Bill Buckley and the One-Line Response

saintbilloifyaleThere was a time when liberals and conservatives could have conversations that were not only enlightening but also entertaining.

All that began to fade when the Newt Gingrich crafted his GOP Contract with America, which essentially declared Republicans had no further interest in bipartisan dialogue or, for that matter, in fighting fair to achieve their far-right goals.

Fair-minded conversation between liberals and conservatives was soon blocked by the formation of the TEA Party, which was described by NAACP President Julian Bond as “the Taliban wing of the Republican Party.”

And sane discourse became really quite sincerely dead with the advent of the Trump Circus. Trump, of course, is not really a conservative; he’s a self-obsessed narcissist whose views are so far right he cannot escape being compared to white supremacists and neo-Nazis. And most Republicans in Congress are so intimidated by his bullying that they swim blindly in his turbulent wake.

The only comfort I can find these days is that most of my truly conservative friends are as appalled by Trump’s blundering and amoral presence as I am.

Dear God, how I miss the days when ideological dialogue was pleasant and edifying. In particular I miss William F. Buckley, Jr., whose views were far to the right of mind but whose editorials in National Review were always worth reading. Under his editorship, the philosophical slant of the National Review was conservative, intelligent, open-minded, and frequently humorous. Back in the days when I was editor of The American Baptist magazine, I never missed an issue of the Review.

One thing I learned from Bill Buckley is that he never shied away from a challenge to his views and, apparently, that he always answered his mail. He answered his mail even in those long-gone days when letters had to be typed and envelopes stamped.

Somewhere in the American Baptist communications archives of the seventies and eighties are two letters from Buckley, one-line comments typed on plain bond paper.

The first was in response to my first boss, the Rev. Dr. Frank A. Sharp, director of American Baptist News Service, who wrote a weekly column on religion and culture for a local daily newspaper. Frank, a liberal in theology and politics, wrote to Buckley in 1974 to announce he was going to send him copies of the column. Buckley, who could easily have ignored the warning, replied, “Thank you, Doctor, but you really needn’t bother.”

In the summer of 1982 I read an editorial by Buckley that annoyed me. He opined that the nation’s seminaries were hotbeds of liberalism.

I used my own editorial to respond that Mr. Buckley – a famous Catholic – had lost sight of the fact that “the most conservative possible interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount” and other utterances of Jesus are “fundamental aspects of the faith.” I cited Jesus’ teachings about violence and hatred (Matthew 5:38-44), the nature of riches (Matthew 19:16-23), and Christian concerns for those on the fringes of society (Matthew 25:31-45) and concluded, “No Christian who seeks to conserve God’s word would dare seek to explain these teachings away, or water them down.”

I suggested somewhat condescendingly that Mr. Buckley might be excused for regarding God’s word as “too idealistic and impractical … He does, after all, live in the real world, and his philosophy for life in that reality is always wise and well stated in his (writing).”

“But he goes too far, “ I concluded, “when he insinuates that Christians who seek to live their faith in the manner Jesus commanded are ‘liberal.’ Those Christians are, in fact, the last true conservatives” those who believe Jesus’ words enough to apply them to the real world.”

With youthful chutzpah (I was in my mid-thirties in 1982), I sent Buckley a copy of my editorial, thinking I might have made some point he would consider valid.

Within days he replied, again on plain bond paper with a single typewritten sentence centered on the page. “Thank you, Mr. Jenks, it would seem the differences between us are quite comprehensive.”

Looking back, I realize what a significant response that was.

Like his response to Frank Sharp, it was polite, succinct, and showed Bill Buckley’s willingness to read any idea that crossed his desk however comprehensively different it was from his own thinking.

That kind of interaction is sorely missed today.

I hope the rational conservative spirit of a bygone era will soundly reject the Trump take-over of the GOP and restore sanity and civility to our political dialogue.

Even when our differences are quite comprehensive.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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