Second Thoughts on Brent Bozell
On the Catholic vision and its discontents in the post-Trump American right.
Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of a magazine established by Irving Kristol, writes in Politico this week on the enduring legacy of L. Brent Bozell Jr., founding editor of Triumph and a luminary proponent of the Catholic political vision in America. The slipshod attack on a founding father of the American right leaves me wondering not just whether Heilbrunn has ever read anything by Bozell, but whether he’s ever read anything at all.
In the decisive years of the 1960s and '70s, as his former allies made their peace with libertarianism, Brent Bozell was a voice crying out in the desert. An early collaborator (and brother-in-law) of National Review’s William F. Buckley Jr., Bozell decried the fusionist turn of the magazine he had helped set up and warned of its inevitable consequences.
Two generations later, many of Bozell’s predictions have played out. The eerie sense of prophecy found in the writings of this once-forgotten scribbler has inspired renewed interest since the fusionist right collapsed. In recent years, the Triumph founder’s ideas have gained currency among those who accept the theological nature of all politics—as well as renewed criticism from those who considered Bozell’s radical turn ungrounded or impractical.
Three years ago I found myself among this latter group, writing skeptically in National Review on the viability of Bozellite ideas in a country so historically burdened with liberalism. It is in part to correct my own errors, in part to account for Heilbrunn's much worse ones, that I return to the subject of Bozell once again.
In considering how the Conservative Movement was overtaken by a movement of conservatives, Heilbrunn looks askance at Bozell as “the first theocon” (misappropriating a word meant to describe religious neoconservatives a generation later) and as a “Robespierre of the right.”
Citing an astonishingly ill-reasoned essay in the Nation by Jeet Heer, Heilbrunn casts the pious Bozell as the godfather of “the right’s explicit embrace of political violence.” Never mind that Bozell, in his mature writings, was remarkably circumspect about the just uses of force. Never mind that Heilbrunn’s account of the 1970 abortuary incident that earned Bozell and Triumph a militant reputation is apparently written in ignorance of much of the historical record on the episode. Papist Man Scary, just like Orange Man Bad.
It is not for that mostly peaceful protest, however—at least not primarily—that Bozell is cast here as the bogeyman. Heilbrunn has his eyes on The Warren Revolution, a 1966 book arguing against judicial supremacy as an affront to the U.S. Constitution. It is a strong, smartly argued book, well grounded in both law and history. But within two years even Brent Bozell had left The Warren Revolution behind him. He set his sights on higher things, and considered the five years he had devoted to the book a futile and misguided undertaking.
Judging Bozell by The Warren Revolution in 2022 is a bit like looking back on Irving Kristol or James Burnham as key figures in the development of American communism.
It’s also a bit too generalizing. Whatever its virtues, The Warren Revolution essentially expresses the standard opinion of every legal conservative of the mid-20th century. The supposed connection to present politics is tenuous: one conservative says in 1966 that the Court does not have the power to rewrite the Constitution, then after five and a half decades of every other conservative saying the same thing, the Court unwrites the murder clause it miraculously discovered in 1973.
Yet we should look to Bozell as a guiding light for a right that has seen all his enemies founder—just not by hyperventilating over his least interesting idea.
Heilbrunn quotes a New York Times report from 1962, fretting that “Mr. Bozell referred repeatedly to the conservative cause as that of the ‘Christian West’” in a speech at Madison Square Garden. To a certain kind of conservative, this sounds like common sense; these are the conservatives Heilbrunn worries might make a comeback.
Yet Brent Bozell’s was not the shallow political religion that has taken hold in some post-fusionist camps. It was quite the opposite: religious politics—that is, politics ordered toward religion, rather than the inverse.
His central contention was straightforward: Christianity makes an absolute claim on the world. All things, including moral law and political authority, flow from God. Therefore, no Christian can accept political claims (much less a political authority) at odds with the divine source of legitimacy.
The alternative, stripped of the accommodationist rhetoric it took on in modern America, sounds absurd: that the infinite, eternal, all-powerful Creator of the universe who took on flesh, became man, endured agony unto death upon a cross, then rose from the dead on the third day, did so just to carve out a little fiefdom for Himself. That He never meant to be the King of kings; that He never claimed man or the world to be His own; that He never meant to make disciples of all nations.
The question is this: Is Christianity true? If it is not, then Bozell was off his rocker. If it is, then his arguments are virtually unanswerable.
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Any third position seems increasingly untenable. After Roe—not to mention whatever else is coming—opponents of the Christian vision will declare themselves as such. Its defenders are going to have to do the same, and they would do well to study at the feet of L. Brent Bozell Jr., who knew before this generation was born that we would end up where we are.
The Warren Revolution can probably be skipped. But seminal Bozell essays like “Freedom or Virtue?” (1962), “Death of the Constitution” (1968), “Letter to Yourselves” (1969), “The Confessional Tribe” (1970), and “Toward a Catholic Realpolitik” (1975) will prove vital to the raising up of a new, invigorated Christian right in America.
Heilbrunn concludes in Politico that “Bozell, whose credo was ‘Yes, we are patriots; but we are Christians first,’ appears to be the true godfather of a revanchist right.” God willing, he’ll be proven right on that.