The Bill Buckley of the Midwest

An influential conservative commentator, Stan Evans was deeply knowledgeable and highly versatile.

Growing up in Indianapolis, I knew Stan Evans as the William F. Buckley of the Midwest. He wrote newspaper commentary and books. He could debate like Buckley and was a walking encyclopedia of facts and figures about why the conservative view should prevail over big government liberals.

He was more subtle about his Christian worldview. I discovered more of his faith recently, writing an entry about him for the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis for the city’s 200th birthday in 2021.

At the end of his life, Stan lived near Patrick Henry College an hour west of Washington, D.C. and would run into college founder Mike Farris from time to time. Stan had visited the school a few times in its early years and came to appreciate the institution for its unusual mix of Christian faith and conservative political leanings.

His sympathy for the new college went back to his early days. He was born in Texas and grew up in Virginia. His grandfather was a Methodist minister. His father was a college professor and had worked for the Atomic Energy Commission. His mother was a classics scholar.

Stan followed in Buckley’s famous footsteps as editor of the Yale Daily News and then studied economics under Ludwig Von Mises at New York University.

He went on to write for National Review and other conservative publications, then became the youngest newspaper editorial page editor at the Indianapolis News, owned by my grandfather and run by my father. My grandfather was looking for intelligent young conservative writers in the 1950s. “There are lots of good journalists around,” he explained to Time magazine. “But they’re all cockeyed left-wingers.”

Then he found Stan Evans, who was neither cockeyed nor left-wing.

Stan quickly established himself as an influential Midwest commentator. Politically, the conservative movement was a minority movement in a minority political party. Democrats dominated national politics in the 1960s and were very competitive with the Republicans at the state level in Indiana. Nationally, the conservatives won the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 with Barry Goldwater but took a landslide beating from the Democrats and President Lyndon Johnson.

When Vice President Spiro Agnew (under Richard Nixon) made speeches about a liberal news-media slant and a silent conservative majority, Esquire magazine poked fun at the speechless conservatives. “If the Silent Majority Could Speak, What Would They Say?” The magazine identified Indianapolis as “the heart of America’s innermost boondock.” All we had then was the 500-Mile Race and high-school basketball — as in the movie Hoosiers. The magazine profiled Evans and radio commentator Paul Harvey as influential Midwestern voices, taking note of their defense of free-market capitalism and small government.

In the early 1970s, Evans became restless, asking to be free of editorial-page duties. He launched a syndicated column, moving to Washington, D.C., and started to do national radio commentary. He also started the National Journalism Center for student journalism internships. He was a mentor before the term “mentor” became popular. Conservative activist Richard Viguerie later paid him this tribute: “For us young green conservatives in the early 1960s, Stan was our leader, friend and peer, but he was also the friend and peer of the country’s most important conservatives of the day, including Goldwater, Buckley, Russell Kirk, Brent Bozell Jr. and Frank Meyer.”

Stan never identified with the Religious Right as it emerged in the late 1970s and helped Ronald Reagan win the 1980 presidential election. He saw himself as a believing Christian without being good at it. “I am certainly a believer,” he once explained in an interview. “Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a particularly pious person, and I don’t consider myself to be particularly good Christian. I’m a believing Christian.”

Though he never signed up with the Religious Right, Evans later offered substantial research for the movement in his 1995 book, The Theme Is Freedom, Religion, Politics and the American Tradition. He goes into great depth to show how the Christian faith was the foundation for the American conservative movement. He also argues that the Christian faith is the foundation for freedom or liberty, as we know it in America and often take for granted.

The book helped me see his Christian faith more clearly. He traces the origins of western political freedom back to medieval Christian philosophy and famous names such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, then on through the Reformation and early American history. Like Francis Schaeffer in How Should We Then Live (1977), Evans offers a vivid contrast between the law-oriented American Revolution and the lawlessness and anarchy of the French Revolution a few years later. “Rather than trying to overturn the existing order, the American War of Independence was an effort to preserve that order,” he writes, explaining how the Founding Fathers were defending their common-law rights in the British tradition.

Most daily-news journalists can’t make the challenging transition from deadline story-writing to book chapters, footnote citations, and in-depth research. Stan excelled in both callings.

Now I see better how versatile he was, from daily-news commentary to scholarly skills about the rise of western civilization. Had he been a few years younger, he could have joined any college faculty and taught classes in journalism, political science, history, and philosophy. His sympathy for Patrick Henry College fits well with a school that aspires to train news commentators, world-class debaters, and top academic researchers in the Stan Evans tradition.

Russell Pulliam is a columnist and associate editor at the Indianapolis Star and the director of the Pulliam Fellowship.


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