A Conservatism of the Heart

“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.” – Revelations 22:13


Since Ronald Reagan won the presidency running as a “conservative,” every Republican candidate has called himself a conservative. And of course no Republican candidate since Reagan has actually been a conservative. How about Reagan? Was he a conservative? I would say no, but in Reagan’s defense it must be said that he actually read Russell Kirk’s book The Conservative Mind, and Kirk spoke very highly of him. But in either case — whether Reagan was or was not a conservative — there is no question of any current candidate for the presidency being conservative in the true Burkean meaning of the word. Burke’s conservatism was rooted in the belief that men were bound to their past by unbreakable ties of honor and blood that could be traced all the way back to Christ’s birth in a stable in Bethlehem. And it was prejudice, so derided by liberals, that kept a people from breaking their ties to the past:

…we are generally men of untaught feelings; that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and to take more shame to ourselves we cherish them because they are prejudices, and the longer they have lasted and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them!

Conservative and liberal candidates of today are committed to the exact opposite of Burkean conservatism. They are committed to a complete break with the past. Whereas the antique European was prejudiced in favor of honor, blood ties, and Christianity, the liberal is prejudiced against such things; he favors dishonor, hatred of blood ties, and the worship of the negro. 

Russell Kirk’s book, The Conservative Mind (1953), gave a certain intellectual respectability to conservatism that it had never had before, but conservatism remained a curse word to most intellectuals and the majority of the American people until Ronald Reagan came into office, after which conservatism became diluted and had nothing whatever to do with Burke or Russell Kirk. Today a conservative stands for less taxes, negro worship, and the saturation bombing of all Israel’s enemies. A liberal stands for more taxes, negro worship, and the saturation bombing of all Israel’s enemies. Not much of a contrast, is there? 

I was first exposed to European-culture conservatives such as Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Whittaker Chambers through the good offices of National Review magazine. Though never living up to its stated purpose, “To stand athwart history yelling Stop,” NR did, in its early years, expose young people like me to European-American conservatives such as Weaver, Chambers, and Kirk, and to European conservatives such as Thomas Molnar and Erik von Kuehelt-Leddihn. Of course by the 1980’s NR had become an adjunct of the Republican party without any concern for European conservatism, which was inevitable considering the individualist, libertarian bias of its founder. But I don’t think William F. Buckley Jr’s capitalist-libertarian orientation was the only factor in the demise of European cultural conservatism; in fact I don’t think it was the main cause. 

What I’m going to say next will sound terribly ungrateful to the European conservatives of the mid-twentieth century, but I mean no disrespect. They were great men with a sound intellectual understanding of the basis of European civilization, namely the Christian faith. But for all their intellectual acumen they were missing something that their European counterparts in the preceding European centuries had. What was the missing element in the conservative intellectual movement represented by Russell Kirk? I think it was passion. Why do we call Christ’s Passion His Passion? Because it is His outpouring of love for His people. Listen to Kirk’s reason for writing The Conservative Mind:

…my contribution to our endeavor to conserve the spiritual and intellectual and political tradition of our civilization; and if we are to rescue the modern mind, we must do it very soon. What Matthew Arnold called an ‘epoch of concentration’ is impending, in any case. If we are to make that approaching era a time of enlightened conservatism, rather than an era of stagnant repression, we need to move with decision. The struggle will be decided in the minds of the rising generation – and within that generation, substantially by the minority who have the gift of reason.

Is it possible to revitalize a people who suffer from an excess of rationality with a rational analysis? Dostoevsky got it right:

I submit, however, that there are cases when there is more honor in allowing ourselves to be swayed even by unreasonable passion, as long as it stems from a great love, than in not being subjected to it at all. And that is particularly true in youth, for there is something suspect about a younger person who is always very reasonable, and I do not rate such a person very highly. So now you know my personal opinion! I suspect that some reasonable people may declare that every youth, after all, cannot expect to believe in such a superstition and that my young man certainly would not be a very good example for others to follow. To that, I would answer once more that my young man had faith, a sacred and unshakable faith, and that I still refuse to apologize for him.

Yes, a man can be too rational. Burke, whom Kirk lauds, was passionate. He used reason as a sword in defense of his passions, not as an end in itself. We must ask why Kirk’s book and not Anthony Jacob’s book White Man, Think Again!  became the benchmark book for conservatives. Jacob’s reasoning is certainly as acute as Kirk’s, but Jacob had an underlying passion that inspired his reasoning. His passion was for his people, not for an intellectual construct:

Unity, in any event, is strength only when it is based on enduring family ties, on the unity of like peoples. That is why Aesop’s object-lesson on unity was given to brothers and not unrelated men. It is nothing short of lunacy, or Liberal unrealism, to attempt to weld civilized white men and uncivilized black men into an enduring ‘family unity’. The two cannot mix: and all attempts to make them mix will work gravely to the detriment of the Whites, upon whom civilization exclusively depends. To my mind it is self-evident that the Anglo-Saxon and kindred peoples are absolutely irreplaceable, and that without them the civilization they engendered and represent would, with the possible exception of one or two curious deviations or malformations, soon cease to exist. Let there be no mistake about this. When we speak of civilisation we are referring to that which is wholly our own. There is no other civilization whatever. At best there are one or two minor foreign cultures. At best there are one or two successful foreign copyists of our civilisation’s more material aspects. But there are absolutely no imitators of its moral and spiritual uniqueness, because there are no other people like the Westerners whose possession it is.

What happens when we make the intellectual tradition of the West into the sum and substance of the West’s “spiritual tradition”? We have seen, in the last fifty years, what happens. Professed Christians treat the European people as something disposable. They think that the faith, since it is an intellectual thing, can be transported from people to people like an overcoat. But can it? Think with your heart. What do you see? I see a people who were once the Christ-bearers transferring their allegiance, at the urging of the rational men of the clergy, from Christ to the black man. And they do this because they believe that they are abandoning their prejudices, which are wrong, in order to adhere to a new religion, which is pure, intellectual, and righteous. But do we see the new people of God, the colored people, maintaining the old religion of the European people? No, we do not. We see a world gone mad with sex and blood lust facilitated by white clergymen who have abandoned a personal commitment to a loving God and his people for a universal love of the generic negro. 

The conservative intellectual movement chronicled by George H. Nash in his book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in American since 1945 was a failure precisely because it was only an intellectual movement. It was rooted in the Greek philosophical tradition of pure mind rather than the Pauline, Shakespearean tradition of the wisdom of the heart, which is why men like Anthony Jacob and Donald Davidson were not considered a legitimate part of the conservative intellectual movement. Those men, writing from the heart, saw with the blinding sight denied to the men of intellect. They saw that faith is not an intellectual construct, it is a burning fire in the hearts of those who call on their God by name. Ultimately intellectual conservatism, even if it affirms “our spiritual traditions,” ends up back with the God without a name.

The result of Hardy’s management was that Tom made a clean breast of it, telling everything, down to his night at the ragged school, and what an effect his chance opening of the Apology had had on him. Here for the first time Hardy came in with his usual dry, keen voice, “You needn’t have gone so far back as Plato for that lesson.”

“I don’t understand,” said Tom.

“Well, there’s something about an indwelling spirit which guideth every man, in St. Paul, isn’t there?”

“Yes, a great deal,” Tom answered, after a pause; “but it isn’t the same thing.”

“Why not the same thing?”

“Oh, surely, you must feel it. It would be almost blasphemy in us now to talk as St. Paul talked. It is much easier to face the notion, or the fact, of a demon or spirit such as Socrates felt to be in him, than to face what St. Paul seems to be meaning.”

“Yes, much easier. The only question is whether we will be heathen or not.”

“How do you mean?” said Tom.

“Why, a spirit was speaking to Socrates, and guiding him. He obeyed the guidance, but knew not whence it came. A spirit is striving with us too, and trying to guide us–we feel that just as much as he did. Do we know what spirit it is? Whence it comes? Will we obey it? If we can’t name it–we are in no better position than he–in fact, heathens.”

The assumption behind the post-war conservative intellectual movement was that the cure for the faulty reasoning of the liberals was the correct reasoning of the conservatives. But can we really out-reason the devil, who is the man behind the liberals? I once got into an argument with a clerical Thomist who thought it was a sin to homeschool one’s children when a good religious school was available. “How could an untrained parent,” the Thomist argued, “teach a child the essentials of the faith?” The substance of my response was, “Who but a parent could teach their children the essentials of the faith because the parent teaches with a loving heart, the source of all knowledge.” 

Now is not the time to lie; I must invoke Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear and “speak what I feel not, what I ought to say.” The conservative sons of Martha cannot lead us into battle. The sons of Mary, those who love with hearts of fire, are the men for us. Whoever has kept faith with the European people in the past and continues to do so in the present, while all the compromising philistines of the right and the left demand that we deny our people, is the man to follow. The race issue is the primary issue for the liberals, because they need a black god to replace Christ. And the conservatives have made Christianity an intellectual construct so that they can avoid the race issue. “Western civilization has nothing to do with race,” they tell us. But Western civilization has everything to do with race, just as the Incarnation has everything to do with Christianity. The Christian faith needs to be embodied in a people in order to be revealed to all people. Christianity is a revealed religion, not an intellectual construct. God has revealed Himself through His people, and if we abandon His people we abandon Him. 

Conservatives who invoke Burke to support intellectual conservatism miss the main point about Burke. Burke was not an intellectual! He was something much greater. He was a man with a heart of fire. He loved his people and their God so much that he used the sword God gave him, a Shakespearean command of the English language, to attack the enemy of his people and his God, the regicide French. But take away Burke’s passionate heart and what is left? Only an intellect fit for clever comments and teaching seminars on politics, certainly not a Christian poet and warrior of the highest order. And haven’t the European people, nourished on ‘intellect-is-all’ theology, been left bereft of the passion necessary to mount a charge against the worst, the liberals, who are full of passionate hate for all things European? Christianity transformed the world because the European people fell passionately in love with Christ, and not because some very intelligent theologians distributed a six-point program for a belief in the Deity. Handel’s Messiah did not come from his brain; it came from a heart that loved. And so it always shall be for the Europeans. We are men to the extent we love our people and our God. And we are inhuman beasts when we abandon our people and our God. 

It fell to John, the apostle who laid his head on the Sacred Heart of Jesus at the Last Supper, to reveal to us our beginning and our end. We are the people who took Christ into our hearts. We believe in the fairy tale of the empty tomb. That is what distinguishes the European from all other peoples. And lest we forget, that distinctive faith of the European does not come from exalted reason, it comes from a faithful and loving heart. +

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