What Christians Can Learn from the ‘Assertive Hospitality’ of William F. Buckley Jr.

Confusing times lead to confused Christians. Look around and it’s easy to see many searching for models for engaging an increasingly hostile culture. The question of how to respond to the wave of recent cultural changes has divided the church.

Two camps often dominate. On one hand there are hipsters salivating after every shallow cultural trend; on the other, the decidedly unhip are retreating from culture through a blend of intentional ignorance and indifference.

Neither suffices. We need something better.

Models, fortunately, can be found in surprising places. Recently, I found one on YouTube.

Clicking through the archives of old Firing Line episodes, I was struck by the way host William F. Buckley Jr. handled even his most outrageous guests. Though certainly not a perfect man, Buckley demonstrated, especially in a few early episodes, a kind of assertive hospitality that Christians ought to strive for when engaging our neighbors.

Model for Engaging Culture

This is particularly obvious in the show’s early years. Two episodes exemplify these traits: one with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and the other with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. In these, Buckley was unflappable. He simply let his guest speak and listened attentively. He also didn’t shy away from challenging them, sometimes quite fiercely but, even then, with a smile. Buckley assumed an air of bemusement rather than fear or irritation when his guests offered opinions he clearly rejected. He was neither annoyed nor abashed by the things they said. Rather, he appeared to find their wrongheadedness entertaining.

In both conversations, Buckley, a committed Catholic believer, engages men whose convictions are clearly anti-Christian. He combines the qualities of hospitality and assertiveness that defined his charm and that make these interactions, recorded decades ago, a model for Christians handling similar confrontations today.

Patient Hospitality, Unwavering Assertiveness

Buckley’s hospitality is especially evident in his gladness to allow his guests to make their cases. He rarely interrupts. He rarely belittles their points of view (one notable exception: his famously vicious debates with Gore Vidal). He is clearly not afraid of their words—even when those words turn into attacks, whether subtle or overt, on him or the Christian faith. Rather than fear, Buckley evinces a sort of detachment, as if he understands that whatever points his interlocutors seem to be scoring in the moment, the falsities they advocate are destined, in the long run, for some consuming fire.

While Buckley was hospitable, he never made the widespread mistake of trying to convert others by seeming “nice.” He rarely strained to be accepted and rarely exerted himself in the process of ingratiation. Where more than a few contemporary Christian voices twist themselves into knots to avoid issuing an offensive opinion, Buckley gushed controversy like water through a fountain.

The combination of these qualities—a patient hospitality and an unwavering assertiveness—form a baseline for proper Christian engagement today. They are complementary pieces. Lose one and the whole operation goes to bits.

The combination of these qualities—a patient hospitality and an unwavering assertiveness—form a baseline for proper Christian engagement today. They are complementary pieces. Lose one and the whole operation goes to bits.

Superior Strategy

Unfortunately, too many Christians surrender one or the other. In a time of increasing hostility to traditional Christian belief, it is easy to cease engaging our secular counterparts with the requisite measure of hospitality. We can too easily become either hostile or withdrawn—either turning every exchange combative or avoiding such interactions in the first place.

We can also fail to engage with appropriate assertiveness. We soft-pedal, seeking to turn the attention of the secular world away from the demanding, ragged edges of the gospel. When asked a direct question about the hard teachings of the faith, we hem, haw, and stutter. Rather than allowing gospel truth to shine in its undiluted proclamation, we clamor to upgrade it by cultivating likable personas, as if the credibility of the Christian faith rests on the allure of its adherents.

A superior strategy is to cultivate a simple assertiveness that declares the truth in a direct and matter-of-fact manner, even while winsomely extending hospitality. Buckley, in these early episodes, showed us what such qualities look like when well-married in vigorous engagement with the opposition. To sharpen our skills in engaging dominant cultural views, we could all do worse than to spend a couple of hours on the Firing Line.

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