William F. Buckley, Jr.

June 2, 2017

William Buckley’s “Blasphemy?”

Popular liberal Christian commentator Brian McLaren recently recalled “blasphemous” comments from the late William F. Buckley, an intellectual founder of modern conservatism and a devout Catholic:

During the Reagan years, when I was about 30, I remember reading an article about William F. Buckley, Jr.’s profound influence on Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement. I remember being shocked by a quote from Buckley included in the article. I cut it out and put it in a file folder for later use, but eventually lost the folder, even though I remembered its basic content.

Recently, through a google search, I found the quote again, and it seems especially fitting this week.

In 1960, Russian leader Nikita Kruschev visited the United States, and in response to his visit, Buckley gave an address called, “In the End, We Will Bury Him” (September 17, 1960). He said,

Khrushchev cannot take permanent advantage of our temporary disadvantage, for it is the West he is fighting…. Khrushchev is not aware that the gates of hell shall not prevail against us…. In the end, we will bury him.

Politically, it’s disturbing enough in light of Buckley’s words to watch Trump’s GOP show such deep affection for Putin and other autocrats.

But theologically, I’m even more unsettled. For Buckley, a Catholic, “the West” was made equivalent to “the church” in Jesus’ promise (Mt. 16:18), “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

I suppose such an equivalence makes sense if one sees Constantine’s conversion of Christianity in 312 CE as a good, even God-ordained thing.

But it’s tragic, ridiculous, even blasphemous, if one considers the actual content of Matthew 16, where Jesus makes clear that his triumph will occur, not through Jesus “burying” his foes, but rather through his willingness to be arrested, be humiliated, be tortured, be killed, and himself be buried. Jesus victory will transcend the whole meta-narrative of redemptive violence – transcend it and in so doing, discredit it.

McLaren’s accusation of blasphemy and, even worse no doubt from his perspective, Constantinianism, against Buckley should only be considered after knowing the context of Buckley’s comments, which McLaren truncated.

Buckley had organized a Carnegie Hall rally against Khrushchev’s American visit and concluded his peroration against communist crimes this way:

Ladies and Gentlemen, we deem it the central revelation of Western experience that man cannot ineradicably stain himself, for the wells of regeneration are infinitely deep. No temple has ever been so profaned that it cannot be purified; no man is ever truly lost; no nation is irrevocably dishonored. Khrushchev cannot take permanent advantage of our temporary disadvantage, for it is the West he is fighting. And in the West there lie, however encysted, the ultimate resources, which are moral in nature. Khrushchev is not aware that the gates of hell shall not prevail against us. Even out of the depths of despair, we take heart in the knowledge that it cannot matter how deep we fall, for there is always hope. In the end, we will bury him.

So Buckley was, as a Catholic, expressing hope in redemption and in the superior moral capital of free, lawful societies in the West over Soviet police state totalitarianism. In 1956 Khrushchev had infamously boasted to Western ambassadors: “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!” Buckley was riposting that neither history nor its Lord was on the side of Marxism-Leninism. The forces of Christian influenced civilization, based on transcendent principles instead of atheistic materialism, would instead providentially outlast communism and bury the one who sought their destruction.

Buckley’s prophecy was of course wonderfully fulfilled. Soviet communism is gone, defeated mostly peacefully by the West’s spiritual and moral weapons, and almost nobody seeks to resurrect what Khrushchev sought to impose globally. McLaren’s concern that Buckley was blasphemously conflating the West with the church is silly. Buckley cited the West’s “ultimate resources, which are moral in nature,” however “encrusted.” These resources were for Buckley the biblical insight of dignity ascribed to every human bearer of the divine image. Christ promised victory for His church and for all divinely gifted righteousness while all wickedness will be defeated and swept from the earth.

Surely McLaren shares this hope in a fully restored creation liberated from all injustice. Martin Luther King often spoke of it. It’s central to the Bible’s promises. Earthly tyrants and despotisms, including Khrushchev’s once formidable Soviet empire, cannot forever withstand God’s justice, love and grace. Great news!

So why has McLaren been “shocked” and upset for over 30 years by Buckley’s speech of 57 years ago? Does he really not understand it? Or is he upset it was wonderfully vindicated? Both Khrushchev and Buckley are now buried, but the latter died with hope in the resurrection of himself with his Lord, and the permanent establishment of a Kingdom of righteousness and peace. There’s no blasphemy in that confidence.


4 Responses to William Buckley’s “Blasphemy?”

  1. Patick98 says:

    The phrase Khrushchev used that was translated into English as “We will bury you” is the Russian language equivalent of “It’s your funeral.” He was saying that you will die before we do. The survivors bury the dead, not vice versa. He was wrong of course, as the Soviet Union is no more and there are only a few communist countries left. It can be argued that communism as a system will never work because it will always butt up against human greed, but that is another essay for another time. I think the main point to remember is this: If we don’t acknowledge that our freedom is from God and under God, we will ultimately all be slaves. Buckley knew this.

  2. Mike Ward says:

    This is good article. I already liked William Buckley, and nothing Brian McLaren has to say is ever going to change that, but it is worthwhile to see just how badly McLaren has to twist both Buckley’s meaning and Scripture to try to paint Buckley as a blasphemer.

  3. MikeS says:

    “Gates of hell”? Um, Mr McLaren, it’s called “a figure of speech”. Kind of like when Lincoln used the words “a house divided”. It is not illegal or heretical to appropriate a phase for a new setting. Way, way overthinking this.

  4. Jay says:

    Mr.Tooley, Buckley described the West’s “ultimate resources” as “encysted” not, as you wrote, “encrusted.” I think there’s a difference.

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