The Richness of Buckley

At 82, the man who contributed more than anyone else except Ronald Reagan to the defeat of communism is gone. William F. Buckley, Jr. was found at his desk today, in all likelihood doing the same task to which he had devoted his life, crafting prose. You can sample his dialectical style in a compilation of Charlie Rose interviews here. The hour-long show features Buckley's wit, his caprice, his gift for friendship. There are some good features in the New York Times obituary, especially the audio backstory by biographer Sam Tanenhaus.

Buckley was that rare man whose example became deeper over time.

When I first started watching Firing Line in high school, it was his defiance of prevailing standards that captured me. I felt empowered to realize that the grey world of leftism could be dismissed, and that individuality was not dead.

But the longer I watched Firing Line, the more dependent I became. Buckley brought me not only deep discussions of politics, but of art, music, theology, novels, and foreign cultures. Buckley was more than a combative conservative; he was a partisan for the enjoyment of life.

In particular, Buckley's interview with Malcolm Muggeridge from the late 1970s showed me that Christianity was bigger than sentimentality. My grandpa first introduced me to it, and I watched it repeatedly, wearing out the videotape and practically memorizing the conversation.

Firing Line was a breath of air for a teenager in the intellectually suffocating culture of evangelicalism.

But the fall of the Soviet Union raised Buckley's significance -- and elevated his example for me. At the start of Buckley's career in the early 1950s, anti-communism was intellectually dead. It was tainted with isolationists, conspiracy theorists, and anti-semites. Buckley, then in his twenties, commandeered the talents of older men -- most prominently James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers -- who had been fellow-traveling Stalinists, and who had turned against communism. Buckley led these writers to articulate a new critique of socialism.

That was a feat of leadership that gets very little attention -- a feat of coalition-building.

Even further, Buckley rose above the fierce polemicism that characterizes political debate and formed deep friendships with many of his antagonists, like John Kenneth Galbraith. He knew how to have fun in the midst of a fight.

Buckley's example continues to inform me in my pastoral work.

The demise of evangelicalism, for me, is a disaster. I find evangelical populism  a completely inadequate mode for communicating the truths of God's word. I find the cultural degradation of churches into malls shocking. The disconnection of one generation from another is especially disturbing.

I often ask myself if we can come back from this dilapidated condition. Buckley's rich example tells me we can.