kirk a “good Catholic.” He and Annette (a devout, cradle Catholic) did, however, raise four daughters fully in the Catholic Church. Kirk also continued to write for Catholic publications and on Catholic subjects, in particular against abortion, against birth control, and in favor of the dignity of the human person. He never fully accepted the teachings of Vatican II at a personal level, but he assented to them spiritually and intellectually. He also championed the papacy of John Paul II, seeing in the Polish pope a brilliant leader not just for the Church, but for the world, a man of incredible audacity and imagination, ready to renew and heal. Kirk’s widow, Annette, remains a faithful Catholic, and his fourth daughter, Andrea Kirk Assaf, and her husband, Tony, serve as important Catholic apologists, especially in their promotion of Arabic Christianity. They are affiliated with such programs of the New Evangelization as aleteia.org and the Caput Mundi Academy of Rome.

The person over the individual

Within Christianity, Kirk found three beliefs that gave him great satisfaction: the resurrection of the body, the intense personalism of the Christian Logos, and the authority and continuity provided by Catholicism. “Jesus the Son had transcended matter and was divine,” Kirk asserted, when dealing with the question of the Resurrection. “Without that Resurrection, which prefigures our own resurrection and life everlasting, one might as well turn again to the gods of the Greeks, or to Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca.” Without the doctrine of the resurrection—of Christ and of each of his faithful followers—Kirk would find faith and belief in Christianity impossible. Indeed, the Easter miracle allowed all of the difficult doctrines, especially those espoused in the Sermon on the Mount, to make sense and carry a definite gravitas. The teachings of Jesus, Kirk thought, had always been well beyond anything the pagans had imagined, but the resurrection of the body proved his divinity and, therefore, sanctified and blessed all of his teachings. In the early 1960s, Kirk grew intensely interested in the Shroud of Turin, which he saw as a key to perhaps understanding resurrection and the transference of energies.

Equally important to Kirk was the intense personalism of the Johannine and Pauline Logos in Christianity.

The truths of history, the real meanings, are to be discovered in what history can teach us about the framework of the Logos, if you will: about the significance of human existence: about the splendor and the mystery of our condition. In this inquiry, there must be joined the historical discipline certain insights of philosophy and psychology.

For Kirk, the idea of Logos—its love and personalism—also corresponded rather directly to his own ideas regarding the power of imagination. All imagination came from images, placed in a person from a source outside of this world. One could ignore or reject such images, or, in a faithful fashion, one could employ them through moral faculties, thus bettering one’s soul as well as the world. Such imagination allows us to understand order and justice at the macro as well as at the micro level. Each saint, no matter how flawed overall, reveals some true aspect, face, and image of God.

Finally, Kirk demanded authority—or Authority, as he always capitalized it. Without the authority of the Church, each man would become his own pope, loosed from the wisdom of the past, forgetful of his duties to the future, and trapped and drowning within his own subjective reality. A full decade before officially entering the Catholic Church, Kirk had recognized this as one of Catholicism’s greatest strengths. In a telling passage in the 1953 first edition of The Conservative Mind, Kirk wrote:

In religion and in politics, the essence of Liberalism is private judgment; and to Newman, who venerated authority, judgment of grave questions according to the impudent and fallible dictates of one’s own petty personal understanding was an act of flagrant impiety, approaching diabolic possession, the sin of spiritual pride.

Two years later, in Academic Freedom, Kirk developed this theme even more, interestingly enough challenging the works of William Buckley.

Individualism, the ideology called individualism, “was born in hell; and look to it, for some of you shall be the father.” It is a denial that life has any meaning except gratification of the ego; in politics it must end in anarchy; its philosophers are Godwin, Hodgskin, and Spencer. It is not possible for one man to be both Christian and Individualist.

Kirk articulated his own views even better in a personal letter, stressing his love, theologically and philosophically, of personalism. Individualism, he claimed, “is a hideous solitude. I do not even call myself an ‘individual’; I hope I am a person.” In 1992, Kirk wrote definitively: “What I found in the Church was Authority. Catholicism is governed by Authority; Protestants by private judgment.” In the long run, then, Kirk really saw no alternative to the Catholic Church. All of its faults and all of its mysteries never, for Kirk, overcame or outweighed the strength it preserved and projected with its “Authority.”

Charity in person

Sadly, most of those who remember Kirk mostly remember his politics. But, as with all things, politics is secondary, not primary, for the good life. What should make Kirk more interesting to modern Catholics is what can only described as a saint-like charity toward the troubled. One former student and a writer for the Orange County Register described Kirk’s failure to discuss this aspect of himself in his autobiography.

Kirk skimps on only one area: his immense charity. He mentions only briefly how he gave refuge from tyranny to Ethiopians, Vietnamese, Poles, and others. But there were many more. And he mentions only a few of the literally hundreds—maybe even thousands—of people he helped over many decades, including young students. His charity was boundless. This was a man all Americans should know, and perhaps in a better age will know.

At first blush, this might seem the hyperbole of a student and fan, but if so, it is hyperbole shared by nearly every person who ever met him. No lover of Kirk’s ideas, John B. Judas remembered:

I met Kirk in 1982 when I was writing a biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. Some of Buckley’s friends and colleagues had rebuffed my requests for interviews—I was an unknown writer for a small, left-wing newsweekly—but Kirk invited me to visit him in Mecosta…. Through clouds of pipe smoke, Kirk, a small, prim man with a gold pocket watch protruding from his vest pocket, answered my questions about Buckley and the conservative movement. Later, he asked me to stay for dinner with his family, and afterward, insisted that I sleep over and resume our conversation in the morning. He was one of the most cordial people I’ve ever met. Those who knew Kirk personally thought of him first and foremost not as a famous author but as a man who gave everything he had to those around him: his time, his thoughts, his money. Even the most cursory perusal of his correspondence reveals his unquestioned and untempered generosity. Never good with money in ways that a modern financial planner would understand, Kirk never tried to be, even when he needed to for financial security. A loan or a gift here or there served as Kirk’s first instinct, rarely if ever demanding repayment. After marriage, his largesse tended to be more direct and in-kind rather than financial, but the charity never flagged. He and Annette took in refugees from every walk of life, and the little village of Mecosta, especially Kirk’s home, Piety Hill, became a microcosm of Christendom. Authors, politicians, students, actors, the homeless, the spouseless, and the countryless all found a home with Kirk. As Kirk liked to joke, his home was the “Last Homely House,” a refuge from Progress.

If anyone ever pushes me to describe Kirk in a word or two: I would say “Charity personified.” In this world of social and cultural chaos, the relentless drive to individual accomplishment, where he who has the most chips wins, who can understand a Kirk, a man who gave every single part of himself to the bettering of Creation?

Of course, this is exactly why his story needs to be told.

About Bradley J. Birzer 13 Articles
Bradley J. Birzer is author of biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Christopher Dawson. He is Professor of History at Hillsdale College and was the second Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado-Boulder. His most recent book is the acclaimed biography Russell Kirk: A Conservative Life (University Press of Kentucky, 2015). Visit him online at his personal website "Stormfields".

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