Remembering Bill Buckley

Who were the most publicly influential American Catholics of the twentieth century?

By shaping Vatican II’s teaching on Church-and-state, Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ, helped turn Catholicism into the world’s foremost institutional advocate of religious freedom. John F. Kennedy put Catholics into play at the highest level of our national politics. Fulton J. Sheen gave Catholicism an engaging public face on radio and television for years. Thomas Merton’s books have sold in the millions.

If by “publicly influential,” however, we mean a Catholic whose ideas changed the way Americans think, who reshaped our politics and our public policy, and whose influence seems likely to endure, then William F. Buckley, Jr., who died this past February 27, must be given his due.

The most telling thing about Bill Buckley, the man, is that so many people thought of him as a friend. Underneath those faux-High Anglican tones and that disheveled, preppie look was a genuine democrat (if his shade will pardon the term): a man who treated junior staffers and unheard-of authors with an openness and cordiality rarely found in world-famous figures. He was “Bill” the first time you met him, and “Bill” he remained. There was a lot of little boy – and a lot of rebel – in him; both traits help account for his infectious enthusiasm, his joie de vivre, and his democratic personal instincts. Above all – or, perhaps better, beneath it all – Bill Buckley was a Catholic gentleman whose faith had taught him how to treat others, including those with whom he disagreed.

The obituaries stressed his remarkable productivity as author, editor, columnist, lecturer, and television personality, to which he added the skills of an accomplished musician and sailor. He was not without ego, but he could turn his humor on himself. Running for mayor of New York, he was asked what he would do if elected; “Demand a recount,” was the immediate riposte. His first book, God and Man at Yale, was excoriated by the American educational establishment of 1951 as the reactionary ramblings of an intellectual pup who hadn’t been house-broken; today, GAMAY, as Bill sometimes called it, stands as an eerily prescient preview of the intellectual and moral implosion that’s taken place in elite American higher education over the past forty years. His best novel, Stained Glass, was a penetrating exploration of the moral dilemmas of statecraft.

He was not politically infallible, and he probably shared Barry Goldwater’s regret at having criticized, on constitutional grounds, federally mandated desegregation. No one who ever knew the man, however, could imagine him a bigot. His tolerance and civility extended far beyond the sphere of his personal relationships, however. Analysts credit Buckley with creating the “fusion” conservatism that, via National Review, brought the social/cultural conservatives, the pro-market conservatives, and the anti-communist/national security conservatives into one politically potent tent, thus making possible the Reagan Revolution. Which is true enough. But Bill’s even greater public service was to purge the conservative movement of the anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, and isolationism that had infested the fever swamps of the American Right in the FDR period and beyond. There was no room for bigotry in Bill Buckley’s big tent.

In 1949, Lionel Trilling, the Columbia literary critic who embodied the pragmatic, results-oriented  liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, deplored those American conservatives who do not “express themselves in ideas but only in actions or in irritable gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Bill Buckley changed all that, by his own intellectual efforts and sparkling personality, as well as by his nurturing the thought, the writing, and the careers of countless others. If, as Barack Obama conceded in one of his more candid moments, the conservative world has for years been the center of ideas in American politics, a lot of the credit for creating a true intellectual marketplace in our public life must go to Bill Buckley.

He once told his son, Christopher, that the active life was an antidote to melancholy. Now beyond the reach of melancholia, may he rest in peace.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”