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Morality and American Society

R&L: What role did religion or faith play in the founding of National Review in the 1950s?

Buckley: Well, it was very plain to all of my associates that I was a pro-Christian. Senior editor James Burnham was a lapsed Catholic; Willmoore Kendall, a Catholic convert; Willi Schlamm, Jewish but “pro-God;” and, of course, Whittaker Chambers was a Christian. The only event that was historically conspicuous within the annals of National Review was the resignation from the Board of Associates of Max Eastman on the grounds that we were too explicitly pro-Christian and that he, as a good faithful atheist, couldn’t take it.

R&L: What about Will Herberg? He was National Review’s religion editor.

Buckley: Will Herberg came along ten years later, as our first religion editor when we decided to have regular religion coverage. He was Jewish, of course. But years later, when he went to Drew University, I was present at a dinner at which he told the assembled company that at approximately the time he came to National Review, he was trying to decide between two Christian religions, which he considered joining: one was the Catholic Church, and one was the Lutheran Church. Ultimately, he did neither, and remained Jewish.

R&L: What impact do you suppose he had on American religious pluralism?

Buckley: Are you talking about National Review?

R&L: Well, Herberg’s role at National Review, and the whole dialogue among conservatives, with regard to broadening it beyond Christians.

Buckley: Well, I think that Herberg was widely read and widely admired, and he was in his writing “pro-God,” without being in any sense denominational. He made, I remember, a searing criticism of the series of Supreme Court rulings against the teaching of religion in schools, his point being that, however brief, any mention of God introduces a student to an entirely other, extraterrestrial dimension and that in the absence of any knowledge of that dimension, education is incomplete.

R&L: Some would say that Christianity is primarily an appeal for a better world. Others that it is to teach us how to order our souls. What would you say the interrelationship between the life of faith is with the life in society?

Buckley: I think that they are interwoven. In order to earn access to heaven, one is enjoined to improve one’s behavior. To the extent that one improves one’s behavior, one makes for a better world. The thing one has to guard against is any suggestion that Christianity, or the practice of Christianity, breeds a political utopia. It cannot do so, because the factor of original sin can never bring about what the Greeks called eudeomonia. So under the circumstances, I think that it is sloppy thought to assume that a “Christian nation” is going to head towards utopia.

R&L: To what extent do you suppose the rise in evangelicalism in Latin America is the result of the upwardly mobile and pro-capitalist orientation of evangelicals.

Buckley: I’ve read several attempts to account for that rise. I don’t find in any of them a plausible or persuasive suggestion that the reach toward capitalism translates into an attraction to evangelicalism. I have read that there are several things that contribute to it. One is a more flamboyant ceremony or ritual; another is a non-celibate leadership, and a third is a scarcity of priests, plus also a deformalization of denominational rigidity that is associated with Vatican II. I suspect all of them have something to do with it, but I don’t yet know what is the principle propulsive force.

R&L: In 1961 you took a great deal of criticism for your observations on Mater et Magistra, and to this day the quip “Mater, ‘Sí’; magistra, ‘No’” is still attributed to you. How do you view that controversy in retrospect?

Buckley: It happens that the phrase itself was not coined by me, but by Garry Wills back when he was a conservative. The paragraph I wrote about Mater et Magistra was a criticism of what I considered to be the historical relevance of what the pope was drawing attention to at the high tide of the Communist peril. It seemed to me that at a moment when priests and nuns and Catholics of every stripe were being persecuted by Castro was hardly the moment to dwell on lesser problems. I thought it was not well attuned to the hierarchies of concern, which was why I called it “a venture in triviality,” that was my phrase. The wisecrack, “Mater, ‘Sí’; magistra, ‘No’ ” was Garry Wills.

R&L: Do you feel vindicated by Centesimus Annus?

Buckley: Oh yes, I certainly do. It seems to be an extraordinarily important encyclical, which straightens out the extent to which left-minded social Catholics attempted to take Rerum Novarum and Quatrigessimo Anno, so I think it an enormously important statement.

R&L: Would you agree that there is a general lack of appreciation for liberty, particularly economic liberty, among the clergy?

Buckley: Yes, I think that there has been a massive neglect in education into the inter-relationship between liberty and productivity, and of course productivity and surplus, and therefore surplus and philanthropy and charity. There is no way in which one can look after one’s neighbor until one has looked after oneself. And therefore, one needs the liberty to have that surplus in order to respond to the commandment to concern ourselves with one’s neighbor. I would hardly be the first commentator to say that the social teachers of the church very seldom have concerned themselves at all with the problem of production. They are always talking about distribution. But there can’t be any distribution until there is production. And the key to production is, of course, liberty–economic liberty.

R&L: Do you see this as an ecumenical problem?

Buckley: Yes, yes I do see it as an ecumenical problem, though I think it more a Catholic problem than a Protestant problem, because the ethics of Protestantism have always been much more at home with capitalism than Catholicism has been.

R&L: To what extent do you see the welfare state as responsible for the moral breakdown in society in general, and the disintegration of the family in particular?

Buckley: I think the welfare state has in fact loosened those sanctions that have tended to operate in the direction of keeping families together. The most blatant example of that, of course, is the suspension of AFDC benefits to households in which there is an adult male, causing the evacuation in many households of the father, because they stand in the way of those welfare checks. The natural, intuitive sense of responsibility of a mother for the welfare of a child is obviously affected by economic reality, and in a situation in which there is general concern over whether a child can be looked after, there is a corresponding sense of responsibility and continence in sexual engagement. So that although I would resist an absolute correlation between the welfare state and the rise in illegitimacy, I would absolutely affirm that there is a correspondence, though not exact.

R&L: You have taken a stand in favor of the general legalization of drugs. How do you make moral sense out of that position?

Buckley: I don’t think access to vice is an endorsement of vice. I think that people who smoke cigarettes and drink too much whiskey are violating one of the primary commandments, the cardinal virtue against lust and the cardinal virtue against profligate consumption. But the fact that there is whiskey to buy does not in my judgement translate into an endorsement of alcoholism. The fact that marijuana is there to be smoked does not, in my judgment, transform into an endorsement of marijuana. I take a purely instrumental view of it, in fact I’m in favor of licensed brothels on the grounds, obviously not that I would endorse prostitution, but that I’m convinced by the data that one is better off under regulated vice than under unregulated vice in an age in which there is AIDS and other venereal diseases and today, in an age in which there are whole criminal subcultures and the corruption of minors as a result of the profit element of illegal drugs.

R&L: Your point on prostitution is somewhat akin to the early St. Augustine, who agreed with the legalization of prostitution and, for that matter, heresy.

Buckley: That’s correct. And of course prostitution was legal in France, as a Catholic country, for over a hundred years, and before that in Italy.

R&L: Your friend and colleague, Whittaker Chambers, once said that freedom is really a political reading of the Bible. What did he mean, and do you agree with him?

Buckley: It’s a tight metaphor, nevertheless, defensible. I think that he meant that just as Christianity asks each person on his own to earn salvation– praying, to be sure, for grace and relying on God for help–by the same token capitalism leaves the consumer pretty much in charge, not only of what he selects to do with his economic surplus, but with the freedom to accumulate that surplus. So there are those correlations which Chambers pointed out.