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PBS’s William F. Buckley Documentary Highlights The Conservative Crusader’s Faith

Bill’s faith enabled him to speak boldly, unapologetically, and ultimately prophetically, about the issues of his time.


PBS has a new documentary on the late William F. Buckley Jr., “The Incomparable Mr. Buckley,” airing on stations across the country. From 1966 to 1999, his show, “Firing Line,” which debated the great issues of the time, was a staple on PBS stations nationwide.

As the documentary highlights, one of the most important things that made “Bill,” as he was known to his friends, so incomparable, was his strong and unwavering faith. It was that faith that enabled him to speak boldly, unapologetically, and ultimately prophetically, about the issues of his time.

In 1997, he would tell Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, “I like to think that Christianity is universally informative. Whatever you do, there is always something there that consoles, guides, or inhibits.” For Bill, his faith was his guiding star, which influenced his worldview and his relationships — treating those with whom he disagreed with dignity and respect. As a result, he was able to build bridges with others rather than burn them.

It was also that faith that led him to write his seminal work God and Man at Yale in 1951. In it, he first warned about the abandonment of the Judeo-Christian heritage in academia and how it would lead to the present national morass in which we find ourselves.

Bill was a devoted Catholic who believed faith was the foundation of higher education at Yale and in our nation. He saw it coming under increasing attack and felt strongly that he had to sound the alarm about what was not only happening at Yale but beginning to seep out into the hallowed halls of higher education across America — the rejection and replacement of those ideals with secularism, socialism, and government dependence.

In God and Man at Yale, Bill peeled back the layers of the onion at Yale University and exposed its leftist core. As Richard Brookhiser wrote, “Yale in 1951 still pretended to be a bastion of capitalism and Christianity; Bill told the world this was a con, to keep alums sending their sons and their money to New Haven.”

Frayed National Fabric

He also saw that with the left there was no room for debate. As he put it, “Though liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view.” Those words turned out to be prophetic as we face the “cancel culture” of the 21st century.

Bill knew in his heart that it is religious faith that brings people together — regardless of political persuasion — and provides hope and healing. As that faith came under assault, was scorned, and was eventually attacked, our national fabric frayed with it. Our current poisonous political and cultural climate is the result.

Unfortunately, when God and Man at Yale was written, much of America remained blissfully ignorant of what was happening to their children as they entered the ivory towers of American academia. Once the 1960s arrived, they could be ignorant no more.

For instance, Yale alumni and administrators did not take kindly to Bill shedding light on what was going on. McGeorge Bundy, a Yale alumni, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, said: “God and Man at Yale has the somewhat larger significance that it is clearly an attempt to start an assault on the freedom of one of America’s greatest and most conservative universities. … Certainly it will put the Yale authorities to an absurd amount of trouble in making answers to questions based on a set of charges that ought to be beneath contempt.”

But Bill was right, and Bundy and others were wrong. The campus protests and the emergence of the radical left in academia, and then into all other aspects of society, all of which Bill warned about in the early 1950s, transformed American society from one that saw faith as a virtue into one that saw it as a vice.

Brookhiser concluded, “God and Man at Yale is a standing invitation to get under the skin, and an example of how a bright kid once did it.” Evidently, Buckley’s words got under the skin of Mr. Bundy and others who thought Yale was still conservative and great. But that is what happens when one speaks truth in power — something Bill did repeatedly.

Bill’s Legacy

Bill Buckley’s faith, and the words that came directly from it, is his true legacy. Because of Bill’s strong Catholic faith, God was able to use him as an instrument to prophetically raise the alarm about what happens to a society when it abandons faith.

“Man is a sinner. Man can repent. God will forgive. That is so very different from the fashionable secular complement, which is: What is sin?” Buckley wrote in 1987.

It was Bill’s faith that led him to live a remarkably successful, “incomparable” life. Any documentary on his life will miss the mark if it does not focus on this most essential part of his life and legacy, because ultimately it is learning about Bill’s faith and how it shaped him that will fully inform the viewer about the man who was William F. Buckley Jr.

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