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Vice Pres­ident of Devel­opment, John Burtka, has been pro­moted to a new role as Exec­utive Director of The American Con­ser­v­ative. Johnny Burtka | Courtesy

You’ve been with The American Con­ser­v­ative since 2016, and you’ve risen from Director of Devel­opment to Vice Pres­ident of Devel­opment to Exec­utive Director. How did you start working at TAC, and what does your latest position entail?

My first job out of college was in fundraising at the Inter­col­le­giate Studies Institute (ISI), an orga­ni­zation founded by William F. Buckley Jr. to promote con­ser­v­ative ideas on cam­puses around the country. Part of my work was to raise money for young writers to par­tic­ipate in jour­nalism fel­low­ships at con­ser­v­ative media outlets. As I began to read the various pub­li­ca­tions where our stu­dents were placed, The American Con­ser­v­ative imme­di­ately cap­ti­vated my attention. While I would cer­tainly con­sider myself a con­ser­v­ative, I was tired of hearing the same old talking points day in and day out. The American Con­ser­v­ative pro­vided some­thing dif­ferent. It was a true intel­lectual com­munity where an eclectic mix of tra­di­tion­alists, pale­o­con­ser­v­a­tives, lib­er­tarians, and even a few pro­gres­sives, engaged in vig­orous debate and dis­cussion on sub­jects ranging from American foreign policy to strategies for pre­serving the fabric of local com­mu­nities.

I recently started a new role at The American Con­ser­v­ative as Exec­utive Director. In this position, I will con­tinue to oversee fundraising for the orga­ni­zation, manage the business and oper­a­tions depart­ments, work to build part­ner­ships with like-minded orga­ni­za­tions, and col­lab­orate with our Editor to provide a strategic vision for the orga­ni­zation as a whole, which includes con­fer­ences, lec­tures, and events.  

According to its website, The American Con­ser­v­ative believes “in con­sti­tu­tional gov­ernment, fiscal pru­dence, sound mon­etary policy, clearly delin­eated borders, pro­tection of civil lib­erties, authen­ti­cally free markets, and restraint in foreign policy mixed with diplo­matic acuity.” Which of these ideas are you most pas­sionate about, and why?

While all these ideas are per­tinent to the political chal­lenges of our day, I am most pas­sionate about pro­moting a restrained foreign policy that is applied through the practice of pru­dence and grounded in a prin­cipled realism. For me, George Washington’s Farewell Address and John Quincy Adams’ maxim that America “goes not abroad in search of mon­sters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and inde­pen­dence of all. She is the champion and vin­di­cator only of her own,” provide a defense and vision for such an approach to inter­na­tional affairs.

Were you first exposed to some of these con­cepts at Hillsdale, and how has your phi­losophy evolved since you’ve left college?

When I was at Hillsdale, I didn’t really get inter­ested in political phi­losophy until I took a course on Aris­totle with Dr. Arnn during the fall of my senior year, which served as a cat­alyst for my work at ISI and now at The American Con­ser­v­ative. Only after grad­u­ating in 2012 did I really take a deep dive into authors like Alexis de Toc­queville, Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and Robert Nisbet, among others, and develop a robust appre­ci­ation for the rela­tionship between pol­itics and culture.

Has my phi­losophy evolved since leaving Hillsdale? On a the­o­logical level, I was an Evan­gelical as an under­graduate and even attended a Reformed sem­inary in France for graduate school. In 2016, however, my wife and I were received into the Eastern Orthodox Church, and we couldn’t be happier with our decision. In that sense, my under­standing of the world is far more sacra­mental than it was at Hillsdale.

On a political level, I am now much more aware of the con­nection between big mil­itary and big gov­ernment. As I’ve argued on the pages of The American Con­ser­v­ative, “the War State of Woodrow Wilson begat the 20th century admin­is­trative state, and forever cen­tralized our political life: In short, a big mil­itary always pre­cedes and neces­si­tates big gov­ernment. Amer­icans will never restore limited, con­sti­tu­tional gov­ernment unless we return to a more restrained, prudent, and real­istic foreign policy espoused by our founding fathers, as well as the con­ser­v­ative intel­lectual tra­dition.”

What book is on your night­stand right now?

Two books are on my night­stand at the moment: Patrick Deneen’s latest, Why Lib­er­alism Failed, and Barry Posen’s Restraint.

As a Hillsdale student, you double majored in French and Christian Studies. How have those majors pre­pared you for what you do today?

As a prospective student at Hillsdale, Dr. West­blade told me that I shouldn’t worry about my major, but rather find what I love to study and immerse myself in those sub­jects. I was pas­sionate about the­ology and French lit­er­ature in college, and I learned how to think, write, and speak in those classes. In that sense, those majors prepare me for what I do every day at The American Con­ser­v­ative.

On a prac­tical level, however, the best lead­ership expe­rience that I received at Hillsdale came from serving on the exec­utive board of Delta Tau Delta Fra­ternity. From crafting a mission statement to recruiting new members to planning large events to setting a budget to man­aging inter­per­sonal rela­tion­ships, both inside the fra­ternity and outside with the wider campus, nearly every aspect of running a suc­cessful orga­ni­zation can be prac­ticed and learned in the small microcosm of fra­ternity or sorority at Hillsdale College.

Your last article for TAC was a book review of The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. You write: “A true con­ser­v­ative is a woman or man who shows def­erence to the past, yet exer­cises the pru­dence nec­essary to reject the ugly and cling to what is beau­tiful.” What are some of the beau­tiful things con­ser­v­a­tives should cling to in everyday life?

Con­ser­v­a­tives are often char­ac­terized in the media as people who are opposed to every­thing — from healthcare to the envi­ronment to social justice. Obvi­ously, there is always a time and place for reaction, and I am thankful for those who defend our prin­ciples with courage. However, I think the future success of con­ser­vatism in America depends on us casting a pos­itive vision of what we ought to con­serve.  

One prin­ciple aim of con­ser­vatism should be to pre­serve and strengthen the local com­mu­nities where indi­viduals can flourish. To do this, we must under­stand and appre­ciate the “variety and mystery of human exis­tence,” as Russell Kirk beau­ti­fully put it, and under­stand that dif­ferent com­mu­nities will have dif­ferent habits and mores. Portland will never be Grand Rapids and Omaha will never be San Fran­cisco — thank God!

On a day-to-day basis, I try to cherish both high culture and local folk culture. From the Viennese Waltz to the Fourth of July parade; from pre­serving his­toric archi­tecture to tail­gating at a college football game. It means cre­ating spaces where people can unplug and enjoy genuine hos­pi­tality, regardless of their political affil­i­ation. It means vol­un­teering in your local com­munity, and under­standing that the path towards “saving the country,” begins by reviving com­munal bonds one family, one block, one neigh­borhood, and one city at a time. As my patron saint, John of Kro­n­stadt, won­der­fully wrote, “Small things every­where lead to great ones.”

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Con­grat­u­la­tions Mr. Burtka on your new assignment at ‘The American Con­ser­v­ative’. As a lifelong con­ser­v­ative who has been fighting the good fight since the Gold­water cam­paign in 1964 it warms my heart to see young people with the knowledge, intellect and zeal to con­tinue the fight. From your belief in restrained foreign policy I hope you can help repu­diate the false-con­ser­vatism of the NEOCON’s, as evi­denced by Bill Kristol and others. They are a far greater danger to this nation than the Pro­gres­sives are, IMO. Inci­den­tally, as a fellow Orthodox Christian I welcome your con­version to Eastern Orthodoxy. There aren’t many of us in the United States, we often get short-shrift in dis­cus­sions on religion in America.

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    American Con­ser­v­ative has a great series of articles on New Urbanism that should be must reads for all Hillsdale stu­dents thinking about how to tran­sition their liberal arts degree into some­thing prac­tical and career ori­ented.