For God, family and freedom: the conservative mission of The Rockford Institute
To transform America into "a God-fearing, family-centered citadel of liberty," This is the vision of The Rockford Institute as formulated by its president, Allan Carlson. The idea for such an ambitious reorientation of American society was not hatched in one of the older breeding grounds of American conservative thought the Hoover Institution or the Heritage Foundation; it originated in the farm country of northern Illinois 13 years ago, the brain child of former Rockford College President John Addison Howard. Tired of seeing the nation's campuses beleaguered by mobs of radical and raucous demonstrators during the years of the Vietnam War, Howard decided to do his part toward rebuilding "an American ethical consensus rooted in the fundamental ideas and traditions of Western civilization." So in June 1976 he founded a permanent center for research and advocacy, The Rockford Institute.
Ninety miles northwest of Chicago, away from the distractions of a major metropolis, yet always closely in touch with the nation's opinion leaders and media, The Rockford Institute was to focus its research and publicity on family life, literature and religion. Howard justified these priorities by pointing to the damage that needed to be repaired: "America is turning out one generation after another of cultural orphans, untutored in the ideals of the free society and ignorant of, or unimpressed by, the obligations and taboos which must be observed by the populace if the free society is to prevail." In a May 1988 article in Philanthropy Howard maintained "that the course of a nation's history is ultimately determined not by the character and the decisions of government, but by the culture. What the citizens believe, what they value and how they behave will determine the agenda of the government and will also set limits on what can be accomplished by the government or the economy."
Following this premise, the work of The Rockford Institute has been focusing primarily on the underlying causes of what it perceives as moral decay in contemporary American society. Independent of Rockford College since 1980, the institue has not allowed itself to operate in an ivory tower but eagerly utilizes all available avenues that promise to reach the public. "Through research, publications and conferences," explained Executive Vice President Michael Warder in an interview, "the institute works to influence the moral and political forces that shape cultural trends." In 1988, its program staff of 30 scholars, editors and support personnel produced four periodicals,
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four books and six major conferences. It provided dozens of articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as speakers and discussants for meetings and media events from coast to coast.
The institute's 1988 Annual Report shows that its efforts have been progressing successfully at an annual cost of roughly $2 million. Nineteen percent of this amount was earned from subscriptions, publication sales, list rentals and advertising a productivity increase of 67 percent over the previous year. Nevertheless, about four-fifths of the operating expenses have to come from donations.
President Carlson stressed in his Annual Report that, "In order to preserve its independence and integrity, The Rockford Institues accepts no governmental funding, relying instead on private, voluntary support." Hence, sizeable contributions have to be generated from those in business, industry and the professions who want the Rockford brand of conservatisim to spread and succeed. One index of the breadth of the institute's backing is the composition of its board of directors. It includes such diverse personalities as Donald Rumsfeld (former secretary of defense), Henry Regnery (the Chicago publisher), Dalin Oaks (a member of the Mormon Church's Council of Twelve), Kathleen Sullivan (the chairman of the Illinois Eagle Forum) and Robert Woodson (the president of Washington, D.C.'s National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise). The fact that seven of the 16 board members reside in Illinois shows the extent to which the Rockford enterprise continues to rely on its home base.
Perhaps the most distinctive of the institute's efforts is its Center on the Family in America where Carlson and Bryce Christensen are devoting extensive research and publicity to the defense and restoration of "the traditional family." Its spiritual base is to be the church, and children are to be its prime purpose. The center's monthy periodical, The Family in America, reflects the conviction that the cohesion and stability of the American family is threatened not only by unabashed individualism and materialism but also by the encroachments of the welfare state (such as comprehensive government-controlled day care) upon parental
The center combats the growing trend among young adults particularly the neoconservative yuppies to sacrifice family values to hedonistic pursuits. "Yuppies" aren't neoconservative, they were always conservative, yuppies are the products of a neoconservative society! Consequently, it also opposes abbortion and governmental programs to control population growth. In a series of essays and conferences, the center recently reexamined the need for a family wage, defined by Christensen as "a wage sufficient for a man to support his wife and children." Advocacy of such a concept aligns The Rockford Institute at once alongside Christian socialists and in opposition to the feminist movement. Among the many evolving threats to the American family, Christensen specifically mentioned the increasing number of Americans one in eight who will never marry; the decline in fertility non-Hispanic Roman Catholics now have fewer children than Protestants; and the expansion of "lifestyle engineering" through legislation and court decisions. Like all American conservatives, the institute rejects big government and its invasions into the private sphere, but its preference for order and community, a characteristic of the Old Right, clashes with the more permissive and libertarian views of New Right and neoconservative circles.
The institute's Old Right philosophy on social issues is paralleled in the literary field by its monthly Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Editor Thomas J. Fleming (with a doctorate in classics from the University of North Carolina) can hardly be accussed of being a slave to the prevailing wisdom. The October 1988 issue, for example, carries the headline: "BACK IN THE USSR: The words have changed but it's still the same song and dance." Recent iconoclastic articles include a commentary, "The Cult of the Deified King," on the implications of Martin Luther King Day (by political theorist Samuel Francis); a suggestion (by Clyde Wilson of the University of South Carolina) that the framers would support the rewriting of their Constitution if they knew how it has been distorted by unending reinterpretations; and several critiques of the alleged disinterest of conservatives in environmental preservation (February 1988 issue). Asked to characterize this fast-growing literary magazine, Warder had a succinct response: "The Chronicles takes up what the New York Times Book Review avoids.
Since the ideal of a free but caring society requires religion as its spiritual mentor, the founders of The Rockford Institute felt they had to concern themselves with the problems which organized religion encounters in the contemporary world. Under the leadership of a Lutheran theologian, Pastor Richard John Neuhaus, the institute's Center on Religion and Society has been its most prolific contributor. It publishes two periodicals, This World: A Journal of Religion and Public Life and The Religion and Society Report. In 1988 it produced seven publications on diverse subjects, ranging from Neuhaus's The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World to senior fellow Richard Hutcheson's God in the White House: How Religion Has Changed the Modern Presidency.
Like other members of The Rockford Institute, Pastor Neuhaus defies the stereotype of an American conservative. A graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, he served for 17 years as senior pastor of a low-income black and Hispanic parish in Brooklyn, N. Y., and held leadership positions in organizations promoting civil rights, peace, and ecumenism. Because of his commitment to these libertarian
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causes, Pastor Neuhaus strongly opposes all those Christian circles which seek to compromise with various brands of Marxism and totalitarianism. He sees America threatened by a growing secularization of public life and the attendant relegation of religion to the private sphere. That trend leads to what, in a book by that title, he called "the naked public square" where "we exclude from public discourse precisely the moral visions that are held by the majority of the American people." Since "all politics is inescapably moral in character," Neuhaus demands that "we've got to get away from the present way of thinking about politics in purely procedural terms that doesn't ask questions about the common good."
To strengthen the voice of organized religion in the public forum, Neuhaus calls for more ecumenical action. In one of the more spectacular interdenominational encounters in recent years, the Center on Religion and Society in January 1988 hosted a three-day conference of Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox leaders at St. Peter's Church in New York City. Its high point was an address by the Vatican's second-most-powerful official, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The fact that he, the guardian of Catholic doctrinal purity, was willing to enter into a dialogue with pastor Neuhaus and other representatives of excommunicated churches was ecumenical progress indeed.
One of The Rockford Institute's major backers, the Ingersoll Foundation of Rockford, entrusted it with the management of two annual $15,000 prizes: the T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing and the Richard M. Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters. These honors are to "provide a symbol of abiding public gratitude to authors who address the themes of order and virtue." It stands to reason that the persons chosen for these awards represent the ideas and ideals to which the leaders of The Rockford Institute want to call attention. The most recent T.S. Eliot awards went to the Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz and the American Catholic novelist Walker Percy. The Richard Weaver awards were bestowed upon the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, an interpreter of Thomas Aquinas, and the sociologist Edward Shils of the University of Chicago who, just like his colleague Talcott Parsons, was instrumental in illuminating the multifaceted values of "the American way of life." Within little over a decade, The Rockford Institute has succeeded in having its voice carried by a large number of publications, radio programs and television shows, particularly those which are preferred by America's intelligentsia from the New York Times and the PBS Series Symposium to the National Review and William Buckley's Firing Line. More could hardly be expected.
Social and religious liberals disagree with most aspects of the Rockford philosophy. They may even be offended when, for example, the editor of Chronicles holds them responsible for "the institutionalization of what our spiritual ancestors called sin." At the other end of our political spectrum, the populist New Right (such as the Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority) and the elitist neoconservatives (such as Commentary and The Public Interest) also find themselves at odds with the social policy options of The Rockford Institute. Few people, however, are faulting it for its genuine and independent contribution to the great debate over America's moral and political destiny. While it is arguable to what extent the tradional sentiments of the rural and small town Midwest reflect the Rockford vision, the institute certainly has been adding something new to the nation's image of Illinois beyond Chicago.
Wolf D. Fuhrig holds the Ph.D. in public law and government from Columbia University. He is head of both the Department of Political Science and the Department of Criminal Justice at MacMurray College in Jacksonville.
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