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William F. Buckley Jr.'s Catholic faith and conservative political legacy

William F. Buckley Jr.'s Catholic faith and conservative political legacy

NEW YORK — Chair leaned back as far as possible. A pen perched in between his pursed lips. A clipboard resting on his lap. A single eyebrow raised as his interview subject argued a point. With all that going on, you could sense the wheels turning in William F. Buckley Jr.’s head. Using his transatlantic accent, Buckley would retort using a series of polysyllabic words until ultimately inflicting the deadly verbal jab that made him one of the greatest debaters in American history.

This was classic Buckley on his weekly PBS show Firing Line. To this day, this is how he’s most remembered by political friends and foes. This year marked the 10th anniversary of Buckley’s death at age 82. Born in New York City, Buckley spent his career as a newspaper columnist, author and public intellectual. Buckley’s ability to project his viewpoint in a civil and eloquent manner, both on his show and in the pages of magazine National Review, ignited the modern conservative movement that pushed the Republican Party to the right and gave the country Ronald Reagan.

Buckley’s legacy was on full display Monday evening at The King’s College in New York City during an event co-sponsored by the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute and National Review Institute that capped off a year-long series of commemorations in his honor. Former colleagues and friends recalled Buckley’s intelligence, faith, wit and ability to spar, saying it helped propel conservatism into the mainstream of American media and society that influences the country to this day.

“He inspired countless young people, even people he didn’t know… Buckley made conservatism respectable and even chic,” said Lauren Noble, founder and executive director of the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale.

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Noble was among the speakers who lauded Buckley for his contribution to American life. The panel also included Rich Lowery, the editor of National Review, James Panero, executive editor of The New Criterion and Lawrence Perelman of the Semantix Creative Group. All three consider Buckley a mentor and spent the evening reminiscing about the time they each spent with him.

Buckley’s ability to articulate a strong national defense, need for small government and a devotion to God and traditional values became the bedrock of the modern American conservative movement. It was Buckley’s Catholic faith that proved central to his life and ideology. He was a man who not only lived his devotion daily, but one that helped to inspire future generations of politicians, thinkers and broadcasters through National Review magazine and his long-running television show.

The movement Buckley set forth eventually coalesced during the Reagan years and cemented itself with the election of George W. Bush in 2000, when politically-conservative Jews, Catholics and Protestants forged a broad alliance based on a set of shared core beliefs. They became allies in the culture war against the forces of communism, secularization and rising tide of atheism. After witnessing how secular Europe had become allowed Buckley, through National Review starting in 1955, to influence the American political system like no magazine ever had in modern history. As a result, Buckley is often referred to as the St. Paul of the American conservative movement.

Many things Buckley did were guided by his faith. For example, Buckley opposed the scourge of communism years before Saint Pope John Paul II was made the head of the Catholic Church in 1978. He helped Reagan, a former Democrat, formulate a foreign policy agenda that helped to bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequently bring an end to communism in the Soviet Uion. Indeed, it was both Buckley’s politics and faith that heavily influenced the latter part of the 20th century.

“I think his Catholicism and love of God influenced his staunch anti-communism,” Panero said.

As a child, Buckley had been brought up in a faithful Catholic home. He was immersed in the religion by his devout parents while growing up in Mexico (his father had been an oilman) and later at St. John’s Beaumont in England, where he received a Jesuit education. While in school, he attended mass daily and often served as an altar boy. Starting at age 13, he made it a practice to pray the Rosary each day, something he did until his death. In his 1997 book Nearer, My God, Buckley admitted to sprinkling water on the heads of sleeping houseguests upon learning they had not been baptized.

Buckley would go on to spend most of his life dueling communists, atheists and secular culture. Asked by Playboy magazine whether “most dogmas, theological as well as ideological, do not crumble sooner or later,” Buckley replied, “Most, but not all.” When the interviewer pressed Buckley, “How can you be so sure?” he fired back, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

Lent, for example, was taken very seriously in Buckley’s childhood home. The family refrained from playing music, including the piano. In his very first book, God and Man at Yale, published in 1951, Buckley proclaimed “the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world.” He would go on to spend the remainder of his adult life making that argument — through his criticism of politics and culture — through his groundbreaking magazine and syndicated column. 

Throughout the 1960s, Buckley stayed true to his beliefs (all the while becoming a cultural icon himself) despite efforts by the anti-war movement, sexual revolution and feminism to radically change society. When people favored The Beatles, he preferred Bach. All the while, Buckley predicted what the right now largely views as the intolerance of the left and the manipulation of the English language through the use of political correctness. His debates with leftist icons of a bygone era, like Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, made Buckley a legend. He cemented that legacy by running for mayor of New York in 1965 as a member of the Conservative party, winning nearly 14% of the vote in a three-man race.

“Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views,” Buckley once argued.

It was during the 1964 Republican primary that Buckley said his rule was always to support the “most rightward viable candidate.” That would indicate a support for President Trump had Buckley been around to witness his election in 2016. However, in the March-April 2000 issue of Cigar Aficionado, Buckley wrote of Trump: “Look for the narcissist. The most obvious target in today's lineup is, of course, Donald Trump. When he looks at a glass, he is mesmerized by its reflection. If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America.”

It’s impossible to know whether Buckley would have supported Trump. Indeed, the question best illustrates where the conservative movement has gone in the decade since Buckley’s death. After eight years of President Obama, American voters gave us Trump, who has planted the country firmly to the right with the passing of a series of tax cuts and appointment of conservative judges to the Supreme Court.

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Despite those moves, Trump has also fractured the movement with his unorthodox political style. George Will and Bill Kristol, to some, represent the movement’s old-guard intelligentsia that Buckley helped cultivate and nurture. They also remain staunch members of the Never Trump movement. Younger members of the conservative movement also inspired by Buckley, including famed radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, have largely backed Trump.

When National Review rebuked Trump’s presidential run in early 2016, the flagship conservative publication set itself apart from other right-wing media like Brietbart.com and The Daily Caller in its support for the former real-estate mogul and casino tycoon. At the time, Trump was embroiled in a bitter primary battle against Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

“Ted Cruz would demonstrate the irrelevance of the Republican Party by winning. Trump, on the other hand, they don’t even think is a Republican,” Limbaugh told listeners on January 22, 2016. “When you get right down to brass tacks, the people inside the Republican Party don’t even think he’s a Republican. They don’t think he’s a party man one way or the other. They think he’s an opportunist maybe engaging in a little populism here, maybe engaging in a little nationalism. But they don’t think there’s a Trump core outside of what’s good for Trump.”

These fissures within the American right subsided a bit during the recent Brett Kavanaugh hearings after Trump’s Supreme Court nominee was accused of having sexually assaulted another teenager three decades ago while at a high school party. The Senate confirmation hearings that ensued quickly turned combative and partisan weeks before the midterm elections. In the end, Kavanaugh, a devout Catholic, was narrowly confirmed by the Senate. The confirmation handed conservatives a majority on the Supreme Court.

Lowry, who was chosen by Buckley to lead National Review in 1997, said Trump’s appointment of conservatives to federal judgeships was due largely to what he called the “intellectual work over the course of decades” by organizations such as The Federalist Society.

“It’s been a divisive time on the right,” Lowry added, “but it’s a myth that there’s ever been unity on the right.”

As for what Buckley would do if he were alive today, Lowry said, “He’d want us to embrace the debate and the role of populism in our movement.”

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