In 1951, William F. Buckley, Jr.—then a newly minted 25-year-old Yale University graduate—published his historic God and Man at Yale, an indispensable founding document of modern American conservatism. In this, his first book, he argued that his long respected alma mater had, unbeknownst to the majority of its alumni, undergone a silent ideological revolution, while still presenting itself as the same institution it had been for generations. Yale performed this legerdemain, Buckley wrote, out of fear of alienating its alumni base, which was largely conservative and religious—an alumni base which had, for so long, been the university’s institutional and economic support.
Yale, he said, had quietly compromised its long-held moral and religious convictions in the pursuit of fashionable, progressive philosophies, and in the process had betrayed its alumni who, per the Yale charter, were the ultimate oversight authorities of the university. The alumni were being surreptitiously duped, Buckley argued, into supporting a liberalized, secularized college administration that did not share their fundamental convictions.
An “extraordinarily irresponsible educational attitude,” in his words, had undermined an institution that was still customarily viewed as a redoubt of “triumphant conservatism,” as Time magazine had described Yale not long before God and Man at Yale went to print. Once the very image of Ivy League traditionalism, the university had changed since even 1937, 14 years before God and Man was released, when incoming president Charles Seymour, in his inaugural address, confidently called upon “all members of the faculty, as members of a thinking body, freely to recognize the tremendous validity and power of the teachings of Christ in our life and death struggle against the forces of selfish materialism.” Buckley’s book, conversely, recounted numerous instances of radicalized professors mocking Christianity or excluding conservative economic ideas from the classroom in favor of Keynesianism.
Seymour’s sentiments were echoed by Buckley himself, in what proved perhaps the most enduring, and controversial, line in his book. In the introduction to God and Man at Yale, Buckley famously declared: “I myself believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.” Encapsulated in that line was the philosophical alliance between social and economic conservatism that was to characterize the post-war Right for the next several decades. It expressed a basic conservative perspective on the “culture war” that still persists unabated in the West today, notwithstanding the shifts that have taken place in contemporary conservatism during the intervening decades.
Throughout the book, however, Buckley maintains that his main criticism is not of Yale’s liberalism per se, but the fact that the university had misled a great number of its alumni and supporters. While Buckley, as an informed Catholic and informed conservative, was certainly aware of the wider existential struggles taking place in Western society (as the aforementioned passage of course demonstrates) his groundbreaking book was, in its essence, a case study in the failures of a specific institution. Yet by meticulously examining the changes taking place at that single institution, Buckley was offering lessons that were, and are, applicable to all institutions, academic or otherwise, facing similar issues.
Yale had undergone a dramatic change in the middle of the 20th century. Throughout God and Man at Yale, Buckley named individual professors and gave examples of their biases, providing ample evidence that Yale had changed, regardless of whether his readers thought those changes were a good or bad thing. It was manifestly no longer the comfortably traditional Christian environment it had been since time immemorial.
The university, despite its support for professors who sneered at religious belief and espoused radical economic views, was as willing as ever to invoke its cultural patrimony and reputation for conservatism to attract the demographics that had historically made up its student body. Yale employed its symbology and venerated its historic leaders much as it always had, yet quietly transgressed much of what those symbols and leaders originally represented. It was, Buckley averred, playing both sides of the fence, capitalizing on its magisterial and traditional place within New England’s Anglo-Christian elite, while concurrently countenancing social, economic, and philosophical ideas which drastically undercut that culture—and Western culture, generally speaking—in the most fundamental ways possible.
In our own day, considering the revolutionary social changes wrought in American society over the past few decades, and the transformative shifts in philosophical and moral values now occurring in many of America’s institutions, the lesson of God and Man at Yale is more germane than ever.
Yale, for its part, faces largely the same malaise as it did when Buckley published his book in 1951, except that no one now seriously views it as a repository of “traditional” principles, much less a fastness of “triumphant conservatism.” Increasingly, even the most anodyne expressions of conservatism seem to be unwelcome among the faculties of the Ivy League. Nonetheless, Yale certainly continues to enjoy its image as a center of prestige and cultural power, notwithstanding it’s allegiance, especially in the humanities, to left-leaning schools of thought that are largely critical of the very notion of cultural prestige and hierarchy—especially, it often seems, when that prestige and hierarchy have their origins in Christian society. The tension Buckley wrote about, in this altered way, continues just the same.
The Boy Scouts are perhaps one of the foremost examples of this phenomenon today. As originally envisioned by Lord Baden-Powell and his cousins in the American scouting movement, the Boy Scouts were intended to aid young males in developing a positive sense of duty towards God and neighbor, in a single-sex setting intended to constructively channel impulses that might have otherwise been expressed in undisciplined or destructive ways. Regardless of one’s view on the subject, it is undeniable that the fundamental stance of the Scouts on the topic of gender relations, once a basic aspect of scouting convictions, has been drastically altered over the last generation.
Today, much of modern culture believes that any exclusively male environment is inherently prejudicial against the opposite gender. But Baden-Powell’s own attitude proves this notion to be nonsense. Baden-Powell himself met some of the very first Girl Scouts in London in 1909, and personally encouraged his friend, Juliette Gordon Low of Savannah, Georgia, to found the Girl Scouts of the United States, which she did in March 1912. That year also witnessed a joint trip undertaken by Gordon Low and Baden-Powell to promote scouting in the United States. History shows that, from the beginning, both leaders and both groups supported and encouraged one another in their aims, seeing their institutions as part of the same overall movement—as complementary yet distinct. The Girl Scouts, just as the Boy Scouts, was an institution intended to help young people on the way to adulthood. These groups took for granted the ontological reality and positive, distinctive qualities of human gender; moreover, a faith-based foundation was essential to both.
How, then, would Gordon Low have reacted if Baden-Powell had attempted to undercut her movement by recruiting young women en masse, just as the Boy Scouts of America is now undertaking to do, after having worked in tandem with her for so long? Gordon Low was no stranger to male mistreatment, having had to endure an acrimonious separation from her own husband that unfolded over a period of 10 years. Yet she positively supported the efforts to improve and mold young men that the Boy Scouts and Baden-Powell undertook. She understood and believed in the value of helping young men and young women establish themselves in dignified, single-gender environments.
How would either of these leaders have viewed the contemporary efforts to secularize the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts? Undoubtedly, they would have been shocked by the allegation that separation by gender undermined their organizations, when that policy was intended to be one of their great institutional strengths.
Yet both groups still lay claim to their long and distinguished legacies in the English-speaking world, while, much as in the case of Yale, undercutting the most basic spiritual, moral, and familial ideals borne out by those legacies. The leaders of the more traditional scouting organizations, such as the Troops of Saint George, that have arisen in recent years largely in response to the increasingly radical policies of the Boy Scouts of America—especially on matters like mixed-gender troops and homosexual scout leaders—can hardly be blamed for their actions.
Today, of course, both the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts are often seen as outdated and even “unfashionable” by popular culture. But one naturally wonders if the loss of their vigor may, at least partially, be ascribed to a loss of conviction in their fundamental ethos—not merely to falling “out of step with the times.” If a group no longer takes seriously its own raison d’être, how can the general public possibly respect it?
Some of the mainline Protestant denominations—whose liberalization, at least in the United States and Western Europe, has become a cautionary tale for many Christians of orthodox conviction—can easily be criticized under the same rubric. Today, the beliefs held by the conservative critics of mainline Protestantism—both within and outside these denominations themselves—are often far closer to mainline beliefs as originally constituted than the official preachments of those same denominations today.
The Episcopal Church, for example, has almost completely transformed over the last 40 years. No longer the “Republican Party at prayer,” the denomination has become a proponent of much of what the “countercultural” movement held most dear regarding marriage, human life, and gender during the 1960s and 1970s. The majority of Episcopal bishops now support same-sex unions, a development that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. The leadership of the Episcopal Church has radically inverted its formerly traditional outlook, transforming their communion from a byword for conservative ideals into a practitioner of social liberalism. And all this while still enjoying—much as in the case of Buckley’s Yale—the support of many of its more conservative congregants, a significant number of whom hold long-standing family ties to their denomination stretching back generations.
These changes have, as in the case of William Love, Episcopal bishop of Albany, New York—who publicly disputes the pro-same sex union stance affirmed by the Episcopal leadership in 2015—caused great division. An article on the struggle within contemporary Episcopalianism in the Albany Times Union, written by Amy Biancolli in September 2018, states:
From Love’s vantage, and the vantage of those who support him, the Episcopal Church is to blame. The bishop sees B012 [the clerical resolution passed in July 2018 allowing same unions to occur even in Episcopal dioceses that disagree with the national leadership’s support for the practice] and the sanctioning of same-sex weddings in 2015 as a movement away from the broader Anglican Communion, which includes more orthodox churches—in African countries, for instance—that oppose the American episcopate’s embrace of gay marriage.
As Love himself put it, “We’re in the midst of a major schism.” With regard to Resolution B012, he stated that it was “problematic and potentially damaging,” and that “the vast majority of the clergy and people of the Diocese, to include myself, are greatly troubled by it.”
The difference between this example and Yale is, perhaps, that the changes in mainline Protestantism were by no means low-profile or surreptitious—just the opposite, and from an early stage.
Yet the essential thesis of God and Man at Yale still holds a lesson here. The social liberals within the Episcopal Church, who in many cases might carry on their work in full sincerity, nonetheless enjoy the benefits of a tradition they are fundamentally at odds with, rejecting many of the beliefs their clerical forebears dedicated their careers and lives to. Is the Episcopal leadership of today—which countenances same-sex unions, excuses abortion, and disregards the once basic tenets of Anglican moral teaching—really representative of the same Episcopal communion that existed in, say, 1810, 1910, or even 1960, when such things were viewed as among the worst acts of reprobation? The denomination may, of course, have a legal right to use its inherited name, but is it truly the same group?
It is doubtlessly a difficult discussion to have, but when the fundamental teachings of a society, movement, or cultural institution have so shifted that that group turns against much of what it once held dear, does it truly deserve to benefit uncritically from its patrimony? Does it deserve to represent itself as in harmony with its foundational ideals, claiming to maintain its basic convictions and values, all the while contradicting what its historical leaders once claimed was indispensable?
Or is it, as Buckley dramatically said of his beloved Yale University in 1951, being “extraordinarily irresponsible” in doing so?
These questions must be asked, as the troubles that afflicted Yale in Buckley’s day are no longer confined to the realm of Western colleges and universities; they have spread into many of the West’s major and once Christian-minded establishments. We must understand the reality of these changes and begin thinking profoundly about what they mean, for it is now nearly impossible to escape their effects on society. “God and Man at Yale” is, indeed, now “God and Man Everywhere.”
Jack H. Burke has contributed to National Review. He is also a former White House intern and served as a U.S. congressional staff member.