A brilliant man, virtually awash in talent, died on February 26, 2008. But the “rest of the story” is that true greatness could have been his and his legacy one for the ages had someone trained him to focus on God as much (like most of us) as he did on “man.” Alas, in God’s providence it wasn’t to be. “Mr. Conservative,” William F. Buckley, Jr., 82, died at home alone in Connecticut of unknown causes while writing one of his famous columns. From 1951 on he dominated the U.S. conservative scene nearly until his death. He gained fame as an author of 45 volumes starting with God and Man at Yale. Then as founder and editor of National Review magazine, 33-year host of TV’s “Firing Line,” a speaker, essayist, fine amateur musician, painter, trans-ocean small boat sailor, skier, mentor to the famous, and one-time CIA agent. “WFB” was a practicing Roman Catholic.
Erudition was his middle name, and this quality plus a biting sense of humor made him a permanent star on the lecture circuit. He leaned libertarian more than Republican but was outspoken in support of low taxes and balanced budgets, free market capitalism, religion, national defense, decentralized- and limited- government, anti-communism, the pro-life movement, anti-homosexuality, anti-socialized medicine, social security reform and last but not least, patriotism. On all these things he opined voluminously.
If his life had a definitive high water mark, and there were many, it would have been the time between 1964 and 1980 when conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater’s failed bid for the U. S. presidency paved the way, ironically, for Buckley’s “biggest success.” Namely, Ronald Reagan’s 8 years in the White House. It was this simple: No Buckley, no Reagan. In time, Reagan’s bold tax cuts, the stunning economic growth that followed, the fall of the “evil empire” etc., no doubt signaled to Buckley that even more such triumphs were finally right around the corner. Surely these victories presaged left-liberalism’s (socialism’s) demise in the U.S. and the enduring entrenchment of what Buckley worked so hard to attain.
But something went horribly wrong. And much of it was Buckley’s fault. Today the movement he helped lift from the ashes would be lucky if it could say it was merely just in disarray. More accurate would be that the forces of liberal, political correctness and rampant humanism have it in virtual full retreat. Worse, conservative voters in the winter of 2008 are still in shock by how Big Media with their “public be damned” arrogance conspired to guarantee that the new U.S. president will preside over either a horrific big tax, big spend, big regulating, we know what’s best for you liberal government, or a dreadful big tax, big spend, big regulating, we know what’s best for you liberal one.
How did Buckley, to the extent he did, contribute to this stunning state of affairs? We can’t know for sure, but sinful man’s “usual reasons” is probably a good guess. Perhaps he felt he needed to make strategic accommodations to a “mega-complex” world. Though once possessing a freedom-first, strict constitutional, stay-at-home-and-mind-our-own-business-in-foreign-affairs stance, he seemed lured into shifting towards “making the world safe for democracy” via empire building; an infection possibly caught from his latter-day allies in the neoconservative (“paleoliberal”) movement. Maybe desire for greater respect even from liberals? Because he sincerely believed he knew what was best for us? Perhaps power-related memories from the Reagan days came back to haunt him since power, as Henry Kissinger has said…well, you all remember what he said.
But most troubling is how a man who regularly invoked “Judeo-Christian values” failed to invoke God when it counted. After all, Buckley could give God frequent supportive nods, often with the sense of being special pals with “Himself,” as He sometimes referred to Him. But he never used major pronouncements to exhort his many followers to accept the fact that life’s bottom-line means total dedication to God and a continuous granting to Him of “all the glory” in all things, especially in epistemology. In spite of his causes being generally worthy, Buckley’s mind did not appear to be shaped by a “for God alone” biblical Worldview. Rather, his way seemed to depend on enlightened humanism and man’s apparent innate ability to reach pinnacles via hard work plus the odd prayer.
There were few, if any, admissions that only the transcendent God of the Bible could provide epistemological justification for the good things the early Buckley hoped to achieve. Yes, he did strive for cultural renewal but never for an explicit “Christian Cultural Transformation.” Still, he proudly claimed; “There isn’t anything I reasonably hoped for that wasn’t achieved.” Yet we look around the culture and see otherwise.
Nor did his ill-advised membership in Yale’s occult Skull & Bones fraternity and in the elitist, world-government scheming Council on Foreign Relations bespeak a primary allegiance to God. Very intriguing to me was how nearly all the obituary writers felt obliged to remind us of his disdain for the “anti-Semitic and conspiracy-driven” (and today little known) John Birch Society. Yet the major complaints about the JBS are simply not true. They were never anti-Semitic and, as with Buckley, always straight libertarian in their values. Like him, they had little respect for Eisenhower whose record was far from conservative. Buckley probably derided the JBS because of their not all that unreasonable disapproval of his two previously mentioned “clubs.” Not much else makes sense since the two agreed on just about everything else. The ultimate irony in all of this is that both WFB and the JBS shared the same fatal flaw: Neither informed their deepest beliefs and desires, even the most worthy of them, on a foundation of 100% dedication to God. A light touch of dedication here and there, yes, but never the in-depth real thing.
The lesson in all this for Christian school and Christian homeschoolers is to realize who the star of this article is. And that would be Mr. Buckley’s father. A victim of the moral and spiritual debris of the Jazz Age, as was mine, he didn’t have the insights we have today. He didn’t even know he was supposed to impart the message of Ecclesiastes 12:13 to his son. Today, home-discipled Christian kids can easily (relatively speaking) have their academic and spiritual lives shaped to please God when patiently guided by insightful parents. From that point on they’ll be maximizing their lives whatever their gifts, even if they’re only a fraction of Mr. Buckley’s. WFB had gifts that permitted him to vie with R. J. Rushdoony to be “God’s man in the last half of the 20th century,” but it didn’t happen. Why did he sail the oceans? Was it just to test man’s limits by striving ever upward, not necessarily for fame and fortune, but just, as with Henley’s Invictus, to conquer? Circling the globe can be OK, but the only justifiable reason for it is the desire to dedicate the entire journey to the glory of God; certainly not to man and/or just a little bit to God. WFB, RIP.