SHARON, CONNECTICUT — “The Founders were not afraid of religion,” James L. Buckley wrote in his book “Gleanings from an Unplanned Life.” Buckley was a one-term senator from New York, elected on the Conservative Party line. His funeral Mass was the morning after the first Republican presidential primary this year, and just about everything about it seemed like a stark contrast to our current politics. Buckley was a public servant in the most noble sense: He served in all three branches of the federal government. And the way he lived his life — in her eulogy, his daughter talked about how he was often called “sainted” — should serve as an example to all of us.
Buckley wrote: “(W)e live in a society in which the importance of religion has always been recognized, and while the First Amendment forbids laws ‘respecting an establishment of religion,’ it has never required that the state be isolated from exposure to religious influences.”
During her remarks at the end of the funeral, his daughter said: “He prayed daily and attended Mass. His humility belied his accomplishments. … Money was unimportant to him — except as a means to provide for his family. He was respectful of people of every background or inclination.”
Though he firmly believed in the importance of religion when it comes to governance, he was also remarkably tolerant and open-minded. He saw people as individuals created by God, people with their own unique and valuable perspectives, even if he disagreed with some of those perspectives.
I first met Buckley when I was in college, at the coffee hour after Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in D.C. Like his brother, William F. Buckley Jr. (the founder of National Review, the magazine I work for), he had a love for the traditional Latin Mass. But he had even more love for seeing God in others. You could be a media professional, a college sophomore or someone begging on the street — he treated all with equal respect.
Buckley once told Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan that he had “long taken comfort in having lost to a man of your quality.” That was the kind of politics he represented. In reflecting on his time in the Senate, he worried about the decline of citizen legislators and the rise of a professional political class.
In his book “Gleanings,” Buckley wrote: “The Senate I knew … did retain one characteristic of its glory days, and that was a palpable civility. … There were occasional lapses, of course, but this civility permeated every relationship on and off the floor and created an atmosphere that made it easier to conduct business on highly emotional issues in a reasonably civilized way.”
It’s been a long time since those days!
In 1995, he wrote: “I can’t help wondering what changes there might be in the quality of public life today if more of our officeholders could be persuaded to take a truly scrupulous view of the responsibilities they assume when, with hands placed on Bible, they swear to faithfully discharge all the duties of their offices, according to the best of their abilities and understanding, so help them God.”
Rather than sink into cynicism about politics — which a lot of us have done — Buckley knew things could be better. We have firm foundations, and with men and women rooted in something other than party politics, civic virtue could be revived.
We can choose depression and indignance — or we can challenge ourselves to working in our own spheres of influence for what the best of the American project makes possible. There’s good there, even if it is often forgotten. And not just in politics.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review magazine and author of the new book “A Year With the Mystics: Visionary Wisdom for Daily Living.”