This has been a baffling year for politics, and particularly, conservative politics.
The Republican frontrunner is a thrice-married man who once supported abortion rights. His major positions revolve around building a wall along the Mexican border and promising to somehow stick it to our foreign enemies, either by rolling back free trade agreements or dropping a nuke.
The rise of Donald Trump is nothing less than a struggle for the heart and soul of conservatism. But it’s important to understand that this is not a new struggle.
In fact, it’s a struggle with strong roots here in Dallas and, more specifically, here at the University of Dallas.
Many UD students might not be familiar with the name Willmoore Kendall. They should be. He served as a politics professor from 1963 to 1967 and was a forefather of the intellectual, conservative Catholic tradition that has defined the ethos of generations of students.
Kendall’s life was far from ordinary. He learned to read at age two, taught by his blind father in Oklahoma. He graduated from high school at 13 and from Northwestern University at age 17.
His education launched him into a life worthy of a Hemingway novel – including going to Spain during their Civil War as a journalist, eventually siding with the communists, studying at Oxford, teaching at Yale, being paid to leave Yale (his tenure was bought back by the university for $2,500.00 in 1961), converting to Catholicism and teaching at UD.
More importantly, Kendall was among the intellectual leaders and political philosophers who tried to set forth conservative principles that would shape Republicanism as something greater than the xenophobic, baiting rhetoric of a man like Trump. Kendall’s conservatism rejected using division as a guiding force and focused more on the dignity of the individual over the institution of the state.
Yet, even as Kendall was working at UD as a political philosopher, another, and perhaps stronger, strand of conservatism was taking root in Dallas.
People who follow conservative politics today likely know the name of Robert Jeffress. The pastor of First Baptist Dallas leads one of the largest and most influential Baptist congregations in the country. He’s also a regular on Fox News, where he’s usually good for a splash of incendiary rhetoric, whether on Islam, homosexuality or some other topic.
A lesser-known figure, at least today, is Jeffress’ mentor and spiritual guide, the late First Baptist Pastor W. A. Criswell.
Criswell, a contemporary of Kendall’s, helped carve a far different path for conservatism, one that embraced the segregationist of the South and sewed racial and class division as a path to political success.
As a political plan, it was hardly new.
According to Professor Edward Miller of Northeastern University, after Reconstruction, the Republican Party was unpopular in the south, so at times it relied on racist rhetoric to attract white votes. This so-called “southern strategy,” is famous now in politics. Dallas was specifically important in the efforts.
Criswell, who was Jeffress’ childhood pastor, made a host of derogatory remarks about integration, calling it “idiocy” and “foolishness.”
Though, late in life, Criswell joined the likes of George Wallace in rejecting segregation, his rhetoric at the time of the Civil Rights movement was used by many Southern Christians to justify racism through religion, specifically evangelical Christianity – using rhetoric not dissimilar from the rhetoric used by slave owners in colonial and early America.
Meanwhile, Drs. Donald and Louise Cowan were busy bringing Kendall, a recent convert to Catholicism, to UD.
Trained in the tradition of Leo Strauss, Kendall refused to accept a conservatism that used racism as a voting inciter and pastors as political puppets.
Dr. John Alvis, Director of the American Studies Program, remembers Kendall as being “an intellectual first and foremost … and a fairly productive writer”
“He wrote on American politics, but also on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Locke,” Alvis said.
But, Alvis says, Kendall was also a driving force at the school.
“His core class on American politics filled up Lynch Hall,” Alvis, who was Kendall’s student right before he retired, said. “He also founded, with Louise Cowan, the Braniff Graduate School of Politics and Literature.” It is the university’s first Ph.D. program.
Today, the conservative intellectual tradition of Kendall, Strauss, Irving Kristol, William F. Buckley and many others is hard to find in the rhetoric of the Republican primary. It’s the school of Criswell – the fiery oratory of the pastor, the radio show host and the cable news talking head – that seems to dominate and define the spirit of American conservatism.
The hints of religious-based racism – a political strategy that Kendall stood so firmly against – is one that we, as educated, independent thinkers, and as American citizens, have a duty to be speak out against in support of a country not riddled by racism and especially not racism justified by religion.