Summer 1997

Volume 16, Issue 2

Reflections From Jeane Kirkpatrick


Dr. Jeane Kirkpatrick is the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations and member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the Defense Policy Review Board. A distinguished political theorist, historian, and academician, she is currently Leavey Professor at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The author of several books, she also writes a syndicated column and speaks throughout the country. She has received numerous awards, including the Medal of Freedom (the nation’s highest civilian honor) and the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Award. She holds a B.A. degree from Barnard College and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University.

Q. How do you view your years as a U.N. ambassador?

A. The United Nations is an example of an institution established in the expectation that effective social engineering could overcome basic universal shortcomings. Year after year; as I sat in those meetings, I reflected on the U.N.’s purpose and goals, which are "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war ..and to promote human rights and dignity towards all, equal rights of men and women to nations large and small. These are noble goals; in fact, the U.N. Preamble reminds me of a secular version of the Lord's prayer because they say, "Deliver us from evil." Yet, they say it not to God, but to each other. "Let us eliminate evil." Generally, the writings of the U.N.’s founding fathers make it quite clear that most of them expected its construction to eliminate once and for all the dangerous impulses of human behavior which led to brutality and war among nations. It is a good example of an almost universal tendency of our age to replace theological questions with secular quests.

But as I watched the behavior of the nations of the U.N. (including our own), I found no reasonable ground to expect any one of those governments to transcend permanently their own national interests for those of another country. The United Nations could not produce virtue on demand.

Is it reasonable for human beings to pursue a radical transformation of either societies or our own nature by careful construction or radical reconstruction of societies? I thought about Jesus Christ - the perfectly virtuous Son of God who was tried before an essentially indifferent Roman court and destroyed. God's own Son was not delivered from evil and violent death through the legal institutions of His society. I concluded that good men do not necessarily live happily even in good institutions; the Son of God could not even live happily in human institutions.

I conclude that it is a fundamental mistake to think that salvation, justice, or virtue come through merely human institutions. That does not mean to me that we cannot and should not seek a better society, but I think it is not reasonable to expect to find a perfect society or perfect justice with our imperfect natures.

I listened to the clash of views and creeds in the United Nations - the reflection of ideological, theological, and political thinking of the world. They produced a terrible cacophony. That environment invites one to accept the view that your belief about human nature, society, and religion is arbitrary and depends upon where you live. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s liberation is another man’s aggression. One man’s truth is another man’s illusion. Finding agreement on almost any moral principle is virtually impossible. Nothing seemed so universally true that it did not elicit disagreement from someone. But I became more and more persuaded, not of the relativism of truth, but the truth of truth.

I came to believe that even those principles of modernity that are associated with secularism could support a belief in God and the basic principles of Christianity. Science not only requires skepticism, but also shared standards of evidence. Democracy not only requires equality but also an unshakable conviction in the value of each person, who is then equal. Cross cultural experience teaches us not simply that people have different beliefs, but that people seek meaning and understand themselves in some sense as members of a cosmos ruled by God. The experience of all these diverse people seemed to me to illustrate the existence of natural laws and moral laws in our universe. They illustrate God's law in the lives of His people. I came to believe more profoundly than I ever had in God's plan for our lives and for His world.

Q. How do you assess the times in which we live?

A. We live in one of the most productive, prosperous, and violent centuries in human history. Those of us living in Western democracies are probably the freest, richest, healthiest, and most literate people in human history. Instantaneous communication, rapid transportation, and the continuing explosion of information give us unprecedented knowledge about each other and our world.

Yet, maintaining meaning in life and having faith in one’s place in God's cosmos is a big challenge for many late-20th-century Westerners. Our natures require value and meaning. When value is withdrawn and meaning is lost, a human being suffers an almost intolerable sense of lostness. Nihilism, the product of such disorientation, is both a pitfall and a temptation in our century.

Ironically, such a loss of meaning can derive from the most positive characteristics of our times. Our age is scientific, democratic, cosmopolitan, and secular. The scientific orientation of our times encourages, even requires, us to question skeptically, systematically almost everything. Some of the features of modern science are truly inhospitable to safekeeping the faith. Religion requires accepting and believing, while science often seems to question continuously.

Democracy also poses problems. It is associated with equality of almost everything and everybody all of the time. Faith, on the other hand, requires acceptance of the permanent authority of God.

A cosmopolitan attitude teaches that people differ and their beliefs and practices differ. It tempts us to relativism. Conversely faith teaches us that human nature is universal and permanent - in itself and in relationship with God.

Moreover, scientific, cross-cultural, egalitarian attitudes are characteristic of secularism. These views are virtually inhaled with the culture of our times. Very many of the inhabitants of our age, particularly intellectuals, acquire these attitudes almost without considering them. The secular spirit permeates modern society and makes it very difficult for almost all of us to accept fundamental truth about our own nature and our alienation from God. So closely are the attributes of secularism associated with modernity that, in political science, we say a modern society is a secular society and a modern person a secular person.

Utopianism - a variety of secular dream - is a direct progeny of a kind of secularism. Totalitarianism is one secular nightmare. They are both Western heresies, a direct consequence of the elimination of God from society, a denial of our limits and of the fundamental aspects of our human nature and our place in the world.

Our culture is saturated with these beliefs, which are the underlying factor of most of the human tragedies of our times. Philosophies like communism result when we deny the universal character of human nature. The idea that man can he perfected is profoundly mistaken, as is the idea that a perfect society can be ruled by perfect leaders. The dream of human perfection promises complete liberation and delivers complete tyranny.

Q. How does your Christian faith impact your professional life?

A. At times I have found myself with the responsibility of speaking for truth and conflict resolution before the cameras of the world and wondering how people would interpret or misinterpret my words, and I asked myself, "What am I doing here?" As you can imagine, I spent a good deal of time listening and praying. While I was at the U.N., I also spent time in a beautiful church across the street from my apartment. Sometimes I tried hard to understand what I should be doing in the United Nations. I concluded that I was to do my best. I was to follow instructions, tell the truth, stand for what I thought was right as effectively as possible, and stand for the basic principles our country affirms. I was convinced that I needed God's help to do my job. I read the Scriptures more than I had for a long time.

I came to believe more strongly than ever that many terrible problems of our time result from our own efforts to falsify our natures. I think we must understand who we are, where we stand, and what our duty is; we then can do His will and do our best as citizens, colleagues, friends and for our civilization.

Prayer plays an important role in my life. I try in my personal life to fulfill my vows and obligations. I speak about my Christian commitment when it seems appropriate and potentially useful. I pray that the words of my mouth and pen be acceptable and useful. I ask God to help me speak clearly and behave responsibly.


Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 2
Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.

Last updated 8-9-99.