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A Farewell to Conservatism: James Baldwin and William F. Buckley’s Classic Debate

In the spirit of full disclosure, let me put my cards on the table. I grew up in a conservative, white, evangelical home in West Texas in the 1970s and 80s. I went on mission trips with my Southern Baptist youth group in high school. I remember putting a bumper sticker on my car, sometime in the late 80s that read, “I don’t believe the liberal media.” When my father was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1984 on the coattails of Ronald Reagan, I was convinced that the “Reagan Revolution” would save the world, or at least play a major redemptive role.

I vividly remember, as a young teenager, seeing magazines such as Human Events and The National Review on the coffee table, having just arrived in the mail. The name William F. Buckley (founder of The Review) was frequently heard in household conversation.

The ensuing decades of my life have seen multiple waves of personal/ideological change and growth through which my thinking has been completely reformatted: postmodern philosophy at a secular university, marriage to a woman born in Laos (who immigrated to the U.S. at age five), several years’ worth of Reformed theology in seminary, serving as a Presbyterian minister in a conservative Reformed denomination for almost a decade, finally landing as an Episcopal priest with a Ph.D. in philosophy (refracted through the lens, to keep things simple, of Radical Orthodoxy).

Put through the grinder of all these worldview shifts, my original white, conservative, teenage perspective could hardly remain intact. Deconstruction wins.

And yet, I have always had a “thing” for conservatism, a gnawing fascination I cannot seem to shake. More recently I have realized that authentic conservativism (itself a modern phenomenon) is actually a commitment to tradition (à la thinkers such as Edmund Burke). At times I’ve wondered if, for me, conservativism isn’t like an umbilical cord, connecting me to some pre-natal, existential origin.

How does this primordial tether manifest itself in our current milieu of identity politics, failing institutions, and Black Lives Matter protests (in which I have participated)? Should it simply be severed? In attempt to answer this question (or to scratch this itch) I recently decided to watch (for the first time) the 1965 debate, held at the Union at Cambridge University, between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley. What’s more, I watched it not alone but with a trusted friend in my parish, a thoughtful, non-white woman of Brazilian descent, about fifteen years younger than me.

What’s immediately clear, upon viewing the debate, is its utter relevance to our current cultural moment in 2020. Any assumption of conceptual or cultural obsolescence is immediately dispelled. Baldwin, who grew up in poverty in Brooklyn, later to become a renowned literary critic and essayist, speaks of personal identity, and how the dominant culture squelches it for Black individuals. He also rhetorically establishes the transgenerational impact of slavery. Buckley, scion of wealth, reeks of white privilege.

And yet, for me, the debate is so riveting because, at some level, I wanted Buckley to win. Or at least I wanted him to succeed in making a plausible case. I wanted to believe that the “conservative tradition,” even in this context, could make some kind of compelling argument about why the progressive stance is misguided.

Alas, I was disappointed.

At some level I feel like my experience of digesting this rhetorical performance is the final nail in the coffin of my dalliance with conservatism, at least in its American (and non-catholic) form.

Allow me briefly to discuss three aspects of the exchange (two blunders from Buckley and one strength of Baldwin) which attract me to Baldwin’s side.

First, Buckley speaks of “the failure of the negro community itself, to make certain exertions which were made by other minority groups [such as the Irish immigrant community] during the American experience.” This claim fails to see the multi-generational impact of slavery upon the African American community, and construes human nature primarily in individualistic terms. In contrast to this, Scripture speaks of the generational effects of sin, and sees human identity as fundamentally communal and corporate. At the very least, one can say that biblical anthropology is at least as corporate as it is individualistic. Buckley’s failure to admit that the effects of generations of slavery upon entire generations of African Americans explains the “failure” of the African American community to thrive is unacceptable in my opinion.

Second, Buckley refers to the African American community as “they.” In the course of his remarks it is clear that for him the primary dividing line between “us” and “them” runs between white Americans and Black Americans. For Buckley, “our civilization” is not defined as one which includes a diversity of cultures and ethnicities. Rather, as he makes plain, it is “European culture.” I fully admit that Buckley is the product of his own cultural conditioning, but, still, this way of thinking falls short of Christian morality. I root this claim not on the basis of some secular “multiculturalism” but rather on what you might call “the sociology of the church.” The global eucharistic community of Christ is not (and never was) simply European, and St. Paul explicitly extols the cultural heterogeneity of the Christian community (e.g., Eph. 3:10). The call for the people of God to include the nations (ethnoi) is as old as the covenant itself, as God’s call to Abraham makes clear, for example, in Genesis 12. Granted, the United States is not the Church. Still, the socio-political ethos of the Church as diverse and multi-ethnic ought to give a purported conservative like Buckley pause. Cultural homogeneity is foreign to the catholic tradition at its best.

Finally, a compelling feature of Baldwin’s address is that he speaks from experience, vividly bearing witness to the experience of Black people in the United States (building railroads while receiving no compensation, for example). At one point, Buckley chides the progressive cause for its theoretical presumption, as if the brokenness of the human condition can be solved by a few technocratic tweaks. (This refrain of conservative political theory is well-taken, by the way.) Yet it is Buckley, I fear, who is in danger of the charge of eclipsing the practical, for he fails to take seriously the first-person testimony which Baldwin gives to his own experience of suffering.

While I freely admit that we live in an ailing culture in which victimhood is the dominant narrative, having reached an unassailable level of canonical authority, nevertheless a Christian attitude will take suffering seriously. In this regard the African American community of Baldwin’s day (and likely that of today, as well) occupies the place of God’s people in both testaments: often vulnerable, oppressed, and marginalized. The frequent calls for justice which we find in the Old Testament make sense only from this perspective.

The value of the Baldwin/Buckley debate, in short, lies in its relatively simple framing of issues surrounding race and justice, and this without being simplistic. The decades since have brought layers and layers of complexification. For me, the upshot is this: enabled by this debate to peel back the layers of “left” and “right” regarding race issues in America, I find that the core posture of Baldwin is superior to that of Buckley.

And yet, I am far from jettisoning my love affair with tradition (if not conservatism). Indeed, the authentic Christian and ecclesial witness today must rework and rearticulate the tradition such that it recognizes the dignity of, and gives away power to, the James Baldwins of our day. Authentic catholic tradition, I still hold, is big enough for the task.

I walk away from this debate, in short, with a keener distinction between catholic tradition and political conservatism (especially in its American, even secular, variety). It is the latter, and not tradition as such, which is the real loser in the debate.

Fr. Matt Boulter is the associate rector at Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, and recently completed a PhD in medieval philosophy at Maynooth University, Ireland.

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