William Buckley, Jr. seemed to have a warning for us in 1951 when he wrote “God and Man at Yale.” He was 26 at the time, but already his vocabulary was extensive and his writing is excellent.
In “God and Man at Yale,” he took his alma mater to task.
You might not think that reading a book from seven decades ago would have helped me gain a greater appreciation for my schooling in a private Christian school, but it has.
You also might not think that a book written by a Catholic would be relevant to Protestant Christians today, but it is.
At first glance, the book seems to be about a recent Yale graduate who had specific concerns about his school. It is true that he is very specific, delving into minutia to describe the specific beliefs of the professors and the nuances of his classes. Buckley, who would later go on to start National Review and host the show “Firing Line,” was not afraid of nuance. However, the book had a much broader meaning, and it shook the establishment at the time.
To fully understand it, let me give a little context and background.
What is truth?
The Gospel of John, Chapter 18 quotes the Roman Governor Pilate asking Jesus shortly before the crucifixion: “What is truth?”
It’s a question that’s always worth asking.
I often hear Christians complain about relativism — the view the truth is relative.
Orthodox Christians believe that there is only one truth. Christ in Matthew 7:14 teaches unequivocally that there is only one way to heaven, that “small is the gate and narrow the road that leaves to life, and only a few find it.” He teaches that the only way to heaven and to God the Father is through Him. This truth was so unpopular at the time that the religious leaders put Him to death.
It seems that secularists have been abandoning their own stance on relativism lately and embracing their own form of fundamentalism. It stands in stark contrast to Christianity, but secularists have co-opted many professing Christians into believing at least parts of it.
Today, Christians often look at the world and wonder what’s happened. Television, news, and higher education seem much more extreme than they were a few short decades ago. Cultural Marxism, hedonism, critical race theory, and dangerous philosophies about sexualilty are branches of modern-day secularism.
Christians and conservatives often complain about the rampant immorality and liberal indoctrination in colleges and universities. And universities do in fact lean more liberal than the population at large.
The warning from 1951
Buckley in 1951 argued that the economics department was toying with socialism and was not as anti-communist as it should be. (Keep in mind that the Cold War had already begun and that World War II had just ended six years earlier.)
He also believed that Yale should protect its religious heritage more and not take a merely “laissez-faire” approach to education. Professors in the religious department were either anti-Christian or hid behind a merely secular approach to religious teachings.
Buckley argued that Yale was not being faithful to its original charter, its trustees, and to its board of directors. It might be hard to view Yale today as anything but a secular educational establishment, but it originally was started to train ministers and lay leaders in Connecticut. Obviously, in 1951 it was not the same school it was when it first started. But then again, it wasn’t the same it is today either. It still did have a set of beliefs about faith, philosophy, and economics. It just didn’t stand up for those beliefs, and that was Buckley’s point of contention.
“What steps is the administration allowed to take to show up socialism, the blood brother of Marxism?” he wrote in a speech he was supposed to give to Yale but that was rejected for being too controversial. “What steps are taken to rule out polygamy as a moral, rather than a merely sociological evil? Certainly these questions are rhetorical, because so long as Yale professes this uncurbed, all-encompassing, fanatical allegiance to laissez-faire education she will lead her students nowhere.”
Point taken. Believe in something and stand by it.
He goes on to state:
“She (Yale) leads them only to confusion; she prolongs and prolongs and prolongs through her young graduates that struggle in the arena of free thought, never contributing to the ascendancy of one of the protagonists, regardless of what he stands for — because to do so would bring from the liberals the cry of educational totalitarians, and Yale is very, very allergic to criticism from the liberal, who is the absolute dictator in the United States today.”
His book should not be seen as merely a critique of Yale, but more of a warning to future generations about the growing dangers in academia, particularly Ivy League academia. Three United States presidents attended Yale, and a total of eight presidents attended either Yale or Harvard. Harvard, Stanford, and Yale are three of the top universities congresspeople have attended.
So the education of Yale and other Ivy League schools does impact us all greatly.
And other universities — Ivy League or otherwise — were just as susceptible to the challenges and fears Yale faced.
It was never about relativism
So let’s not get lost on the fact that Buckley is criticizing Yale. That same concern could apply to many other institutions. It applies to us today much more so. Openly believing in something can be scary not just for institutions, but also for organizations, churches, and even families.
Buckley understood that the fear was warranted. He states that the “dilemma is frightening,” and that there would be widespread outcry and accusations against its leaders.
“Suppose the administration of Yale were to formulate in unambiguous terms its educational credo. Suppose this credo were to assert that Yale considers active Christianity the first basis of enlightened thought and action. Suppose it reasserted its belief in democracy. Suppose it asserted that it considered Communism, socialism, collectivism, government paternalism inimical to the dignity of the individual and to the strength and prosperity of the nation, save where the government and only the government could act in the interests of humanitarianism and national security. Suppose Yale were to go on to say that whereas every student must recognize and explore conflicting views and of course ultimately formulate for himself his own credo, nevertheless the University would not sustain prominent members of the faculty who sought to violate the explicit purpose of this University by preaching doctrines against which the officials of the University had cast judgment.”
Even conservatives and Christians today may be aghast at this suggestion. A university taking such a stance? What about tolerance? What about openness? What about separation of church and state?
The issue regarding the separation and church and state should be a moot point if a university is a private institution. Remember, Yale was founded as an institution to train ministers.
Regarding tolerance and openness, I am starting to wonder if all of this argument was just a trojan horse to begin with. We seem to have adopted this stance that in order to protect peoples’ feelings and their religious liberties we should just have a purely secular, neutral ground.
That seems to be what Yale was doing as far back as 1951. (Although even then Buckley noted that they seemed to be especially fearful of angering liberals.)
But who says that the secular realm is merely “neutral” ground? We seem to have had a desire in this country to make all of our public institutions secular, and we tell everyone to avoid talking about “religion and politics” in social gatherings.
Is it no wonder that secular humanism seems to be the de facto religion of the day?
If Christians and conservatives cede their opinions and their stances to neutral territory, it seems that liberals and secularists will not hesitate to take over.
At first, they will seek to level the playing field making some claim of openness, neutrality, and tolerance. Then once we cede the field, they will take over.
So in case you wonder what happened to your country or to the younger generation: we’ve ceded the field to the opposing philosophy in the name of tolerance.
And now they’ve taken over. And for them, there is no debate. There is no tolerance.
They have their beliefs, and they were fundamentalist adherents to their dogma all along. They were never relativists in the first place.