How Social Class Shines a Light on Conservatism's Past
I was asked to speak on the topic of Protestantism and conservatism at the National Conservatism 3 conference in Miami last month. My talk was a religious analysis of postwar movement conservatism that showed its Christian wing was very Catholic dominated, something that persists to the present day. Here’s the video of my 15 minute talk.
We talk a lot today about “socio-economic status,” which is mostly a shorthand for talking about educational attainment and economic status.
But there are other forms of social class divisions. The old division into aristocratic vs. commoner, for example. Or the previous existence of a powerful American upper class. Ethnic and religious background often played into these divisions.
Because we don’t talk in these categories today, this can blind us to important dynamics that were happening in past events. I will illustrate this by looking at the social class dimensions of three legendary incidents from conservatism’s past: the huge furors over William F. Buckley’s book God and Man at Yale, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusades, and the Alger Hiss case.
I will then illustrate briefly how these class conflicts remain with us in subtle but visible ways, including in the Biden administration.
God and Man at Yale
William F. Buckley, Jr. attended Yale and was tapped as a member of its most prestigious secret society, Skull and Bones. After graduating, Buckley, only age 25, wrote a book called God and Man at Yale that criticized the university for ignoring God and turning away from individualism. He questioned whether academic freedom in research should apply to what was taught in undergraduate courses.
This book caused an enormous controversy. Among the reviewers denouncing the book was McGeorge Bundy, who went on to become National Security Advisor for John F. Kennedy and one of the key architects of the Vietnam War. Later he was the highly consequential president of the Ford Foundation, who basically invented the idea of the left-wing activist litigation non-profit. So this book attracted the ire of prominent people.
But the critiques of Buckley’s books were not just because people did not like the content (although they did not). Rather, much of it was because Buckley was an Irish Catholic upstart who had been invited by the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elites into their citadel of Yale, and even into their inner sanctum of Skull and Bones. And how did he thank them? He publicly trashed them in his book. It’s hard to overstate what an ingrate Buckley was here, and how boorish his publication of the book must have seemed to the WASPs. Austin Bramwell, in the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition, wrote:
Buckely’s attackers thus saw themselves as custodians of a great tradition; their religion was liberal Protestantism, their outlook modern, their sensibility elitist. To them, Roman Catholicism, like Evangelical Protestantism, was the religion of the lower classes – publicly tolerated but privately derided. Buckley in consequence was not so much a Torquemada as a latter-day Alaric who, upon being invited into the very citadel of northeastern WASP prestige, had the gaucherie to question its continued legitimacy.
McBundy’s review in the Atlantic went directly to the matter of Buckley’s Catholicism:
Most remarkable of all, Mr. Buckley, who urges a return to what he considers to be Yale’s true religious tradition, at no point says one word of the fact that he himself is an ardent Roman Catholic. In view of the pronounced and well-recognized differences between Protestant and Catholic views on education in America, and in view of Yale’s Protestant history, it seems strange for any Roman Catholic to undertake to speak for the Yale religious tradition.
One critic, the famed minister Henry Sloane Coffin, who was then president of Union Theological Seminary, had this to say about God and Man at Yale:
Mr. Buckley’s book is really a misrepresentation of and [is] distorted by his Roman Catholic point of view. Yale is a Puritan and Protestant institution by its heritage and he should have attended Fordham or some similar institution.
The controversy of this book thus cannot be understood without an understanding of the dynamics of religion and class in America in the early 1950s.
Sen. McCarthy’s Anti-Communist Crusades
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