Buckley’s Big Mistake

William F. Buckley Jr. was, like most American conservatives, a traditionalist Christian who was appalled at the secularization of western culture. And like most who share his right wing world-view, he made a mistake that is astonishing in its naivety — a mistake that is helping wreck western religion while it promotes the very secularization of the population Buckley et al. decry. It is the Grand Alliance between the religious right and corporate capital.

The Bible was written by Bronze and Iron Age peoples who had little concept about modern free enterprise. Nor did Jesus talk about stock options or hedge funds. Many early Christians lived in communistic communities where property was considered sinful. The fundamentalist Protestant William Jennings Bryan used to rail against the secular forces of capital. The Roman Church Buckley belonged to has always looked askance at capitalism. Yet, especially since World War II, the bulk of the conservative Christian cause — mainly evangelical with a number of Catholics going along for the ride — have embraced free wheeling, deregulated, laissez-faire, corporate capitalism as though it is God’s way for his human creations to manage their large scale economics.

What explains this peculiar and unprecedented amalgamation of economic modernity with social and religious traditionalism? Obviously corporate capitalism has become the modern American Way, and is a source of pride for most on the right. It is equally obvious to these people that God is pro-America, so it follows that God must think that free enterprise the best way for his creations. Intellectual justification for this notion derives from Buckley’s argument that individual free will is critical for human salvation, another innovation that would perplex traditional Christians. The Christian right goes on to imagine that the free market of commerce and ideas will somehow return the nation to the traditional religious culture they crave. The ultimate expression of this world-view is found in Protestant, Charismatic Prosperity Christianity, the self-help megachurch phenomenon in which self-aggrandizing ministers contend that the Lord wants all of his followers to be as rich as possible.

Horrified by the rise of the counterculture starting in the 1960s, major elements of the religious right decided to fight back by allying with the corporate interests under the aegis of the Republican Party, allowing them to leverage their political power well above their minority status. But this alliance of convenience is a deal with the corporate devil. In their incessant need to maximize the market base and profits, a fundamental aim of corporate capital is to transform western citizens into materialistic, hedonistic, sex, violence, celebrity and sports obsessed consumers whose life goals and values deviate from those associated with traditional piety. And to a large degree the population has gone along with the project even as it complains about it — people want to be free to have a lot more fun than the churches want them to.

One reason only a quarter of the public attends church on a given Sunday is because lots of busy shoppers prefer to hit the stores on Sunday — which became possible only after the retailers helped repeal the Puritanical Blue Laws. Bill O’Reilly targets secularists for waging war on Xmas in order to divert attention away from how the mercantile powers have remade the event into a shop-til-you drop secular holiday. The right once owned the culture via the oppressive Comstock Laws, and the Hayes Code that ruled Hollywood. Nowadays not a single conservative Christian themed program graces the corporate owned entertainment networks, whose programming is steeped in the salacious and irreligious. Such as FOX’s hypergraphic medical drama House which stars a proudly atheist MD. Rupert Murdoch’s entertainment empire is notorious for offering an array of irreligious TV and film product that feeds cultural secularization, while his FOX News presents conservative pundits such as O-Reilly are careful to charge the faithless liberals, not the capitalists, with coarsening the culture. Despite winning the occasional battle, the right has lost the culture war as the corporate world takes its putative religious allies for a ride.

The damage to American faith has been immense. God-fearing America is experiencing the popular secularization that has already imploded faith in the rest of the west. Church membership has been slipping from its peak in the 1950s, with men especially leaving the pews. The latter is a demographic disaster for the churches because most children pick up their non/religion from their fathers, and American youth is increasingly nonreligious. Christians as a whole are in decline as Protestants approach minority status for the first time. Until recently it was the mainstream churches that were taking it on the chin, but the evangelical right has stalled out too, and a report by the once mighty Southern Baptist church laments that “evangelistically, the denomination is on a path of slow but discernable deterioration.” Two recent Harris polls found that disbelievers have ballooned from a couple of million in the 1950s to some 60 million today, rivaling the Catholics and the evangelicals in numbers. The nonreligious doubled in just the last dozen years.

William Buckley was instrumental in shifting the American Christian right from William Bryan’s old fashioned anti-capitalism to its modern enthusiasm for mass consumerism. To be blunt about it, for all his erudite intellectualism Buckley was not socially astute; the populist Bryan had much better horse sense concerning the dangers that the capitalist world-view posed for popular piety. One has to wonder exactly how right-wingers think that they will get a traditionalist culture out of the rat-race that is the pursuit of wealth and pleasure. Instead, Buckley’s Grand Alliance has predictably backfired. The corporate-consumer culture has been a disaster for mass faith in every western democracy — that’s one reason the Vatican remains so skeptical about it. But to be fair, it is not like the religious right has much in the way of viable options. They are in a classic socio-political bind. If they break off their Republican collaboration with capital they will lose what political power they have, which is already sliding as the growing secularism favors the Democrats. Nor can the churches compete for cultural influence with commercial forces that enjoy a cash flow amounting to many trillions each year. It looks like there is little that the followers of Buckley can do to stem much less reverse the rise of popular secularism.

Further reading

In “Why the Gods Are Not Winning,” Edge (2007) 4/30; Phil Zuckerman and I discuss additional socio-economic forces that help secularize western societies. I detail some of the societal positives of popular secularism in “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look,” Journal of Religion and Society (2005), 5, (covered by Lee Salisbury, “Religion May Be Dangerous to Our Health,” Dissident Voice).

Gregory Paul is an independent researcher on subjects dealing with paleontology, evolution, religion and society. Books include Predatory Dinosaurs of the World and Dinosaurs of the Air. Read other articles by Gregory.

22 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. joed said on March 5th, 2008 at 6:11am #

    very interesting article. there is a book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit Of Capitalism” by early sociologist Max Weber. this book tells about “Calvinism”. it tells about wealth and the god connection. why some people are wealthy and others aren’t. buckley, it seems, had read the book. i am suprised Weber’s book wasn’t mentioned in the article.
    thanks again for the fine article

  2. David A. Smith said on March 5th, 2008 at 8:36am #

    I agree with joed – this article would have been greatly enhanced if it had incorporated ideas from Weber’s insightful work. It would have helped with a deeper historical understanding of the relationship between western religions and capitalism.
    A little broader history there might have also have suggested that looking only as far as the 1960’s for a history of the Republican Party conundrum would be profitable. (Our “friends” in talk radio make this same mistake, thinking that the Goldwater Republicans were pre-history and that they somehow took over the the party after his loss. They never understood they were just along for the ride, something that the return of McCain aptly demonstrates.)

  3. Hatuxka said on March 5th, 2008 at 9:41am #

    Beautiful article, the two pedantic, pedagogic responses above nothwithstanding.

  4. Michael Kenny said on March 5th, 2008 at 9:57am #

    A few small points of terminology. “Traditionalist” has a very special meaning in the Catholic Church, i.e. the Latin Mass crowd, with the Society of St. Pius X being the most extreme, and still not reconciled to Rome. Buckley was never a traditionalist. I always regarded him and such other NR Catholics as he hadn’t dismissed, as turncoat Catholics, who had sold the Church out to the Evangelicals and the Jews.

    Also the “Bible” was not written by Bronze and Iron Age peoples, the Old Testament (i.e. the “Jewish Bible” as we called it) was. Catholics, other than theologians, pay little enough to the Bible anyway but they pay hardly any to the Old Testamant. I learned most of what I know about Moses from watching Charlton Heston portray him!

  5. hp said on March 5th, 2008 at 12:33pm #

    Buckley’s betrayal of Joe Sobran spoke volumes. “For fear of the Jews.”

  6. Lloyd Rowsey said on March 5th, 2008 at 1:10pm #

    No, it was Gore’s big mistake not to have dragged Norman Mailer to boxing-match session with Lord Buckley.

    And for readers who think Norman was never a socialist, there’s his almost vanished second book, Barbary Shore.

  7. DavidG. said on March 5th, 2008 at 4:37pm #

    The Christian church (according to the Gospels) and Capitalism should be diametrically opposed. Yet they coexist quite happily!

    It’s amazing, the way the scriptures can be interpreted, how flexible its meanings are when there’s money to be made and religious empires to be built!

    Jesus, were he to return, would be disgusted at what has occurred in his name.

  8. HR said on March 5th, 2008 at 6:14pm #

    As I recall, the Calvinists (Puritans), who share many traits with “modern” evangelicals, including a strong tendency to authoritarianism, had no problem with capitalism, or at least with people getting filthy rich, long before WWII. Seems to me they figured rich people were more likely to be among the preordained chosen based on how god had smiled on them during their earthly existence. As one raised in the cult of Southern Baptism, I find this article a little off base in places. And, I believe it gives far too much credit to Buckley, who was for the most part no more than a slightly entertaining monster, even in his heyday. Kind of sad to see the left laud the jerk so much. He really wasn’t worth the waste of all the words said about him following his one decent action: dying.

  9. Lloyd Rowsey said on March 5th, 2008 at 9:11pm #

    For those with an interest in the 17th century and Weber’s famous thesis, I recommend (again, as in a post to another DV article several weeks ago) the ground-breaking 45-page essay in HR Trevor-Roper’s “The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century” (Harper & Row, 1956) by the title of “Religion, the Reformation and Social Change.” After actually tracing families — ie, naming names — of persecuted and displaced, incredibly successful capitalists, including Jews, and Catholics in addition to Protestants, T-R concludes it was persecution that drove the capitalist process in the 17th century rather than a spirit specific to Protestantism.

    This interpretation, “liberal” or even “conservative” as it seems to radicals or progressives, is less unpalatable to those with more radical political sympathies. But for whatever reason, T-R is well remembered for “The Last Days of Hitler” but this landmark of intellectual history is largely forgotten and, evidently, widely ignored in social science curriculums today.

  10. Lloyd Rowsey said on March 5th, 2008 at 9:41pm #

    Well said, HR.

    And thank you for this article, GP. It summarizes and says a great deal about The 20th Century’s Greatest Tele-Evangelist.

  11. Arch Stanton said on March 6th, 2008 at 1:54pm #


  12. Eric said on March 6th, 2008 at 3:44pm #

    Bingo. This is such a critical concept and you have articulated the motivation behind 50 years of American Conservatism beautifully.

    I mean, here’s a so-called Christian movement that stays silent for “Shock and Awe”, torture and illegal war; pursues social programs that target – rather than assist – the poor; and advocates for the most lethal military buildup in human history. It’s like they decided to cherry-pick their way through scripture, conveniently skipping the The Beatitudes, for instance. The next time anyone wonders why I will send them to this URL. And then I’ll add “just follow the money”.

    Nicely done.


  13. AaronG said on March 6th, 2008 at 6:33pm #

    Good comment by DavidG above…….

    Yes, like any document, scripture CAN be interpreted wrongly or out of context if one has the wrong motive (eg lust for power, greed, justification for genocide or justification for the clergy preying on their young flock) . But the whole document, the Bible, has a theme which cannot be denied when read from cover to cover. That theme is the vindication of God’s Kingdom and the judgment (and eventual destruction) of greedy human rulership structures.

    I think we should all stop being disappointed with Big Religion’s behaviour, as if they are the rightful guardians of religious truth. They don’t represent the Bible any more than Bush does. It would take me 10 minutes of explanation to my 3yo daughter for her to understand the hypocrisy behind their actions, compared to their speech. Even she would understand, after showing her Jesus’ words to “love your neighbour” and “do not be part of the world”, that these guys are not living by those simple principles and that they are a scam. They have a Religion Pty Ltd, but they do not have a faith. She would be old enough soon to see the difference. She would soon understand that there is no difference between Big Religion (with Santa Claus) and Big Business (with Ronald McDonald). They both have a CEO, CFO, Managing Director and shareholders…..and a horde of consumers who blindly keep putting cash onto the collection plate. In actual fact, my daughter, with a few more years of understanding, would then be able to see that Big Religion actually has an advantage over Big Business. This advantage is not insignificant. It hits us every time we collect our pay packet. It hits Big Business to such an extent that they try to dodge it any which (illegal) way they can………….it’s called TAX. Yes, this global scam is not only ripping us off and killing us, it’s doing it free of tax. For anyone who owns a small business (or is on salary like me) just think about that advantage for a second. We start working for ourselves from about some time on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday. Big Religion starts counting their cash from about Monday morning 6am! Mmmmmm, tax free, what a business.

    So I think we should stop being shocked by their actions, their political alliances, their scams, their involvement in wars, their lack of real faith. It’s time to see through their hypocrisy. The Creator has……..

    The Bible forecasted Big Religion’s demise/destruction along with Big Business and Big Politics. Even though these verses quoted below are taken individually, with no room here for explanation of context, background etc, I think you’ll agree that there’s not much room for misinterpretation of them (unless you’re heavily involved in ripping off churchgoers with your “Prosperity Preaching” doctrine, or have your religious tentacles deep into the hallways of Washington/Whitehall):

    “Not everyone saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the one doing the will of my Father who is in the heavens will.” – Matt 7:21

    Jesus answered: “My kingdom is no part of this world.” – John 18:36

    [Referring to what the Bible calls “Babylon the Great”, or Big Religion] And I heard another voice out of heaven say: “Get out of her, my people, if you do not want to share with her in her sins, and if you do not want to receive part of her plagues. For her sins have massed together clear up to heaven, and God has called her acts of injustice to mind.” – Rev 18:4,5

    Thanks for the article, Gregory.


  14. Jeremy Wells said on March 6th, 2008 at 10:25pm #

    Here is link to WSWS story, with interesting background information:

    William F. Buckley, longtime propagandist for US ultra-right, dies at 82
    By Patrick Martin
    5 March 2008


    For some 30 years, from the founding of National Review in 1955 to the rise of right-wing talk radio in the 1980s, Buckley was the most prominent advocate for what would become the dominant position within the American ruling class: opposition to any government effort to alleviate social distress; hostility to popular movements of the oppressed, whether in the United States or internationally; and a repudiation of the compromises made on both these fronts by the New Deal of the 1930s.

    “Buckley was put in a position to play this role because of his family’s wealth and connections. His father, William F. Buckley, Sr., was a wealthy oilman with holdings in Mexico and Venezuela, who reportedly played a role in financing the Cristero rebellion in Mexico—a right-wing, Catholic Church-inspired revolt in reaction to the Mexican Revolution of 1911-1919.”

  15. Lloyd Rowsey said on March 7th, 2008 at 7:25am #

    I’m SO glad I laid off a day and then CHECKED BACK!! Thank you, Eric, for the Bingo-Bango. The web site you link us to is yours? Well, whose-ever’s, it’s substantively solid and has a hoot for a title (“change for crying out loud Anything!”).

    And thank you, Jeremy. The lead piece by Patrick Martin is the best, most thoughtful, and analytical dissection of The Buckley I’ve read to date. Of course, the wsws has had the luxury of polishing its gemlike obit for forty years. 🙂

  16. MonkeyBoy said on March 7th, 2008 at 10:26am #

    I think a large element missing in your analysis of the alliance between the religious and the rich is communism.

    Somehow the rich convinced the religious that anything less than free wheeling capitalism is a step toward communism and that communism by definition will persecute the religious.

    One symbol of this is “in God We Trust”, which was placed on our units of capital in the 1950 as an explicit swipe at godless communism.

  17. Eric said on March 7th, 2008 at 2:29pm #

    Thanks right back at you Lloyd for the nice thoughts on my site…

    A great article and a fantastic discussion. Glad I stumbled my way here in the first place! DV – you’ve got a new fan…


  18. TC said on March 7th, 2008 at 5:48pm #

    I wouldn’t even say it’s not that Buckley wasn’t socially astute. And this is a minor critique-this is a great piece which identifies what was absolutely the fulcrum on which the conservative movement headed into a death spiral-but Buckley’s desire for power and his vision of the scale of the (admittedly fractured) Republican voting bloc overpowered his commitment to his religious outlook. If he had truly been a conservative, the secondary temptation of secular power would not have outweighed the legitimacy of his religious outlook.

  19. Don said on March 8th, 2008 at 7:13am #

    Wow! So Mr. Buckley did all this?
    Although I agree with many things in the article, it does not even scratch the surface of what the true problems to the Christian faith are.
    If I wanted to write for a couple of hours I could explain how feminism, abortion, contraception, pronography, and the high divorce rate are all linked to the decay of society and christianity.
    Gregory Paul is far from genius. Let’s not give him too much credit.

  20. John Wilkinson said on March 8th, 2008 at 8:42pm #

    I think it’s much deeper than that. Perhaps more and more people realize the gig is a scam. And not just in America. How could it possibly not be, when there is no checking of facts, no accountability (re tax free status, re clergy rape, re everything), everything’s on blind faith, and if you dare say something you’re insulting God.

    They claim to be moral leaders (though, I really don’t know why they should have a lock on morality). But let’s see what happens when their services are really needed. Shock and awe was mentioned above. But that’s just one instance, there are many more. For example, Balkans are now in the news, again. I am from that area. During WW2, when the Croats were commiting unspeakable atrocities against the Serbs, the catholic church in Croatia said nothing, not a peep; actually, they may have blessed the bloody deeds. In the 90s, when the Serbs were committing unspeakable atrocities against the Croats and the Muslims, the Serbian orthodox church said nothing, not a peep; actually, some of them may have blessed the bloody deeds. What happened in WW2 in Germany, did any of their priests raise a voice in defense of decency? What about the pope, did he say anything? So, they flee under a rock when it really counts. Does anyone here preach about the plight of the Palestinians? I know, there are some who help the poor, and some who even put their own lives/livelihoods on the line, etc., and that’s admirable, but by and large they don’t bother when it doesn’t suit them.

    Look at the pope telling the poor people in Latin America not to use contraception. Well, that has real world devastating consequences, aggravating the already appalling poverty (and increasing the dependence on church, which is what they wanted).

    The Europeans don’t bother with these clowns. Why? Could it be they got smart after centuries of abuses (to put it mildly)? After the crusades, the witch hunts, the inquisition, Giordano Bruno being burnt at the stake in 1600, Galileo forced to renounce his discoveries to avoid the same fate, students being dropped in boiling oil for possession of forbidden books, whole cities being burned, and on and on and on. I think they FINALLY had enough. Good for them.

    But in America, adding insult to injury, not only do they willfully submit their minds to brainwashing, they are scammed doing it, easy millions made off of them. What is the role of churches here? To tell you not to rock the boat. Be satisfied with your miserable station in life, don’t seek change. Everything is cool, God loves you. And you’ll be rewarded for your patience and for not rocking the boat; you’ll be rewarded later, much, much later. Just — to ensure that reward, do drop your contribution in the plate/mail. In other words, the religion serves to enable the ripping off of the masses by the elites and the continuance of the status quo. It works in tandem with the lack of proper education. Who’s gonna complain about their situation, if it means getting on the bad side of God?

  21. John Wilkinson said on March 8th, 2008 at 9:16pm #

    I was recently in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and visited the city museum there. This city is now about half a million people, so not that big. In the middle ages — in the 1400s, 1500s, etc., it must have been much, much smaller. Clearly, it wasn’t a major European metropolis at the time.

    At the museum, they have the names of the women of Zagreb that were punished as witches (burned at the stake) in that period. The list contains SEVERAL HUNDRED names (I think about 500 or more). Just in this one relatively small city. Imagine all those women! Just because somebody thought they acted strangely at some point? Disposed of in a most horrible and horrifying way. What were they thinking, how were they feeling as the flames were lapping at their feet and then wrapped around their bodies? All alone. They were somebody’s daughter, sister, mother, wife. And imagine this happening all over Europe, not just in this one small city. Do the multiplication and see what the religion did. And that’s just one aspect of it.

    And don’t think this doesn’t happen any more. Do you think that shock and awe could have happened against a Christian country (that didn’t start something horrible first like Germany did in WW2)? And Americans will be pliable, if the churches tell them that something is necessary in God’s name.

  22. Dissident Voice : Another Bill O’Reilly SNAFU: Or, Why the Social Right Can’t Win the Vulgarity War said on April 28th, 2008 at 5:01am #

    […] the pertinent corporations are pro-profanity. It is an extension of the argument I made in “Buckley’s Big Mistake.” It is in the interest of the media to promote profanity. It is all part of the Darwinian […]