Commencement Address for Christendom College
Thank you for that gracious reception.
I confess it is not the kind to which I am accustomed on most college campuses. But it is truly an honor to be here, at Christendom. Both to congratulate the graduating seniors, and to pay tribute to this college for standing as a beacon of Faith, Truth and Light amid the encircling gloom of our troubled civilization.
A few years ago, in Houston, I gave a speech at the Republican National Convention. As luck would have it, I spoke just after the irrepressible Alan Keyes, and just before my old boss, the Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan.
Sandwiched between two such speakers, I naturally wondered whether the world would little note or long remember what a once-and-future Crossfire host would say there.
But near the end of my speech, I made a simple observation.
“There is,” I said, “a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America… a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” This war, I said, is “about who we are… what we believe… (and) what we stand for as Americans.
That first night, commentators from David Brinkley to John Chancellor were complimentary. They said Buchanan had given an excellent speech, an outstanding speech. Sander Vanocur went so far as to say my speech “was the most skillful attempt to remind the party faithful of the role that ideas have played in American politics since Eugene McCarthy nominated Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 Democrat convention.” High praise indeed from a commentator who was a friend and admirer of John F. Kennedy.
That night in the overnight tracking polls, George Bush soared 10 points his best night of 1992. By the time Mr. Bush rose to speak, three nights later, he had closed the gap with Bill Clinton. A deeply disconsolate New York Times was in mourning; the presidential race had suddenly become a dead heat.
Then, I began to hear what the poet described as, “dim drums throbbing in the hills half heard.” The Washington Establishment was marching as to war and they were coming after me.
The counterattack began then, and it continues to this day. Why?
Because what we said at Houston went right down the smokestacks of America’s cultural elite. As the old saw runs: It is only the truth that hurts.
My antagonists fought back with the customary high-minded and reasoned arguments. “Buchanan Declares…Domestic Jihad,” read one headline. “What If Ayatollah Buchanan Had His Way?” said another.
A New York Times writer said I was an example of that “reactionary Catholicism,” that had driven Mexican General Santa Anna to slaughter Davy Crockett and his friends at the Alamo.
But it was my future colleague, Bob Beckel, who cut to the heart of the matter: “That was the most reactionary speech ever given in a televised convention,” Beckel said, “and I believe the devil wrote it.” We’re making progress. Bob Beckel believes in the Devil.
You know there is not one nasty political name that has ever been invented that I have not been called. Lately, one of my rivals for the Republican nomination again charged me with calling for a “Holy War.” Now, because this is a non-political occasion, that opponent shall remain nameless.
But let me respond to Arlen this way by telling a story about a genuine Holy War long ago.
A thousand years ago, following one of those rare upheavals in the Middle East, the Holy City of Jerusalem was closed to Christian pilgrims.
The Vicar of Christ, Urban II, traveled out from Rome through Christendom, until he came to the French town of Clermont. There he held a council with his bishops. At the council’s end, he gave a great sermon to a vast crowd of pilgrims.
The Holy Father called on men of faith and courage to unite in the cause of opening the road to Jerusalem. All who joined this Crusade, the Pope said, must take an oath never to turn back, until they had reached Jerusalem . The Crusaders’ oath was signified by a sign of the cross sewn into the shoulders of their tunics.
The first great noblemen to take up the cross was Raymond, Count of Toulouse, followed by Bohemond a Norman prince of Italy. Together, Raymond and Bohemond marched across the Balkans to Byzantium, where their armies rendezvoused under the nervous eye of the Emperor Alexius of Constantinople. There, Alexius asked the Crusaders to take a second oath.
The Pope’s oath had been to God. But the oath of Alexius was to Caesar: All Crusaders must pledge allegiance to him, Alexius said.
Bohemond took this oath. All the other crusading knights did the same, except Raymond of Toulouse. Raymond hesitated because he wanted to make clear his first allegiance was to the Crusade — to the oath he had made to God. He told the Emperor he would be his subordinate if the Emperor led the Crusaders in battle — but he would not be the Emperor’s vassal.
So, the Crusaders marched to the borders of Syria, laying siege to, and recapturing, the ancient city of Antioch. Here Bohemond broke his pledge to Emperor and Pope. He laid claim to Antioch, to establish his own tiny kingdom; then stayed with his army, as Raymond led the Crusade on to Jerusalem.
Raymond captured the Holy City from the Turks. There, his Knight Crusaders offered him the great title: King of Jerusalem. But the Count of Toulouse refused: He did not wish to be a crowned king in the city where Christ had worn a crown of thorns.
Now, modern historians will tell you, in loving detail, of atrocities the crusaders committed; and there were atrocities. And they ought not to be defended. For among the first things a Catholic learns is that man is fallen, and human nature is unchangeable.
But there is a theme in the story of Raymond and Bohemond that illustrates a fundamental lesson: Each of us faces this choice in life: We can choose the city. or we can chose the crusade. And it is far better thing to choose the crusade. That is what we are taught in our Catholic schools to choose the crusade. Each of us, to take up the cross.
Now, I can see the headline, when they get wind of this at the Washington Post: “Buchanan Renews Call for ‘Holy War.”‘ But what does it really mean to “choose the crusade” in modern America; and what role do Catholic schools and colleges play?
Let me tell you what I believe:
In every city in America there are Catholic parishes, Catholic schools and communities of Catholic families that form around those parishes and schools. When it works the way it ought to, family, church and school pursue a single, common goal: Raising up each generation to embrace the faith, and to accept the moral code that allows children to lead good lives, to become strong adults, to merit salvation. To go all the way to Jerusalem .
That is the goal of a Catholic education: The inculcation of values, the shaping of conscience, the development of character, the formation of souls. Whether a child is outstanding in math, a whiz at computers, or a great athlete, these are secondary.
We have a crisis in American education because educators have lost sight of their goal. They have lost sight of their first purpose: to produce moral men and women whose lives will be an example to their community, and country, no matter how successful they are in their secular vocations.
And how can we ever again succeed in educating children to become moral men and women if, in America’s public schools, we consciously deny them all religious instruction, and deny them access to that primary source of morality, God’s own word. The Bible is the one book from which they are expressly not allowed to be taught.
One of the greatest of our Founding Fathers, John Adams, once wrote: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” What Adams was saying was that religion and morality are the tap root of the Republic. Cut the tap root, and the Republic dies.
Our struggle, then, is against, those who have been slashing away at that tap root for decades. For if they prevail, our beloved country will perish.
And, the struggle must continue, for the rest of our lives.
In a healthy society, the institutions of culture reinforce the values of family, church, school. The history of the West, the greatest civilization in human history, is the story of centuries of architecture and art, literature and music, that lift up the hearts of men and women and point them toward the Truth. That is what the Cathedral of Chartres does; that is what Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel does; that is what Shakespeare’s Henry V does; that is what Beethoven’s 9th Symphony does. All, in their way, are songs of joy, because ultimately they teach the truth that Christ is Risen.
But that is not what Heather Has Two Mommies, does; it is not what that film, The Last Temptation of Christ does; it is not what grunge rock and rap music do; it is not, excuse me, what Roseanne Barr is all about.
When the book Heather Has Two Mommies, glorifying same-sex marriage, was going to be used to instruct First Graders in the schools of New York City, my friend, Mary Cummins, president of a school board in Queens, stopped the sewage at the schoolhouse door.
Mary Cummins is a heroine of the cultural war. She was doing what all good teachers, all good schools do, acting in loco parentis. She was another good mom watching over her kids.
Moms are the front line troops in the cultural war.
She is the one who snaps off the TV set when the filthy show comes on. She is the one down at the school board when Outcome Based Education, or condom distribution, or some absurd new federal mandate on how to teach America’s children is being introduced.
And if there is any institution that has always been a trusted friend and partner of conscientious mothers and the families they nurture and hold together, it is the traditional Catholic school.
I know this is so because it was true in my own family. My grandmother put her trust in Holy Trinity, a parochial school in Georgetown after her husband left her with two young sons to raise. My father grew up in what the social engineers call a “broken home” but he did not grow up in a broken community. His was a Catholic community founded on a Faith that could not be broken.
But, when my father was 13, and graduated from Holy Trinity, he was to be sent to McKinley Tech, a public high school. Then, one day, two Jesuits arrived at my grandmother’s house.
“Mrs. Buchanan,” they asked, “Why is young Bill not going to Gonzaga?” “Because,” my grandmother replied, “we don’t have the money.” The Jesuits answered back: “Mrs. Buchanan, we don’t want your money; we want your son.
My father would repay that loyalty all his life. Indeed, one day very late in my father’s life, I went into a Catholic bookstore in Bethesda, to find a copy of the Douey-Rheims version of the Bible, that might somehow have escaped the clutches of the thought police. You know the type: The religious rewrite men, with the big egos and the tin ears, who are going to improve on the most magnificent prose ever written.
When I came to the counter, the lady recognized me.
“Oh, Mr. Buchanan,” she said, “your father was in here just two weeks ago, and he said the most wonderful thing. I said to him ‘Isn’t it terrible what has happened to our church today, Mr. Buchanan?’ And he replied, ‘No, do not be afraid. We have it on the authority of Christ himself: the Rock will not break”‘ My father’s religious beliefs, inculcated in Catholic schools, permeated everything. In my father’s household, whatever Mother Church taught, that was it; there was no more debate.
When I was a boy, one of my father’s favorite expressions was “Offer it up!” It was an all-purpose phrase that meant, “stop whining and offer up your pain for the suffering souls in Purgatory.” Whenever we were hurt, injured or cried, we would hear a loud impatient, “Offer it up!” It was my father’s way of saying: Choose the crusade.
Incidentally, “offering it up” was advice I could have used one night when still in my crib back at our house in Georgetown.
My brothers, sisters and I were all instructed on how to pray as soon as we could talk. Even in the crib, I caught on quickly. When my older brothers were still toddlers, on their knees stumbling through the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be–from my playpen would come an impatient, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen!” My parents were elated with these early signs of precocity. They would show off to neighbors the indolent little boy they called “Paddy Joe,” who, as they said, “could talk before he could walk.” My older brothers, however, were not amused by all this cleverness.
The four of us in those years slept in separate cribs, which were on stilts and rollers and could be maneuvered around the otherwise empty room. To start the crib rolling all we had to do was stand, hold firmly onto one of the horizontal bars, and rock back and forth in the direction we wanted to go. One night, after the older brothers had their prayers interrupted and corrected, yet again, from the playpen, my father heard horrible screams from our room.
Rushing in, he found milk and blood all over my forehead, and glass strewn all over the crib. The perpetrator was at hand. One of my brothers had maneuvered his crib over next to mine, reached in, jerked the milk bottle out of my mouth, and smashed it over my head.
He was telling me, in his own persuasive way, to shut up. Unfortunately, the lesson never took. Ask Michael Kinsley.
A few years ago I wrote that story, and many others, in a book titled “Right From the Beginning.” My purpose was to show that the conservatism I embraced was not some abstract philosophical credo. It was not the sort of thing one settles upon after late-night bull sessions with self-absorbed graduate students at Ivy league schools. My conservatism was rooted in habits and dispositions ingrained in me from childhood and engraved on the hearts of millions like me, and, I suspect, like many of you by parents, schools and church.
Aquinas tells us that the virtues are not ideas, they are habits and the greatest of the virtues are not habits of the mind, they are habits of the heart.
The other day Mr. Clinton implicitly conceded this point in his heated speech contending that conservatives and talk radio are somehow responsible for that horrific atrocity in Oklahoma City.
Yes, Mr. President, in one way, you are right: The images that abound in our popular culture, what we say on the airwaves, what we depict on our television screens, in our movies houses can help habituate America to violence and can corrupt the soul of our nation.
That is what we have been saying, since Houston, and before.
But, no, it is not the conservative or traditionalist vision that leads to acts of violence. No one is going to go out and stalk the dark streets of the city after watching The Bells of St. Mary’s.
It is not traditionalism that has led to 4,000 unborn babies done to death every day, to public calls for legalized euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide. It is not traditionalism that has led to the collapse of the American family, where one in three children today are born without a father to go home to.
No, the slow-motion suicide of American society is traceable to a philosophy of self-indulgence, to a New Age Gospel that declares: There are no absolute values in the universe; there are no fixed and objective standards of right and wrong. There is no God. There is no salvation. It all begins here, and it all ends here. Every man lives by his own moral code. So, do your own thing.
And, doing their own thing, our countrymen are creating, in our great cities, a society straight out of Dante’s Inferno.
It we do not reject this fatal philosophy, if we do not turn back to the Truth, America will perish. Just as the people of a city where the water supply is contaminated, will sicken and die, so, too, will a nation whose culture has been polluted with falsehoods and filth.
So, how do we win this struggle for the soul of America?
In our Catholic tradition we have many heroes, who can serve as our models. In our history, we have many great souls who have spoken truth to power. We have seen in our own lifetime humble men and women bring down evil empires by giving witness to the truth.
A thousand years after Urban II preached the First Crusade, his successor, John Paul II, brought another crusade to the East. Forty years after Stalin mockingly asked how many divisions does the pope have, the first Polish pope came to an altar set up in a field outside Krakow.
There, he gave the answer for the Holy See. And when from deep inside the Soviet Empire, John Paul II stood in front of hundreds of thousands who had kept the faith, and said, Sursum Corda, Lift Up Your Hearts, from a dozen captive nations, millions answered in their own hearts, “We Have Lifted Them Up to The Lord.”
They had kept the Faith. More than any bomb or missile, that is why the walls came tumbling down, why the Evil Empire collapsed. In the climactic battle of the greatest war ever fought in the history of Western civilization, not a single shot was fired by the armies of the winning side. Truth, crushed to earth, rose again as we were told it would rise again.
For my generation, that 70-year Cold War between Western Civilization and Marxist materialism was our defining crisis and struggle. For your generation, the great crisis is within Western Civilization. As we sacrificed and saved, and some of our friends fought and died, to win our war to preserve the body of Western Civilization, it is up to you to save her soul. For the great struggle today is between the modernist materialism all around us, and the culture and civilization rooted in the permanent truths of our Faith.
To assure victory in this struggle you must emulate the good people of Poland. Never back down from the truths you learned from your parents, the truths you have taken in throughout your life, the truths you have brought to a fine understanding here at Christendom.
Never back down in the biggest things you do; and never back down in the simplest things you do. Remember that courage, like cowardice, is a habit of the heart. And when the choice comes down to between the city and the crusade, take up the cross and lead.