As a religiously and politically apathetic college student in Arizona in the turbulent late 1960s and early ’70s, I was enthralled for a time with conservative gadfly William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008).
I was not enthralled by his message extolling Christian dominance and voracious free enterprise in America, but rather the sonorous, intellectual way he delivered it on Firing Line, the iconic PBS public affairs TV program he founded and hosted from 1966-1999. (The program was relaunched in 2018 with host Margaret Hoover, a conservative pundit and author who is the great-granddaughter of 31st U.S. President Herbert Hoover.)
As an atheist and economic progressive today, I am appalled in retrospect by what Buckley proposed. And as the writer of this nonreligious blog, I am particularly galled by how such a supposedly intellectually uber-sophisticated and influential opinion leader of his time employed such bald-faced “motivated reasoning” in arguments that were profoundly un-American. Also, I am utterly baffled why someone so intelligent and seemingly otherwise rational remained in lifelong thrall to invisible deities.
This is how Canadian psychologist Ziva Kunda (1955-2004) described this emotionally biased cognitive tactic:
“[Motivated reasoning] is the ‘tendency to find arguments in favor of conclusions we want to believe to be stronger than arguments for conclusions we do not want to believe.’”
Put another way, this is disingenuous reasoning, meaning deceptive, whether or not the deceiver knows he or she is deceiving. It’s a mostly subconscious tendency that could also fairly be called “kidding yourself.”
Buckley opened the first chapter of his seminal and controversial debut book, God and Man at Yale (1951), with a religion-soaked excerpt from a 1937 inaugural address by Yale President Charles Seymour in which Seymour opined:
“I call on all members of the faculty, as members of a thinking body, freely to recognize the tremendous validity and power of the teachings of Christ in our life and death struggle against the forces of selfish materialism. If we lose that struggle, judging from present events abroad, scholarship as well as religion will disappear.”
Remember that 1937 was the eve of World War II and advent of the morally bankrupt Holocaust, and also the rise of global “godless Communism.” Americans have tended to clutch religion to their breasts in fearful times like those, and because Christianity was traditionally the nation’s majority faith that was what was instinctively clutched as a powerful, infallible talisman against supposed existential terrors. This is why the Northern government slogan “In God We Trust” abruptly appeared on U.S. coinage during the American Civil War, and why in 1956 during the communism-inspired 1950s “Red Scare” period in U.S. politics Congress voted to replace the nation’s original motto — E pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) — with “In God We Trust,” and ordered it imprinted on paper money and coins.
Thus, God and mammon.
So, Buckley’s reminder of a bygone day when a president of his alma mater had evoked Jesus Christ at his inauguration, long before Buckley attended the institution, is disingenuous. In fact, the lion’s share of all universities in Western history started out as mostly religious institutions, a result of Christian dominance in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and, later, this continued in colonial America. But today most colleges and universities are secular.
So, Yale President Seymour’s godly musings represented not the trappings of an established theocracy (which, in any event, is prohibited by the Constitution) but a circular, motivated reasoning that dreamily insisted God was the central force in all American culture, because it had long seemed so to believers.
That’s conservativism: compulsively keeping things the same or, if an evolving culture just won’t cooperate, forcing them back to a time when it was the “same.”
As Yale alumnus Gaddis Smith summarized in a May/June 2008 article in the Yale Alumni magazine:
“The heart of God and Man at Yale is Buckley’s assertion ‘that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world [and] . . . that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.’ He said that influential Yale faculty and the university itself were leading students to join the side of evil in both aspects of this struggle. The fate of the university and indeed of the nation was at stake. The solution was for the faculty to be required to inculcate belief in Christ and to explain the evil of ‘collectivism,’ defined as government restrictions on the economy.”
This Buckley quote above implies that the conservative icon believed in prosperity Christianity and Christian privilege, not equitable economics and secular humanism.
What makes his seminal role in shaping modern conservativism so disquieting, and what made him so compelling in his day, is that so many other Americans were also opposed then, as now, to a broadly diverse society, religiously and ethnically, whose great wealth and advantages should be fairly and compassionately shared by all.
Buckley viewed progressive economics as “collectivism,” which remained undefined in God and Man at Yale but vaguely implied something very akin to communism. And he viewed Christian dominance, if not hegemony, in America as essential to the nation’s greatness.
Despite the long lionization of Buckley’s vaunted intellectual capacities, it is still fair to ask how such blatantly un-American views gained such acceptance and status among tens of millions of citizens. Remember, the Declaration of Independence famously noted that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and that the “creator” evoked was, as purposely written by Thomas Jefferson, not a personal God but a remote, impersonal deity that was far removed from the budding nation’s human affairs.
Conservatives (at least most of the current breed) are all about predatory winning and aggressive Christian domination, whereas the foundational Christian faith is all about gracious humility, neighborly kindess and love, and turning the other cheek. How did it get so skewed in today’s GOP?
The point is that no matter how much the very Catholic Buckley glorified Christian virtue and individual greed, I suspect they would not have been recognizable to Jesus as related to his own teachings.
But even today, Buckley remains a conservative gold standard.
In his scathing rebuttal to God and Man in the November 1951 Atlantic Monthly, McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996), a key architect of U.S. foreign policy in the administrations of former presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote:
“Mr. Buckley in fact holds views of a peculiar and extreme variety, both on economics and on the organization of a university, while his religious orientation, honorable and ancient as it is, emphatically differs from that of Yale. …
“No Christian or conservative should suppose that this particular book offers him either a genuine case against Yale or a useful method of advancing [Buckley’s] views. I can image no more certain way of discrediting both religion and individualism than the acceptance of Mr. Buckley’s guidance.”
And these views remain discrediting.
Buckley to the end remained smug in his moot certainties.