NEARER, MY GOD
December 24, 1997
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, engages William F. Buckley, Jr., editor of "National Review," and host of public television "Firing Line." Buckleyís latest book is Nearer, My God, an autobiography.
DAVID GERGEN: Bill, thank you for joining us.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR., Author, Nearer, My God: Nice to be here.
DAVID GERGEN: Good. In your new book you say, "There is something about the modern disposition that compels even those who believe in God to keep all such matters tidily secluded in their own tent." Tell us why youíve come out of the tent.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: I felt an obligation. Iím a writer, and I was asked to write this book. I put it aside after one year, one writing year devoted to it, on the grounds that I simply couldnít handle it. It was too big a subject. But then I felt that itchy feeling that I guess conscience is the best word for it, saying, I shouldnít do that to God. I think heís done a lot of things for me. I mean this quite seriously. So I thought, well, now I got to go back and do it. But I did feel that the reader ought to know that there is that natural reticence that I feel, being a non-preaching Christian, how much convinced I am as a Christian.
DAVID GERGEN: Can you tell us--I donít mean to invade your privacy--but can you tell us a little more about what your faith has meant to you personally, whether you--
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: I grew up in a devout Christian Catholic family, ten brothers and sisters. My mother was conspicuously devout and my father was devout also. We always simply assumed that God was the patron of human life. Now, when you run into the kind of nonchalant and cheeky secularism that you run into at Yale, for instance--I wrote a book about it--you all of a sudden recognize there are a lot of people out there who think that this is a superstition. Weíll go ahead and let people indulge in it because some of them have a good time. I set out to show in this book, I donít think it is a superstition. I think very bright people feel--believe in God and that God does something for us by giving us perspectives that make life tolerable, especially in very sad moments.
DAVID GERGEN: Much of your book, itís quite striking because itís so unlike whatís out there about religion today, it is a serious struggle to understand and to come to grips with Catholic and Christian doctrine. Have you come to believe in both, Jesus, the historical figure, and in the resurrection, itself?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: Well, yes, I do. I think thatís absolutely central to Christianity. St. Paul thought so, and so does everybody. If Christ has not risen, then everything is in vain. But the circumstances of His resurrection were quite widely reported, and we know that his apostles devoted their entire lives in ways that would not be thinkable, except on the absolute certainty that this had happened. So yes, I think it is central, and I devote a certain amount of time to that. It is, I think youíre correct in suggesting that it is often thought of as simply a myth, sort of a happy thought. I donít think itís happy thought. If it were, as Russell Kirk--I quote here--then Christianity would be something--nothing more than simply conjurings of social observations. Itís the startling fact, Christ rose.
DAVID GERGEN: A good deal of your life in a quiet way has been devoted to sort of settling or wrestling with these questions, almost--wrestling with the angel. You brought together a group of people called the Forum, who were people who had come to Christianity, come to Catholicism during their lives, and had serious--
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: Yes. I thought it would be interesting to take six or seven very bright people, three or four of them professionals, scholars, and say to them, look, here are some questions that pass through the mind of everybody whoís experimenting with Christianity, whoís thinking about it--how did you react when that went through your mind and what was it that caused you finally to adopt the faith? Iím talking about people like Russell Kirk, Ernest Van Hoeg--very reputable scholars. I think it was a successful part of my book because it lets people in on the mystery of the Church and whatever attachments in their case brought them to Catholicism. This isnít a book just for Catholics, as you know.
DAVID GERGEN: No.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: Itís a book about Christianity and about religion. But I am a Catholic, and hardly conceal the fact.
DAVID GERGEN: Yes. There was one question you put to them that Iíd like to put to you, just to paraphrase it a bit. Was there one feature of the Catholic Church distinguishing it from other Christian sects that, in particular, kept you a Catholic, kept you in the Church, and, if so, what was it?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: I think it is the centrality of the assumption that the Catholic Church is the Church that was founded by Christ. But they all have polisticity, for sure. A lot of people do think that. And if itís so, then youíd want to say, well, give me a good reason for not joining it? Now, I know there are an awful lot of reasons, awful lot of subtle, theological questions here, but that is the point that is most--that, plus also its general record and the constancy of its performance are morally--I find that pretty impressive. Two thousand years is a long time.
DAVID GERGEN: And you believe--
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: Thatís longer than the Democratic Party, isnít it?
DAVID GERGEN: It is. You believe, as well, in the infallibility of the Papacy.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: Yes. You have to say that carefully. The Pope cannot pass along anything that contravenes the judgment of God as revealed. That is to say, when he speaks infallibly, which has only been two or three times, he cannot mislead--we consider that a commitment of Christ, that he will not let the Church mislead us on basic doctrinal matters.
DAVID GERGEN: Many people, when they think about Bill Buckley, they think, of course, as the conservative intellectual leader in conservative thought. How has your Christian belief influenced your views on conservatism?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: Well, itís made me right all the time. (laughing) My position is ultimately based on my conviction that the individual is supreme; that you canít mess with the individual. In this sense I think Jesse--Martin Luther King said really the same thing. I quote Martin Luther King in this book, and I cite his evocation of Christianity as the source of his feeling that man should be free and go on to wonder why, where Martin Luther King has celebrated these days, but the Christian faith that inspired him is very widely neglected in the same places.
DAVID GERGEN: We have only a short time left, but I wanted to ask you, as a devout Catholic, and as a conservative, how do you then square your conservatism with views of the Catholic Church on social responsibility, the more modern views that have been promulgated by the Church?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: Thereís always a tendency in churches, as far as I can see, to say weíve got to build one more gymnasium for the homeless. And I think we should build one more gymnasium--donít get me wrong--but the attempt to suck spiritual energy into activity of that kind, in my judgment, doesnít really pay off. Thereís a spiritual hunger in the world, and that hunger is appeased by the worship of God and by an attempt to follow his commandments. Now, there is nothing in the social doctrines of the Church that can be said to be crystallized, that contradicts any position Iíve ever taken, unless you can come up with one.
DAVID GERGEN: I havenít yet, but Iím sure others will now try. Bill Buckley, thank you very much.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: Thank you so much.