When the New York Times reviewed William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Nearer, My God” in 1997, the reviewer described it as an ” ‘autobiography of faith,’ a personal topic [in which] Buckley considers the political to be separate from the personal.” In his nugget of a book, Jeremy Lott makes a case for the exact opposite: Buckley’s powerful and influential political views were informed by his personal faith, not separate from it. It provided the bodily core from which the limbs of his political ideas grew.
Mr. Lott’s prose is straightforward and unassuming; sometimes his tone supposes the reader has a certain familiarity or knowledge of the conservative icon, but Buckley novices can be reassured: His wit, intelligence and influence feel palpable early on.
From childhood, Buckley’s world loomed large. He traveled extensively, learned multiple languages and experienced a world-class education. That was not all. His mother bore 10 children, including Bill, and, despite learning of her eldest son’s death, refused to complain “because she could never repay God the favors He had done her.” The “bedrock faith” of Buckley’s mother provided him with the foundation for a religious worldview that influenced a lifetime of thought and decisions.
Buckley’s Irish Catholic heritage, combined with his privileged upbringing, brought comparisons to the Kennedys. The Buckleys vehemently rejected those comparisons and vigorously maintained that they proved false for many reasons, particularly taking into account the fact that their family embraced God, family and country, in that order, not the Kennedy’s narcissistic inverse (unless, of course, the “Buckley model” happened to be politically expedient at the time).
Throughout the book, Mr. Lott asserts that Buckley saw himself more prophet than preacher-man (despite tendencies toward the latter). Just as Old Testament prophets were proved right, over and over, so was Buckley repeatedly proved right about his political warnings. His first admonition came while he was only in his 20s and in the form of an immensely controversial yet ambitious book, “God and Man at Yale.”
Buckley’s reflections - and rants - against secularism at the university were distinctive and contentious. One of the most resonant passages, which Buckley admitted was suggested by a Yale philosophy professor, described the way his theology informed his political ideology. “I believe that the struggle between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.” The book paved the way for the future, when a new kind of conservative “tent” would enclose the right. Says Mr. Lott: “What [Buckley] didn’t know then is audacity is the stuff political movements are made of.”
Mr. Lott catalogs Buckley’s reluctant founding of the conservative National Review. Buckley at first wanted to avoid reinventing the conservative weekly wheel and attempted to take over other publications, Human Events and Freeman, and he tried to buy a liberal Catholic magazine, Commonweal. The mission of National Review - its tag line “Standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!” remains memorable in its inimitableness - was committed to “fix the newly conservative cannons on the enemies of collectivism, liberalism, and Communism.”
It was religion, Mr. Lott asserts, that “made [Buckley] truly interesting because it brought him into sharp conflict with too many people to count.” Case in point: “Firing Line.” Buckley hosted the television show for 33 years (1,500 episodes) on PBS. Mr. Lott calls it “one of the purest exchanges of ideal television audiences ever witnessed.” Indeed, many prominent politicians refused to go on “Firing Line” because of its formal, but brutal, host. Someone asked Buckley: “Why doesn’t Bobby Kennedy go on your show?” He replied, “Why does baloney fear the grinder?”
Despite his profession of faith, Catholics and Protestants alike took issue with Buckley’s work. Many Christians attacked him for his appearing in Playboy - both writing and being interviewed for it. As he did to many accusations, Buckley responded with piercing drollness, chalking it up to familial duty, saying that’s where he had to write if he wanted his son - Christopher, a teenager at the time - to read him.
Indeed, two of National Review’s most controversial pieces had religious components, one regarding race, the other regarding a papal letter, or encyclical, written by Pope John XXIII. Various religious communities responded with an array of reprimands. In each case, Buckley withstood the criticism and remained unmoved.
From Barry Goldwater and Ayn Rand to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Buckley’s spiritual compass guided his relationships with a variety of personalities circling the country’s political sphere. When Howard Hunt, Buckley’s old boss at the CIA, went to jail for doing Nixon’s dirty work during the Watergate scandal, he and his wife, Pat, stepped up in their role as godparents, helping out when possible.
Even Buckley’s fiction - he authored 11 novels - represented his faith and politics, interlaced. In his Blackford Oakes series, wherein Oakes is a disciplined James Bond-type CIA agent, his “goal in writing the Oakes novels was to … make a polemical point … [that] America was doing the right thing in seeking to destroy organized Communism.” He wrote his most difficult, personal and poignant book, “Nearer, My God” because he simply felt he “owed it to God.”
Via clips of transcripts or clever anecdotes, page after page, Mr. Lott’s book makes a persuasive case, though even he admits early in the book, “It’s possibleto lean too hard on Buckley’s religion as an explanation for why he argued ‘X’ or did ‘Y.’ ” That Mr. Lott does not do. If anything, on occasion, he seems to veer off-thesis, getting lost in the depth and breadth of Buckley’s political experiences and ideologies. He also readily admits the book is by no means a comprehensive look at the life of this conservative giant, but it is a taste of Buckley, a chiseled piece of ice from the tip of the Buckley iceberg.
Nicole Russell has written for Politico, National Review Online and the American Spectator. She is this year’s recipient of the American Spectator Young Journalist award.