Berry certainly doesn’t view himself as a conservative, and he seems both puzzled and amused that his work would find favor with conservatives. “Mostly I’m a Democrat,” he says. “I’m a child of the New Deal. My family have always been Democrats.” Berry says he voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and plans to vote for him again this November. He has met Obama once, when the president awarded him the National Humanities Medal two years ago. Michael Pollan, the liberal foodie activist, thinks the connection may go deeper, citing Obama’s criticism of mainstream agriculture and its dependence on cheap oil: “I have no idea if Barack Obama has ever read Wendell Berry, but Berry’s thinking had found its ways to his lips,” Pollan wrote in the introduction to Berry’s 2009 book, Bringing It to the Table.
Since 1996, Berry and his wife have donated $7,000 to federal candidates, all Kentucky Democrats with the exception of Dennis Kucinich, the left-wing congressman from Ohio and two-time presidential candidate. Asked if he has ever voted for a Republican, Berry mentions John Sherman Cooper, a senator who was last elected in 1966. Despite this yellow-dog partisanship, Berry knows he doesn’t fit into ordinary political slots. “We’ve got two parties in this state that are absolutely dedicated to coal,” he says. “What we’re working for has not been adopted by any political side.” Last year, Berry and several others protested mountaintop-removal mining by occupying the outer office of Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, for four days.
The main thing keeping liberals from a full-on swoon for Berry is sexual politics. “I’m pro-life, in lower-case letters,” says Berry, meaning that although he shares many principles with the pro-life movement, he won’t join it. (He once wrote an essay called “In Distrust of Movements,” in which he argued that political causes are often too narrowly specialized.) “Abortion for birth control is wrong,” he says. “That’s as far as I’m going to go. In some circumstances, I would justify it, as I would justify divorce in some circumstances, as the best of two unhappy choices.”
Like a few members of the dwindling band of pro-life liberals, Berry takes an expansive view of the issue, adding that he’s also against capital punishment and for a peaceful foreign policy. “What I’ve seen throughout my adult life is violence as a first resort: maximum force relentlessly applied,” he says. “Maybe the best response after 9/11 would have been to do nothing. But doing nothing was not a political option. Certainly it would not have been, at that time, a popular option.” He appears unfamiliar with the foreign-policy views of Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who is no sword rattler, though he admits to voting for Paul’s opponent in 2010. “The liability in talking to me about politics is that I’m not a close student of politics,” he says. “That’s because I don’t expect very much from politics. But I know humans and greatly discomfort myself by expecting a lot from them. So far, I haven’t met a perfect human, but I’ve encountered enough of them who have seemed to me admirable.”
He does support Obama’s embrace of gay marriage. “I’m in favor of it, too,” he says. “It’s really only because they’re being denied the benefits of inheritance and so on — otherwise I don’t think it ought to be the government’s business.” He regards the entire debate as a distraction: “I really don’t understand how you can single out homosexuality for opprobrium and wink at fornication and adultery, which the Bible has a lot more to say about. The churches are not going to come out against fornication and adultery because there are too damn many fornicators and adulterers in their congregations.” That’s not all he scorns: “I’m against divorce, too, though I know perfectly well that nobody can judge anybody else’s marriage and say that any particular divorce should not happen.” Berry, for his part, has been married to the same woman for 55 years.
As Berry enters the final stage of his career — he says he approached the Jefferson Lecture as a “summing up” of his views — he appears content with the way he has lived out his convictions, no matter how they’re labeled. He plans to keep on writing, and a new book will arrive this fall: A Place in Time, collecting 20 short stories from the Port William milieu. “It’s been an extraordinarily rich life,” he says. At the same time, the contentment always fades to worry. The world is going to pot, and, if you leaf through Berry’s body of work, you’ll see that it’s been going there for a long time.
— John J. Miller is national correspondent for National Review and the author of The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. This article originally appeared in the July 30, 2012, issue of National Review.