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A Fearless Prophet

Jeremy Lott's new book explores the religious foundations of William F. Buckley's life and courage.

By 9.24.10

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During William F. Buckley's memorial mass the strains of "He Who Would Valiant Be" echoed off the resplendent sanctuary walls of St. Patrick's Cathedral. In an incisive and eloquent new tome on the religious life of the conservative icon, the always captivating Jeremy Lott reveals just how tailor-made John Bunyan's hymn -- There's no discouragement shall make him relent/His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim...No foes shall stay his might/Though he with giants fight -- was to the man it that day exalted.

Lott was kind enough to speak to TAS about his William F. Buckley, Christian encounters, and why, perhaps, this pilgrim should also be considered a prophet.

TAS: What was the most enlightening bit you unearthed researching and writing this book?

Jeremy Lott: William F. Buckley Jr. tried to take over three existing publications before he launched National Review. Two of the magazines were obvious choices: Human Events and The Freeman. The third was the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal. Now, Commonweal is just a baffling choice -- insane, really -- unless you consider just how much Buckley's conservatism was a product of his religion.

TAS: Obviously, Buckley lived an epic life, and I loved how you used the idea of him as a prophet -- or a "very Old Testament sort of believer" who was "motivated to inveigh" to drive the narrative. In writing the book, how important was this epiphany for you?

Lott: Very. The series that this biography is part of, the Christian Encounters series, eventually decided to do without subtitles, so it may be less obvious at first glance. The working title was William F. Buckley: In the Wilderness.

TAS: Considering his penchant for vocal defiance, fearless take-all-comers attitude, and visionary foresight, were you at all tempted to see him instead as a Daniel-type figure in a time of "progressive" lions?

Lott: Hmm. Buckley could be fearless about confronting people. When he was a student, he basically invented the role of the campus right-wing radical. He wrote his first book, God and Man at Yale, while he was employed by the university as a Spanish instructor and training to be an agent in the CIA. And he didn't just challenge liberalism, he ridiculed it and turned it into a swear word. A lot of progressives hated him for that.

At the same time, his magazine in the early days refused to go along with Republican Party orthodoxy. It didn't endorse Eisenhower in 1956 or Nixon in 1960, for instance, and it agitated for the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 even though Goldwater wasn't likely to win the presidency.

TAS: Is there any way to examine Buckley the consequential figure without examining the religious aspect of his life?

Lott: I suppose it could be done, but not done well. Some commentators today try to use Buckley as a bludgeon to beat conservative Christians with. To use a very un-Buckley-ite phrase, that's just crazy talk.

TAS: You paint a moving portrait of Buckley's last days, of his indifference to clinging to the corporeal world beyond his time, which boldly highlights the depth of his faith. I wonder how important you felt this material was to the book.

Lott: I think it was necessary. One of the editors wanted me come up with a final paragraph or two to tie a bow on the book, but I thought his funeral was the right place to end it. We compromised by moving the further readings section right next to the last chapter.

TAS: What is the biggest misconception concerning Buckley's faith?

Lott: There are a lot of them. Some people viewed Buckley as more Catholic than the pope. Conservative Catholics sometimes call him a liberal or "cafeteria Catholic." Both views are wrong. Buckley was an ordinary, faithful Catholic who accepted but struggled with some of the teachings of his Church. Also, his forbears had been Irish Protestants, and he was pretty ecumenical. God and Man at Yale was a call for his alma mater to reassert its Christian identity, its very Protestant Christian identity.

TAS: You wrote a fascinating, raucous book on the lives and times of America's vice presidents, The Warm Bucket Brigade, where you condensed prominent men's lives into morsels. How does Buckley rate in historical influence versus the average member of that bored and sometimes crank-ish gaggle?

Lott: I'd put him right up there with Nixon.

TAS: Does "fusionism" require godliness? Surely many people Buckley found common cause with did not believe the struggle between individualism and collectivism was slightly less important than the struggle between Christianity and atheism.

Lott: To answer your question, I'd recast it slightly: Does one have to be a religious man in order to be a conservative? Buckley said no, but he qualified that by saying outright mockers of religion could not be conservative. I think he was correct about that.

Fusionism is the bargain that Buckley thought conservatives and more libertarian-minded people should strike. They could work together if they agreed that government should not enforce virtue but rather stop doing things that encouraged vice. The logic of fusionism would prod Buckley throughout his life. It's why National Review eventually came out against the war on drugs.

TAS: Do you think the blessed and lucky nature of Buckley's life, his unusual skills, and many successes made it easier for him to have a mostly angst-free relationship with the Almighty and his church?

Lott: A lot of bad stuff happened to Buckley along with the good. Example: He and Pat had wanted a large family. Two tubal pregnancies put an end to that. And sure, he inherited some money from his father -- who had made and lost several fortunes. But most of the money that he used to keep dozens of people and a magazine afloat was earned through his columns, articles, books, speeches, television shows, etcetera.

TAS: Buckley was a preternaturally influential and singular cultural figure, yet free-market capitalism, individualism, and American exceptionalism are today in fundamentally precarious positions and the momentum -- albeit more strongly at some times than others -- remains on the side of the nanny state. Is there a black cloud here? I mean, if a Buckley couldn't turn the tide, who will?

Lott: Hard to say but maybe the Tea Party will make a dent. Buckley once said that he'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 names of the Boston phonebook than by the entire faculty of Harvard. It looks like we're about to see how that works out.

TAS: Another of your past books, the deliciously counterintuitive In Defense of Hypocrisy, muses hypocrisy might be an engine of moral progress. Was there any positive hypocrisy in Buckley's religious life?

Lott: This is going to sound like a lame example at first, but bear with me. I believe this country greatly benefited from an anti-Civil Rights opposition that was willing to fold gracefully. Southern senators and governors put on little protests and then backed down and helped to sell fellow Southerners on going along with it.

Likewise with National Review. It took a pro-segregation stand that lasted all of one issue and the reasons for backing down were largely religious ones, even if they weren't articulated as such.

TAS: One of the many original touches in this study was your decision to consult a deep throat source currently at Yale to see how the milieu over there turned out post-God and Man at Yale, which is where we learn, for example, every religious studies major has to read Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism -- a "deeply stupid book that makes up stories about oppressed medieval witches" -- though they need not necessarily peruse Augustine. Do you think Buckley would be surprised how right he was about the downward spiral so long ago?

Lott: There's no question that he was right about the religious direction of Yale. It is now a thoroughly secular university and, according to Deepthink, quite absurd. Deepthink's experiences there reminded me a bit of a quote that's always being attributed to G.K. Chesterton. When men stop believing in God, they'll believe in just about anything.

TAS: You write, "Buckley wanted a conservatism that treated progressivism only somewhat less contemptuously than it did Communism." How did he square that with Christian love-you-neighbor-ism?

Lott: In public debate, Buckley could be abrasive. Though I'll point out that not punching Gore Vidal for calling him a Nazi on national television amounted to turning the other cheek. When he wasn't in debate mode, Buckley got along famously with a great number of liberals.

TAS: One of the things Buckley said in his press conference announcing his run for mayor was, "I will not adapt my views to increase my vote by ten people." Are we lucky he wouldn't? Would, in other words, the conservative movement and post-New Deal opposition have lost something completely irreplaceable if by some miracle Buckley had been more successful at politicking than he supposed he'd be?

Lott: Well, that's why he would have demanded a recount. Liberals tend to win those. I don't think New York was ready for a Mayor Buckley yet, maybe not even now. It had a hard enough time swallowing Mayor Giuliani.

TAS: What is the one attribute of Buckley the conservative movement could most use now?

Lott: A sense of the absurd.

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