William F. Buckley Jr. has died. He is widely, and rightly, credited for having been the intellectual force behind the creation of mainstream conservatism beginning in the 1950s - at a time when a thinker such as Lionel Trilling could claim that there was no such thing as conservatism in America, and Louis Hartz acknowledged only one tradition in American political thought - the liberal tradition.
Buckley fashioned a form of conservatism that came to be known as "fusionism" - a combination of disparate and often divergent viewpoints, including economic libertarianism, social conservatism (or "traditionalism", often religiously based) and Cold War anti-communism. Please don't mistake what I mean when I say that there is a kind of sad fittingness to Buckley's passing at just this moment, when the coalition he helped create is fraying and increasingly untenable. The glue that held it together - internationally, the Soviet Empire, and domestically, New Deal/Great Society liberalism - have both been effectively vanquished (while many conservatives will disagree with the latter claim, I refer them to Peter Lawler, who notes that we do not face a future of government expansion, but one in which we are "more alone and on our own than ever." Our future is not likely to be one of a growing socialist state, but "creeping and creepy libertarianism." The fact that the government is broke only makes this more likely to be the case). Efforts to put the coalition together again in the current election proved to be fruitless, and the base is now angry at the nomination of John McCain, but one element or another would have been unhappy with the nomination of any of the candidates, given that it was the Humpty-Dumpty Republican primary - aimed to recreate a coalition that no one could put back together again.
I have a fond personal memory of Buckley - a time he was among a group of five representatives of various religious traditions were gathered by Princeton University's "Center for Human Values" to discuss the amorphous topic of "Mind, Faith, Spirit". Guided by Bill Moyers, the assemblage was clearly intended to reach a consensus that religion was wholly a personal and individual matter, and that one's belief should have no bearing on the public life of a nation. Buckley, as one would expect, refused to play nice. He began by announcing that "I may be a little bit of an imposter in this distinguished panel, because I'm sort of ridden with belief." In response to views that it was possible to believe in God but understand and sympathize with those who believe otherwise, he said, "The Ten Commandments say, 'Thou shalt not place other gods in my house,' and the Lord's prayer has in it the phrase, 'lead us not into temptation.' Could you understand by asking that you not be led into temptation that you be spared the seductiveness of other gods?" And, lastly (not in the transcript, but firmly burned in my memory), to the question whether religious belief necessitated rejection of belief other than one's own (which, of course, every other member of the panel dismissed out of hand as an unthinkable suggestion), Buckley replied: "As a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I hold the Creed of my Church to be true, which means by definition that the belief of any other religion in contradiction to that Creed must be categorically false." I believe it was the first time, and possibly the last, that the word "true" was used in an event sponsored by the "University Center for Human Values" without implied or gesticulated scare quotes. I became instantly aware on that day the ramrod backbone it took to write a book like "God and Man at Yale" in 1951 and to found "The National Review" in 1955. He was a man of courage and independence, and we could use more of his kind. RIP.