Buckley on Belief
This article originally appeared in the November / December 1997 issue of Books & Culture, a Christianity Today sister publication.
Buried in the middle of this interview with William F. Buckley, Jr., is an extraordinary statement. Buckley, who has given hundreds of addresses on college and university campuses, remarks that "I've never been invited in my life to give a college speech or a seminar about which the subject of religion was discussed. It's like a subtle sequestration that religion is something that you do on your own, and it's disruptive to bring it up."
That datum, which at first strikes the reader as incredible, confirms the diagnosis offered in George Marsden's The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief and Stephen Carter's The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. But it also says something about Buckley himself. As an editor, columnist, TV host, novelist, and the pre-eminent spokesman for conservatism in his generation, Buckley has never made a secret of his strong Christian faith, yet he confesses to a temperamental reticence. "I am not trained in the devotional mode, nor disposed to it," he writesnor, one might add, the evangelical mode.
That is precisely what makes his new book, Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith (Doubleday, 313 pp.; $24.95), unique: Here, for the first time, Buckley writes at length about his faith, about some of the principal obstacles to Christian belief (despite self-deprecating comments concerning his lack of theological training, he displays considerable powers as an apologist), and about the distinctive experience of a Roman Catholic in the twentieth century.
In September, Michael Cromartie met with Buckley in New York at the offices of National Review to talk about his book and to get his sense of the state of Christendom at the end of the millennium.
Many years ago Garry Wills said this of you: "Being Catholic always mattered more to him than being conservative." Is he right?
If he meant he has a higher loyalty to God than to civil society, then the answer is obvious: God has to be pre-eminent.
Why did you write this book?
It was the idea of a publisher. I undertook it, and after a year or so despaired of doing the reading I thought necessary to consummate it, so I gave it up. Then two years later, I got that little itchy feeling that one ought not give up the occasional challenge to do service to one's Maker, so I undertook to return to it. Three or four years later, that is what materialized.
You say in your book, "I grew up in a large family of Catholics without even a decent ration of tentativeness among the lot of us about our religious faith." Were you really never tentative about your faith? Never?
No, I never was. I know one brother who was, but he lay down and got over it.
How do you explain your own steadfastness?
Grace. I understand the nature of temptation, and I understand that the reach of temptation gets to almost everybody. But to the extent that one anticipates that possibility, in my case one has to reaffirm the postulates. And I never found any problem or conflict with these postulates and Christian doctrine. Which is a subject that I touch in this book. Therefore, I was never won over to skepticism, though skepticism can be very alluring. The Devil can be very alluring.
So the skeptical questions never got the best of you.
No, no. I wonder about them abstractly. Arnold Lunn, for instance, once asked, "How can an all-forgiving God be so adamantine on the subject of sin, ordaining perpetual torture and misery?" Now, abstractly, I have wondered about that. But my sense of question or bewilderment takes the form of "How can it be so?" not "Is it so?"