Second Thoughts about Brent Bozell

Politics

On the Catholic vision, and its discontents after Trump’s election.

Brent Bozell is an attorney who was Edward Williams’ counsel. He can be seen talking to James Juliana (Ma McCarthy’s Investigations Subcommittee Investigator). (Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)

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. I am left wondering if Heilbrunn ever read any Bozell books, or if he has read any 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.

Many of Bozell’s forecasts have come true two generations later. Since the collapse of the fusionist left, the mysterious sense of prophecy in these once-forgotten writings has rekindled interest. 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. Bozell is a subject I want to return to, partly to rectify my mistakes and partially to make up for Heilbrunns’s worse.

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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. Just like Orange Man Bad, Papist Man Scary.

Bozell has been made the villain here because of his peaceful protests. Heilbrunn has his eyes on The Warren Revolution, a 1966 book arguing against judicial supremacy as an affront to the U.S. Constitution. This book is well-written and intelligently presented, with a solid history as well as law. But within two years even Brent Bozell had left The Warren Revolution behind him. He was determined to achieve greater things and regarded the five years spent on the book as a wasteful and foolish 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 is also too broad. 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.

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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 repeatedly referred to conservative causes as the cause of the “Christian West” during a Madison Square Garden speech. This sounds commonsense to a conservative; Heilbrunn fears these conservatives might return.

But Brent Bozell was not a shallow, political religion like some of the post-fusionist groups. The opposite was true: it was religious politics, which is politics that is directed toward religion and not the other way around.

His main contention was simple: Christianity has an absolute claim to the universe. Everything, even moral law, flows from God. No Christian should accept any political claim (and even a political authority) that is not in accord with God’s source of legitimacy.

The alternative sounds ridiculous, stripped of its accommodationist rhetoric in America. It is that the infinite, immortal, all-powerful Creator who took flesh and became human, suffered pain until death on a cross, rose again from the dead the third day to make a small kingdom for himself. It is clear that Jesus did not intend to become the King of Kings; He didn’t claim the earth or man as His; He also never intended to create disciples from all nations.

The question is: Is Christianity real? Bozell was a bit off the mark if it’s not. His arguments will be almost unanswerable if it is.

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Any third place seems to be becoming increasingly unsustainable. After Roe–not to mention whatever else is coming–opponents of the Christian vision will declare themselves as such. They will have to defend it, just as L. Brent Bozell Jr. did before we were born.

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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.

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