Schwerpunkt! An interview with Dr. Stephen Tonsor
By Bernard Chapin
A conservative at the point of attack is very much what Dr. Stephen Tonsor was throughout his career in academia and during his time as a cultural and political commentator. Although a legend of rightward intellectual thought, he may be largely unknown to the current generation due to the fact that most of his works, such as Equality, Decadence, and Modernity and Tradition and Reform in Education, predate the arrival of the internet. Some of his articles are available online, however, specifically those he penned for the quarterly, Modern Age. He is a Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Michigan, a school at which he actively taught for many years. He is now 83, but his voice still resonates with passion. When asked, Dr. Tonsor reported being quite content with his life and retirement.
BC: Hello sir, the first thing I'd like to ask is whether or not you think there is a definite connection between religion and conservatism? Is there a correlation between faith and political orientation?
Dr. Stephen Tonsor: Yes, there is a profound connection between religion and conservatism. I think that certainly that has been true of my own life. I was born and raised a Catholic. My great grandfather Tonsor came from Germany basically because for religious reasons. He arrived in 1854 and sailed up the Mississippi river up to Alton, Illinois. The place that I grew up in was intensely Catholic, and, on the whole, I would have to say that our politics was substantially influenced by our religion. This is true not only of my family but also I think for the great bulk of the American people. I have no doubt that those who are religiously committed tend to be politically conservative. Although I should point out that our Catholic influence was not of an exclusively partisan nature. One of my earliest memories is of my father, an early radio enthusiast, placing earphones around my head to enable me to listen to the 1928 Democratic Convention. Do you know why did? Because Al Smith had won the nomination and I don't have to tell you to what religion he belonged.
BC: In your mind, what historical figures best embodied the conservative spirit? Would Lord Acton be one of them?
BC: Does today's conservative movement possess any figures similar to the likes of Frank Meyer or Kenneth Templeton?
Dr. Stephen Tonsor: Frank Meyer, now that's a man I knew very well indeed. He used to visit me and stay at my home. We talked a great deal and he eventually became a convert to Roman Catholicism. I have to say though that he was a very unusual man. Of course, present day conservatives could learn a lot from reading Frank Meyer. Nowadays? Well, I guess we have to talk politics so I must tell you that John McCain is the man that I will support if given a chance. In fact, I'm waiting for a solicitation that will allow me to send him some money. I'm not kidding. He has many characteristics that I admire greatly. I like McCain for his history and for what he's done. He's an admirable man and I agree with the stances he takes.
BC: I loved a line you quoted from Lord Acton in one of your essays about how we should always look for the "cloven hoof" in human affairs. How much is that a defining element for conservatives?
Dr. Stephen Tonsor: Well, I think we always do look for the cloven hoof in human affairs. That's what the real impetus for any line of action will be. What is the intention of the actor? It's essential to establish this.
BC: Doesn't another line of Acton's, "Beware of too much explaining, lest we
Dr. Stephen Tonsor: No, actually I can't. I have no idea how some people can arrive at that conclusion. I look back over thousands of years of history and see so much consummate evil that I am the last one who needs any convincing. I look at Islam from its foundation by Mohammed all the way up to the present time and I see nothing but evil. Evil, that's right, that's the term I'd use to describe it. There's nothing kindly in their nature. Christianity and western society have always been at war with them. Our conflict with that part of the world even predates Islam. It goes back to Alexander and the Persians, even back to the Spartans. It's always been that part of the world versus civilized society.
BC: How much are our current political problems in America a result of our own population's ignorance of history?
BC: Would you agree with me in saying that the culture war has been lost?
Dr. Stephen Tonsor: No I would not. I don't agree with you at all. All kinds of people say the same thing to me that you did, but you're all wrong. The culture war isn't over. I'm a historian. I'll wait those people out. You know, what you have to understand is that the universities have always been in a messy condition. The culture war is no more lost today than it was when Cardinal Newman was a student at Oxford before the whole English university system was transformed in the nineteenth century. The culture war is not lost. No, it's only just beginning. Look, Queen Victoria took up power in 1837 and things were not in good shape back then in England but soon came the entirety of the nineteenth century with the Oxford Reforms, Victoria's reign, and the return of Catholicism to England. Of course, you won't be surprised that a German, Victoria's husband, was directly involved.
BC: Do you foresee a time when the state of irreligiousity in America declines to that of Europe?
Dr. Stephen Tonsor: No, I don't think that will ever happen. In fact, I think Europe may be on its way back. You know, it's not an accident that we have a German Pope now. I was so impressed with Benedict the other day. He just rode along in the Popemobile and paid no attention to that man who rushed him. Seeing that on television was impressive and quite extraordinary. My own memories of Rome and the Papacy go all the way back to Eugenio Pacelli. I saw him in person. I was there in Rome as the crowds went wild over him. Women were crying, tossing their hats in the air, and yelling his name. Luckily for me, my Catholicism is of the quieter variety.
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