Long ago, when First Things was a magazine to be taken seriously, it espoused ideas like human dignity, the sanctity of human life, and “all men are created equal” and so forth. But then, like so much of American Christian conservatism, it hitched its wagon to the degraded post-modern conservatism of the GOP, becoming first apologists for unjust war in Iraq and opponents of two popes and all the world’s bishops in that pursuit. Then it went to war against the Magisterium not only for that, but for the death penalty, and finally bent on acclimating itself to the cesspool of Trumpism.
A fascinating geological record of at least part of the decline into making peace with an antichrist gospel of selfishness can be found in the comboxes under David Bentley Hart’s piece (published in 2011) “A Person You Flee at Parties“. This little portrait of Trump literally compares him, unfavorably, to Satan, concluding:
Cold, grasping, bleak, graceless, and dull; unctuous, sleek, pitiless, and crass; a pallid vulgarian floating through life on clouds of acrid cologne and trailed by a vanguard of fawning divorce lawyers, the devil is probably eerily similar to Donald Trump—though perhaps just a little nicer.
If you drill down to the comments from nine years ago, they are almost uniformly in concurrence with Hart’s assessment of the man. But beginning four year ago, there is a sudden and stark shift of opinion as Good White Conservatives “adjust” themselves to the selfish dimestore antichrist they chose, of their own free will, to embrace.
Indeed, as the Triad discusses here, 2011 was an ill-starred year in the decline of First Things:
Rusty Reno was hired to run First Things in 2011. He had previously been associated with the magazine as an occasional contributor, then briefly as its “features editor” before stepping back to just a nominal affiliation. He was a college professor who had not run a magazine before and brought with him no ideas on what to do with the institution that was entrusted to his care. I offer this judgment as a longtime First Things reader who dutifully slogged through its pages every month. But if you’d like a more objective proof, consider this:
Fully two years after taking the helm at First Things, Reno ran a symposium in which he plaintively asked outside writers to come up with some idea for the future mission of his magazine.
Reno’s own contribution to this symposium was embarrassingly anemic. He concluded by saying:
I don’t pretend to know how to respond adequately to these challenges, if indeed I have properly identified them in the first place. But I am convinced that the context for our witness is shifting in important ways. That won’t mean that First Things changes what it stands for, but it may, perhaps necessarily will, change where we stand.
This piffle is not the product of a mind suited to leading a magazine of ideas. It is, if anything, an admission of a lack of editorial vision.
In the course of this symposium, the most clear-eyed and vigorous proposal for what the magazine should became from occasional contributor Eric Cohen.
He never wrote for First Things again.
While Reno lacked a strong intellectual point of view, he does possess a sensibility: Like many professors, he has a performative streak and he seemed drawn to the outré. In conservative Catholic circles, this means radical traditionalism. Without really meaning to, First Things became a gathering place for rad trads, where they could posture and preen.
This was unfortunate, and a little sad, but ultimately harmless enough.
Then came Donald Trump.
2. Trump and the Rad Trads
After some typically Reno-esque equivocation—he was against Trump, then for Trump, but then after the Access Hollywood tape, he scurried to delete a pro-Trump podcast he had recorded, before finally poking up his head again—Reno came to embrace Trump. In fact, the ascendance of Trump to the godhead of conservatism seems to have given Reno the Big Idea he had been casting about for during the early years of his editorship. And so Reno and First Things set about trying to build an intellectual framework around Trumpism. This has proved impossible because Trumpism is Trump and Trump the man has no coherent intellectual framework beyond immediate self-interest.
(As an intellectual exercise, it might be possible to build some sort of reformed conservatism apart from Trump that left behind the fusionism of the Reagan years. There are some professional conservatives who are trying to do that right now. The problem with this project is that it necessitates either criticizing or ignoring Donald Trump. Doing the latter is unserious. Doing the former renders you radioactive inside Conservatism Inc.)
After three years of groping and straining to codify Trumpism into an intellectual movement, First Things came up with a manifesto, “Against the Dead Consensus,” that was little more than emo sentimentality. Again and again, this “common-good conservatism” that First Things has agitated for under Reno has been exposed as being ill thought out—little more than inchoate mush.
One of Reno’s most shocking admissions about this mushiness came in the course of an interview with the Atlantic:
When I asked Reno about the president’s comments referring to Mexicans as rapists and criminals, and the family-separation policy that left dozens of migrant children stranded in government vans for 24 hours or more, Reno replied, “I don’t do policy, but if we don’t gain control of the border, it’s going to be a serious problem for the entire generation.”
“I don’t do policy” says the editor of an intellectual magazine as he reorients it to become a political enterprise centered on defending and justifying the politics of Donald Trump.
The consequence of this prostitution of the Religious Right to Trump is First Things’ embrace of the freakish and heretical concept of “Christian nationalism”. The gospel rejects nationalism categorically.
Note that: Nationalism, not patriotism. Patriotism is simply the application of the second greatest commandment to one’s countrymen. Nationalism is the monomaniacal and demonic love of only one’s country, not only at the expense of all other countries, but ultimately at the expense of one’s countrymen. Patriotism is analogous to a person’s healthy love of self. Nationalism is analogous to the diabolical sin of Pride. “Christian nationalism” makes as much sense as Christian Satanism.
And the result of such go-it-alone stupidity is death:
Sane nations are working together because we are stronger together as a species when we pool our gifts and resources in pursuit of the Common Good. Our insane nation, cheered on by men like RR Reno, is refusing to cooperate with the other nations of the world in fighting the pandemic. The result: Trump’s America, 4% of the global population, leads the world in infection and death from COVID, and the Greatest Christians of All Time who are the backbone of his support somehow manage to be proud of it–and to still boast that they are “prolife”.
By Memorial Day, we will see the practical result of “Christian nationalism” in action as the American death toll for the worst pandemic in a century soars past 100,000 with no end in sight. This is 100% due to the policies of the Trump Administration and the lies of First Things that prop him up and condemn those who listen to sane public health guidance as everything from servants of the devil to totalitarian stooges.
The solution? Repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ironically, in this strange hour, it is mostly those who think they do not believe in Jesus who are proving themselves his disciples by the only measure he cares about: their actions which put the good of others first. And indeed, they often find themselves begging those who claim they do believe in him to act like it while the self-described “faithful Christians” argue for radical selfishness.