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In the course of my travels the length and breadth of this land, often I am struck with the innocence of both Protestant and Catholic clergy in matters political and economic. For innocence, read–if you will–ignorance. The seminaries teach next to nothing in these disciplines, and candidates for Holy Orders–with some honorable exceptions–seem to have acquired but scanty information about the civil social order before they begin to proceed to a school of theology.

I certainly do not desire to return our men of the cloth to the illusion of the Social Gospel–now a dying influence. Yet though minister and priest ought not to set up as arbiters of things secular, still they must be concerned with the relationship between religious doctrine and the art of worldly wisdom. For this, some fairly disciplined knowledge of social reality is necessary.

As matters go nowadays, too many clergymen let themselves be ruled by vague social sentiments, which slide into humanitarianism–by definition the negation of a transcendent understanding of the human condition–without recognizing the pit into which they have fallen. Though full of good intentions, they tend to forget what the road to hell is paved with.

Perhaps the best example of this lamentable innocence is the attitude of some–not a few–ministers and priests toward the question of poverty as related to charity and justice. Such gentlemen tend to regard the existence of poverty as the fault of vested interests, or of a negligent government, or of a set of veritable Dives sybarites willfully blind to their stewardship.

While it is possible for poverty to be caused by such influences, this is not generally so in the West of the twentieth century.

Christian orthodoxy looks upon poverty as no evil, but rather as an occasion for virtue, to be rewarded by God. The Bible and the fathers of the church repeatedly speak of poverty–even involuntary poverty–as a blessed state. Correspondingly, the rich man can enter heaven no more easily than a camel may pass through the eye of a needle: That is, the rich have great temptations and heavy responsibilities, and you can’t take it with you.

But, ignoring this teaching, some ministers of the Gospel become unconscious Marxists, considering material want the greatest of evils, and inveighing against every inequality of condition–for which doctrine of material equality, really, there is no warrant in Scripture. They might well read old Sir Thomas Browne, in his Religio Medici:

Statists that labour to contrive a commonwealth without poverty take away the object of our charity; not understanding only the commonwealth of a Christian, but forgetting the prophecy of Christ. [“The poor ye shall have always with you.”]

Christians are strictly enjoined, indeed, to relieve want to the utmost of their ability But the essence of charity lies in its voluntary character.

The further charity is removed from family and locality–the more impersonal charity becomes–the less meritorious it becomes. Collective charity, through the agency of the state–and especially through the agency of a remote centralized state–is both less kind and less virtuous than personal giving. And if this collective charity degenerates into mere taxation of the prosperous for the benefit of the less wealthy, through the votes of the benefiting crowd–why, it ceases to be charity, and becomes first cousin to theft. There is no merit in robbing Peter to pay Paul.

If some clergymen fail to understand charity, a Christian moral concept, it is no wonder they do not understand the concept of justice, more classical than distinctly Christian. Justice consists in giving to each man the things that are his due. To treat all men as if they were identical units, without regard to their deserts and their talents, is profoundly hostile both to the great tradition of our politics and to Christian teaching. Yet there are clergymen whose notion of justice cannot be distinguished from that of Marx, who wrote that “In order to create equality, we must first treat men unequally”–that is, to despoil the able, the energetic, and the possessors of property, in order to benefit the deified masses.

Aside from these concerns of doctrine, such clergymen often speak as if we were living in the Bleak Age, with suffering industrial masses and every eleventh person dying in the workhouse–when, obviously enough, ours is the affluent society. They do not look into the realities of our time, but visit the alleged sins of our nineteenth-century fathers upon our generation.

How many of them have read such penetrating observations as this passage by Professor Glenn Tinder in an essay called “Human Estrangement and the Failure of Political Imagination”?

“The rather indiscriminate fervor of many liberals and socialists for the extension of welfare measures can appear highly ludicrous if one reflects on the degree of welfare which almost everyone already enjoys.”

For that matter, how many preachers have read Mr. T. S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society? Or any recent serious work that relates Christian doctrines to our present discontents? Some actually take their texts from the most secularistic of weeklies of opinion.

“Poverty, Charity, and Justice” might well be the title of a regular course in most seminaries. This knowledge lacking, the ordained pastor may become a Pharisee.


For more than forty years, Russell Kirk was in the thick of the intellectual controversies of his time. He is the author of some thirty-two books, hundreds of periodical essays, and many short stories. Both Time and Newsweek have described him as one of America’s leading thinkers, and The New York Times acknowledged the scale of his influence when in 1998 it wrote that Kirk’s 1953 book The Conservative Mind “gave American conservatives an identity and a genealogy and catalyzed the postwar movement.” 

Dr. Kirk wrote and spoke on modern culture, political thought and practice, educational theory, literary criticism, ethical questions, and social themes. He addressed audiences on hundreds of American campuses and appeared often on television and radio.

He edited the educational quarterly journal The University Bookman and was founder and first editor of the quarterly Modern Age. He contributed articles to numerous serious periodicals on either side of the Atlantic. For a quarter of a century he wrote a page on education for National Review, and for thirteen years published, through the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, a nationally syndicated newspaper column. Over the years he contributed to more than a hundred serious periodicals in the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, and Poland, among them Sewanee Review, Yale Review, Fortune, Humanitas, The Contemporary Review, The Journal of the History of Ideas, World Review, Crisis, History Today, Policy Review, Commonweal, Kenyon Review, The Review of Politics, and The World and I.

He is the only American to hold the highest arts degree (earned) of the senior Scottish university—doctor of letters of St. Andrews. He received his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and his master’s degree from Duke University. He received honorary doctorates from twelve American universities and colleges.

He was a Guggenheim Fellow, a senior fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, a Constitutional Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a Fulbright Lecturer in Scotland. The Christopher Award was conferred upon him for his book Eliot and His Age, and he received the Ann Radcliffe Award of the Count Dracula Society for his Gothic Fiction. The Third World Fantasy Convention gave him its award for best short fiction for his short story, “There’s a Long, Long Trail a-Winding.” In 1984 he received the Weaver Award of the Ingersoll Prizes for his scholarly writing. For several years he was a Distinguished Scholar of the Heritage Foundation. In 1989, President Reagan conferred on him the Presidential Citizens Medal. In 1991, he was awarded the Salvatori Prize for historical writing. 

More than a million copies of Kirk’s books have been sold, and several have been translated in German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Korean, and other languages. His second book, The Conservative Mind (1953), is one of the most widely reviewed and discussed studies of political ideas in this century and has gone through seven editions. Seventeen of his books are in print at present, and he has written prefaces to many other books, contributed essays to them, or edited them. 

Dr. Kirk debated with such well-known speakers as Norman Thomas, Frank Mankiewicz, Carey McWilliams, John Roche, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Michael Harrington, Max Lerner, Michael Novak, Sidney Lens, William Kunstler, Hubert Humphrey, F. A. Hayek, Karl Hess, Clifford Case, Ayn Rand, Eugene McCarthy, Leonard Weinglass, Louis Lomax, Harold Taylor, Clark Kerr, Saul Alinsky, Staughton Lynd, Malcolm X, Dick Gregory, and Tom Hayden. Several of his public lectures have been broadcast nationally on C-SPAN.

Among Kirk’s literary and scholarly friends were T. S. Eliot, Roy Campbell, Wyndham Lewis, Donald Davidson, George Scott-Moncrieff, Richard Weaver, Max Picard, Ray Bradbury, Bernard Iddings Bell, Paul Roche, James McAuley, Thomas Howard, Wilhem Roepke, Robert Speaight, Anthony Kerrigan, Robert Nisbet, Malcolm Muggeridge, Flannery O’Connor, William F. Buckley, Jr., Andrew Lytle, Henry Regnery, Robert Graves, and Cleanth Brooks. 

Kirk was born near the railroad yards at Plymouth, Michigan, in 1918 and lived much of his life at his ancestral place, Piety Hill, in Mecosta, Michigan—a little village in the stump-country. There he converted a toy factory into his library and office. His Italianate house is adorned with sculpture and architectural antiques snatched from the maws of the urban renewers of western Michigan. At home he was a famous narrator of ghostly tales, many of them picked up during his travels (often afoot) in Scotland and Ireland, Mediterranean and Alpine lands, and Africa. 

For nearly thirty years Kirk was married to Annette Yvonne Cecile Courtemanche; they had four daughters: Monica, Cecilia, Felicia, and Andrea. Their tall house was often crowded with Asiatic, African, and European refugees and exiles and also with university students, travelers from antique lands, and congeries of fugitives from Progress. In conjunction with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Wilbur Foundation, Russell and Annette Kirk held frequent seminars at their residence and received several literary interns every year. Annette Kirk was an active member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education and is now President of the Russell Kirk Center. 

Dr. Kirk passed away on April 29, 1994. His work is continued by the Russell Kirk Center.