The Thing about First Things

The Thing about First Things May 9, 2017
"The American River Ganges," an 1875 anti-Catholic cartoon by Thomas Nash from Harper's Weekly magazine. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License.
“The American River Ganges,” an 1875 anti-Catholic cartoon by Thomas Nash from Harper’s Weekly magazine. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License.

During my senior year of college, I took over our campus’s right-leaning paper, The Fenwick Review. Notorious for its polemics, its deft ability to put the student body at odds, my tenure as co-editor marked something of a shift. We made the thing glossy in contrast to its previous news-ink soaked state. We brought on student artists to design the cover and punctuate the articles with wannabe medieval grotesques. Poetry, short stories, and cartoons began to appear.

Why? I felt my conservatism challenged, at least the conservatism I had known. First Things seems, to me, to be undergoing a similar transformation though on a more significant scale.

When I first began reading First Things, the journal was unabashedly neoconservative in orientation, or, at minimum, pluralistic. Founded by Richard John Neuhaus in 1990, it carried forth the good pater’s mission with hopeful, religious gusto. Such a direction remains enshrined on its website:

First Things is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational 501(c)(3) organization. The Institute was founded in 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus and his colleagues to confront the ideology of secularism, which insists that the public square must be “naked,” and that faith has no place in shaping the public conversation or in shaping public policy.

The Institute’s mission is to articulate a governing consensus that supports:

[A] religiously pluralistic society capable of cooperating to defend human dignity from conception to natural death.

[A] democratically, constitutionally ordered form of government supported by a religiously and morally serious culture.

[E]conomic freedom that encourages a culture of personal and communal responsibility.

[G]enuine patriotism and loyalty to the Western tradition that provide a basis for responsible global citizenship.

The Institute’s flagship program, First Things magazine, is the leading intellectual journal of its kind in the United States. In addition to publishing ten issues of First Things each year, the Institute hosts educational programs that promote religiously informed analysis of culture, society, theology, and politics.

Here the magazine concerns me more than the institute as a whole. Regardless, I have no few memories of reading pieces by current editor R.R. Reno, firmly-entrenched within the Neuhaus-tradition: balance the budget, fight within democracy for a godly public square, etc.

And yet, something is afoot. Reno’s last two pieces “Goodbye, Left and Right” and “Twenty-First-Century Conservatism” show circumspection a-brewin’. A bit from the latter article:

In recent years, I have been struggling with the intuition that the political and social assumptions I’ve held for many years aren’t so much wrong as inadequate […]

As a teen I read George Orwell and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, not Leo XIII. My first years of theological study focused on Karl Barth, whose outlook was profoundly influenced by his recognition that Christianity had to be defended against spiritual conquest by German nationalism. Although I started on the left, over time I came to see that progressivism, even the moderate progressivism of American liberalism, invariably seeks to increase the power of the state. The cultural wars of my lifetime—the war on racism, the war on sexual inequality, and the war on poverty—fell into the same pattern. The state needs to be empowered to make the world anew […]

I was finishing graduate school when Richard John Neuhaus launched First Things. His outlook seemed right. Again, I wasn’t thinking in Leo XIII’s terms in those days. But I can now see that Neuhaus recognized that our society needed the renewal of the moral authority of traditional institutions, especially marriage and Church, in order to restore the Leonine [referring to Pope Leo XIII] balance. In the face of progressive attempts to displace family and Church with politically orchestrated cultural change, we needed to defend limited government and a free economy in order to restrain this tendency. This would restore the Leonine balance […]

That analysis was not so much wrong as shortsighted. We failed to see that judicial usurpation is a symptom of something much more powerful. The real peril of our time does not rest in the fact that the state has become so powerful that it can “find” new rights and force us to acknowledge them. Instead, the danger comes from what Hittinger calls the “revolutions from below.” By this evocative term he means the multifaceted cultural, economic, and technological forces that encourage us to believe we don’t need any of the necessary societies. Or if we do need them, it’s only because they play a useful role in providing ever-greater utility to individuals. On such a view—and it’s now the dominant view in the West—society does not exist to sustain marriage, political community, and religion. Its purpose is plenary liberation (“negative anthropology”) and economic growth. The mutually reinforcing empires of desire and utility displace the three societies.

Although it may seem as if I have quoted the entire piece, it trods on for quite a bit longer, even defending Reno’s fidelity to the tradition of Neuhaus. Clearly, R.R. and I have our disagreements, those forces from below he cites in Hittinger might just as easily be called “symptoms of capitalism” or “outgrowths of an unjust social structure,” but that’s neither here nor there. The point is simple enough: something is indeed afoot.

The staff and regular contributors at First Things only reinforce this (by now somewhat trite) hunch. Matthew Schmitz and Matthew Walther especially come to mind. The former, as far as I know, got his start with more-traditionally First Things-esque activities: debating Mark Joseph Stern on same-sex marriage, for example But more recently he has written a fairly-positive piece about the Tradinistas, not to mention a glowing account of the Young Pope.

Walther is, at least in terms of written content, a newer name at the magazine. He delights in the sensuousness of language—witness his newest review at First Things. Originally writing for more straightforwardly-conservative magazines like National Review, the bulk of his work has appeared in The Washington Free Beacon (itself a conservative paper). And yet, his pieces reflect rather well how I once heard him characterized: the god of Catholic gonzo. Hot takes on Girls, abortion, and Star Wars trail in his writerly wake. Now an editor at the Free Beacon, I think it’s safe to say that, if he is the Tom Wolfe of Catholicism, something of his cultural attitude, if not his affects, is appearing over at First Things.

The magazine is a metonym. The growing pains, the jerks and rustlings of American Catholicism are projected onto its pages, a reality to which even Rusty Reno must admit. But why is that at all interesting?

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