If a classic, as Mark Twain claimed, is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read, then William F. Buckley, Jr.’s God and Man at Yale is the epitome of a conservative classic. Few who have read it (and they are indeed few) would dispute its importance to the founding of modern conservatism. As the historian George Nash said, God and Man was “probably the most controversial book in the history of conservatism since 1945 and it’s importance for this movement is manifold.”
Still, it’s a book about the failings of Yale in the mid-twentieth century. If you suspect it’s an anachronistic cultural artifact you won’t be wrong. Buckley spends a considerable portion of the book calling out Yale professors and administrators for being irreligious and socialistic. The perverse appeal of watching the impish young Yalie naming names is muted by the fact that few of the names are people you’d recognize.
This was what made the book controversial. But what made it truly outrageous at the time — and makes it even more scandalous now — is the primary thesis. God and Man is a polemic with a simple, inflammatory proposal: Because Yale actively undermines the students’ faith in Christianity and the free market, the alumni should withhold financial support from the university. The corollary was obvious: Yale should do something about these professors.
Consider, for a moment, the audacity of the suggestion. The idea that an Ivy League school should restrict academic freedom when teachers use it to erode confidence in economic freedom and Christianity is even more peculiar now than it was in 1951. Today, even assistant professors at podunk Bible colleges think they should have the right to undermine the faith of their students. At a school like Yale, you would be shocked if the professors didn’t denigrate conservative religious and economic beliefs.
Buckley understood that Truth not only does not always trump falsehood, but it can never win unless it is promulgated. He believed Christianity has already been established as an “ultimate, irrefutable truth.” For a believer to treat it as an open question — in any situation or context — would not only be intellectually dishonest but would be a surrender to the forces that worked for our destruction.
In God and Man he unapologetically declares, “I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.”
Who would have the courage to make such a claim today? Can you imagine the reaction if a prominent conservative were to say that at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)? After the crowd recovered from fainting at such a bigoted religious view, they’d boo him from the stage. How dare he besmirch the good conservative atheists? They have as much claim to the title “conservative” as anyone else.
How remarkable that the thesis of a book that helped launch the conservative movement could, less than half a century later, be completely repudiated by people who claim to be the author’s intellectual heirs. But until this year, it would have been safe to say that it had only been repudiated in part — the Christian part. Now, though, in the era of Trump, the love of free enterprise is also being discarded.
For at least two decades, the denigration of Christianity was deemed as acceptable. For example, an atheist who actively worked to undermine traditional Judeo-Christian morality and conservative social issues could always receive a book deal with a conservative publisher, a fellowship at a conservative think-tank, or a place on the masthead of a major conservative publication. What you could not do during that time — at least not without being stripped of the label “conservative” — was question free market orthodoxy. But in a rush to embrace Donald Trump, many conservatives are now willing to leave behind both their Christian convictions and their belief in the benefits of free enterprise.
Consider, for instance, the new draft of the GOP platform. As CNN notes,
The most substantial changes to the 2012 platform came on trade — a key issue for Trump where he has sparred with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other reliable conservative business backers. The new language sounds remarkably like Trump, though it stays away from some of his more inflammatory positions including renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Overall, the relevant section of the draft says international trade is beneficial to the American economy, but decries “massive deficits.” It speaks of a “worldwide multilateral agreement” that promotes open market ideals.
“We need better negotiated trade agreements that put America first,” the draft reads, borrowing a line directly from Trump.
The benefits of free trade have been known for so long that even most liberal economists accept it as obvious. Yet all it took was the incoherent rantings of an economically illiterate GOP nominee for conservatives to throw free trade overboard. How can conservatives, who should understand how trade has benefitted Americans, support a policy that could be a plank in the Socialist Party platform? And if we are willing to accept this anti-free market position, what comes next?
What is to become of a conservative movement that undermines both Christianity and the free market? What will be left when it is replaced with the nationalist, folk Marxian, know-nothingness of Trumpism? Where do free market loving Christians go when the movement started by Bill Buckley is taken over by The Donald?