Thoughts Triggered by the Firing of Pat Buchanan

Pat Buchanan was recently fired from MSNBC after a ten-year association. Pat and I worship at the same extraordinary-rite Sunday Mass in the nation’s capital, but I haven’t had a chance to speak to him since his firing. I have read a column he wrote about it.

His contract was terminated when MSNBC buckled under pressure from groups outraged by his most recent book, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? The groups included the ADL, the gay Human Rights Campaign, and an outfit called Color of Change which says it “exists to strengthen Black America’s political voice.” These groups charged that with his book Pat promotes a “white supremacist ideology,” that he is “anti-Semitic,” and that his “extremist ideas are incredibly harmful to millions of LBGT people.”

You can tell from the thought crimes of which Pat is accused that his book amounts to a general defense of what used to be known, wherever in the world it existed (including North America), as European Christian civilization — the West, with a capital W. What the book shows is the extent to which America (we can also say Europe) has fallen from the West’s high moral, social and cultural standards by detaching itself from its Christian roots in pursuit of such goals as “diversity” and “multiculturalism”.

Pat’s book is certainly worth reading, but I was struck by the question with which he begins it: “What happened to the country we grew up in?” It was the “we” that struck me. After all, no American born in the 1960s or anytime since will have a memory of the country to which Pat refers. It was gone by the seventies.

Let me tell a little story to illustrate that. I tell it in the context, not simply of Pat’s book, but also of the controversy that has followed the Catholic bishops’ reaction to the HHS mandate on birth control, which has spilled over into the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Back in 1977 I and some associates launched a political organization, Catholics for Christian Political Action (CCPA). Soon after we opened our office I went up to Capitol Hill to call on a conservative Catholic member of Congress who was already making a national name for himself although only a freshman. I asked him to sign a fund-raising letter for us. He agreed. I was grateful.

In subsequent years the Representative would earn a reputation for being pro-life, and as members of Congress go he deserved it, but I vividly remember something he said to me at our first meeting. “I’ll go to the wall with you on abortion,” he said, “but don’t bring up birth control because everybody has accepted it.” Again, this was not a few years ago, but in 1977, thirty-five years ago, and less than ten after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming Church teaching on contraception.

Here’s a challenge to Catholics who were around in the 1970s: Try to remember a single sermon from that decade dedicated to upholding Humanae Vitae’s teaching.

You can’t do it. True, immediately after Humanae Vitae was promulgated in 1968 there was some talk from pulpits, as there had been from the bishops themselves in an official statement, about what it taught being an “ideal,” but very soon it was understood that as a result of the encyclical an unknown number of the faithful had dropped out of the Church. A fear set in that upholding the teaching vigorously could cause others to follow. The best thing to do, it seemed, was to ignore the teaching altogether, exactly as most of the couples who still remained in the pews were doing. This, I am saying, is how life prevention (a.k.a. birth control) came to be “accepted”.

I’ll go further. We may like to think the U.S. Supreme Court operates in splendid isolation from social currents as well as political pressure, but the truth is the nine justices know what’s going on in society and it colors their thinking even as it does that of the rest of us. My feeling is that if the court had seen American Catholics rallying behind bishops strongly upholding Humanae Vitae’s pro-life message, Roe v. Wade would have been decided differently in 1973.

That is one thought that comes to me in the wake of Pat’s book, his firing, and as we head toward this year’s election. I offer four more:

1) Given what U.S. society has become, to believe a white man opposed to life prevention and the ideological agenda of organized homosexualism, who would uphold high cultural standards and be unafraid to affirm the superiority of historical European Christian civilization can become President in this or any easily foreseeable election year, is to be delusional. In most of America somebody like that can’t be elected even to town or county council, not nowadays. The weight of the entire culture, not simply the politics of the day, is against it.

2) As Pat points out, as recently as the 1940s a President (Truman) could describe the U.S. as a Christian nation, but I would hold that the nation never was that except in the sense that most Americans have professed some form of the religion and for a long time lived more or less according to what they professed. But the government was never Christian. We were founded as a liberal republic, not a Christian one. The Declaration of Independence was infused with the ideas of John Locke, not ones derived from Gospel teachings. Without Christian government supporting the Christian way of life, the way of life could not be sustained. It was bound to become no more than a memory, the one reflected in Pat’s question: “What happened to the country we grew up in?”

3) As futile as it now may be, at least in terms of electoral politics, standing athwart the direction of modern history is worth men striving to do anyway because the future will not be determined by elections alone. However, doing it is likely to exact a measure of heroism, more of it tomorrow than today, from the men who try.

4) By definition a hero is someone who sacrifices for the good of others. It could be the regard of those very others whose loss he suffers; often as not, as with Pat Buchanan’s firing by MSNBC, it can be a source of income or other material good that is lost; not unusually in history it has been the hero’s life. In any case, a price is paid, suffering is involved.

Since the bishops’ reaction to the HHS mandate, there have been folks talking as if they would welcome, or even yearn for, a bloody persecution. I don’t see that coming. It won’t be necessary. What has happened to Pat will scare off other public figures tempted to take a stand like his. As for ordinary persons, in an age when few Catholics can screw up the courage even to make the sign of the cross before meals in a public restaurant, the fear of being identifiably different from the rest of society will immobilize most. That said, doubtless we do face serious challenges.

They likely will be serious enough that absolutely no one should glibly imagine he is necessarily up to the test before it confronts him. It remains, if a Christian society is to exist ever again, the idea of it has to be kept alive and it will take heroes — men standing apart from the majority — to do it. Buchanan has set an example.