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First Things And Changing Times

Neuhaus made his magazine the biggest, most important player in a game that no longer exists
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There has been a lot of commentary in religious conservative circles about the drama around First Things and its editor Rusty Reno. I added to the clamor with a couple of posts, including a long one yesterday about FT and the future of religious conservatism. I don’t retract anything I said, but I do regret saying it right now. Though I don’t really know Reno more than casually, it feels like I joined in a pile-on of a friend — and I say that because I have regarded First Things as a friend since I first discovered it in the early 1990s. As I conceded late yesterday, I posted in part out of anger at Reno, because he called me and many people I know cowards for wearing masks when we go out. I had been reading with mounting anger his coronavirus diaries, and something just snapped inside me. One should never post in anger (as Reno, who deleted his Twitter account, has discovered!). I want to apologize to Reno for joining the pile-on. I should have waited to say what I wanted to say, because I could have said it better.

To be honest, though, my distress is a backhanded compliment to First Things, because for so long it has been peerless among religious conservative journals. Though I am thrilled that its editors have been taking it beyond the Reaganist fusionism of the Neuhaus-Weigel era, I don’t want to see it get mired in Trumpist crankery. To lose First Things would be a terrible thing.

I have heard over the past day from a number of people — most of them names you would know — expressing their frustration with the turn First Things has taken. I have also heard from people expressing frustration with my criticism. The one thing we all agree on is that First Things matters like no other magazine in its categories matters, and has for a long time.

I’ve been thinking this morning about what an incredible institution Richard John Neuhaus built. The fact that here we are, thirty years after its launch, all agonizing in public about the magazine’s identity and future is a hell of a thing. Whatever you think of Neuhaus, he was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. I don’t think I have ever written for First Things, and only met Neuhaus in person a couple of times, but he was a true guru to many of us religious conservative Christian writers. It had a lot to do with his personality — witty, urbane, learned, ecumenical in the best way. He drew people to him — smart people, good people. Folks liked him and respected him, and beyond that, they cherished him. Bill Buckley is the only other figure in conservative journalism who had a similar effect on people, but his appeal was political. For conservatives whose orientation was more religious, Neuhaus was the man. I discovered First Things around the same time that I discovered Catholicism. I like to joke that I joined Team Neuhaus. I really thought of myself like that, though it would be years before I ever met him, or spoke to him.

I have written too many times about my regrets about that era, in particular my hero-worship of John Paul II, my unwarranted confidence in the institutional Catholic Church, and my far too cozy mixing of my religion with the priorities of the Republican Party. The trauma of those years ended with me losing my ability to believe as a Catholic, and leaving the Catholic Church, and leaving the Republican Party (though to be very clear, I remained a Christian and a political conservative). This is all my fault, but these were faults I learned by imitating Father Neuhaus, who was a hero of mine. To be clear, I’m not blaming him for my own errors; I’m just trying to sketch out why First Things meant so much to me, and still does.

I have heard from some friends who write for and help edit other Christian journals, including ones for which I’ve written. They are chagrined that I said that there is nothing to match First Things. I’m sorry, but it’s simply true. This is no comment on the quality of the articles they publish. It’s a comment about the immensity of Neuhaus’s achievement. Someone who used to work at FT — I think it was Damon Linker, but I can’t be sure — once marveled to me about the world of Father Neuhaus. So many important people — cardinals from Rome, but also theologians, intellectuals, and cultural figures from all over the Christian world — found their way to the magazine’s offices in Manhattan, and to Father Neuhaus’s dinner table. First Things was a stop on their itinerary; they all wanted to see Richard. Had First Things been anywhere else but Manhattan (with the possible exception of Washington, DC), it would not have had the prestige and influence that it did.

I was talking with a Christian journalist yesterday who said that it would serve First Things well to be out of Manhattan now. I think I agree, but I’m not sure. True, the Internet has made physical location much less important. However, in reflecting on how Neuhaus made First Things the most important magazine of its kind, I recognize that it’s not simply that being in New York, he could have cigars with the Greats when they passed through town. It’s that being in New York puts you at the white-hot core of American cultural change. I’ve often thought that a political magazine like National Review would be better off relocating from Manhattan to Dallas (while keeping a Washington bureau). I believe that First Things would lose something important if it left New York, even though New York is about as post-Christian as a major American metropolis can be. I lived in New York for five years, and though it is quite easy to be dazzled by the bright lights and thereby to lose sight of what the rest of the country is seeing, it is also true that to live in New York is to be in a position to see the future before everybody else. As the country moves more into its post-Christian era, this viewpoint might prove to be more important than it now seems, for the magazine First Things aspires to be. 

And that is a magazine broadly focused on what Neuhaus called “the public square.” There is, alas, something of a Norma Desmond quality to First Things (“I am big; it’s the picture that got small”), simply because it was a magazine built for an era in which Christian intellectuals mattered to American national politics. If Richard John Neuhaus were at the peak of his powers today, he would still have been diminished by the changes in American culture and politics. He fought the culture war as well as anybody, but he — we — lost (Michael Hanby, in First Things (of course), explains the meaning of this loss.) That so many conservative Christian intellectuals still look to First Things, and not other very good publications, as the guidepost for the community is a sign of the afterglow of the Neuhaus era.

Nobody could have truly succeeded Richard John Neuhaus, because he was a singular figure. It’s the same with Bill Buckley, though Rich Lowry has done a great job shepherding National Review through the post-Buckley era. But NR has a different mission than FT. Conservatism is a protean thing. There will always be a party of the right in America, and that party will need magazines to write about it. Religious thought, especially of the conservative/traditional kind, does not mean as much to American politics and public affairs as it did in the 1990s and early 2000s. I wish that were not true, but it can’t be avoided. No magazine devoted to the intersection of traditional religion and public affairs could help being diminished in this era.

Think about it: In the 1970s, labor union leaders were routinely invited on Meet The Press and other news programs. (I remember this because, using a child’s logic, I wondered why they kept inviting George Meany on TV if he was a meanie.) That rarely happens now, and it hasn’t happened in years, because organized labor doesn’t matter like it once did. Organized religion is like that too. If Cardinal Dolan appears on Meet The Press, it doesn’t mean what it meant in the 1990s, when Cardinal O’Connor did. The times have diminished the office and its authority.

The Trump ascension obviously signaled the diminishment of authority of conservative institutions, including magazines. It’s a confusing time. First Things has tried to seize the Trump moment, clumsily. I realized over the past day, thinking about this current controversy with Reno, that the fear that Reno was making the same mistake that Neuhaus and Weigel did, hitching the magazine too closely to Washington politicians and causes, has been gnawing at me for a long time. Consider, though, how difficult this challenge is facing any editor of First Things: how to be relevant to current debates in public affairs without aligning yourself too closely with a party or politician? It’s even harder when you see yourself as a player, as First Things was from 1990 until the end of the George W. Bush administration. You can’t be a player without picking a team. What if the team captain is Donald Trump? You see the problem. Well, that’s not a problem for some Christians, but the community of intellectual Christians who read and write for First Things are divided sharply in ways that we weren’t in the Neuhaus era.

Touchstone is a very fine magazine, but it is not a “player,” and has never aspired to be. Same with Mere Orthodoxy, Comment, Plough, and other excellent Christian publications whose profile isn’t as high as First Things, because Neuhaus and his times made First Things a player. The biggest player! But the game is over now.

It would be wrong to say that Christians should stop thinking and writing about politics and public affairs, especially in this time of tumult and transition. But the way we think and write about it has to be different, has to be suited to these times, not the past. Neuhaus’s great triumph with First Things came from his aspiration to make it a political player. He succeeded. But it was also his (and the magazine’s) Achilles heel, not only with the Bush administration and the Iraq War, but with the magazine’s identification with the Catholic hierarchy.

I mentioned this morning to a scholar I know, a conservative whose work has appeared in First Things, that I felt bad for being so quick to join the pile-on, though Reno deserved criticism. The scholar replied, “I kind of feel bad too, until I remember that he willingly met with people while he was infected, and then implied that people who take precautions by wearing masks are cowards.” There is that. I fear that Rusty Reno’s coronavirus diaries may one day be viewed as Father Neuhaus’s March 2002 FT piece pronouncing exoneration on Marcial Maciel and the Legion of Christ, in the face of allegations of abuse. Neuhaus wrote at the time:

I am not neutral about the Legionaries. I have spent time with Fr. Maciel, and he impresses me as a man who combines uncomplicated faith, gentle kindness, military self–discipline, and a relentless determination to do what he believes God has called him to do. They are the qualities one would expect of someone who at age twenty–one in Mexico vowed to do something great for Christ and his Church, and has been allowed to do it. In the language of the tradition, they are qualities associated with holiness; in his case a virile holiness of tenacious resolve that has been refined in the fires of frequent opposition and misunderstanding.

He said that the accusations were “gossip” and “trash.” More:

Common sense is also entered into evidence. Is it believable that, as alleged, a pathological, drug–addicted child molester could have founded a religious order in the 1940s that was approved by the Church and flourished for decades, while all the time casual sodomy and other heinous sexual abuses reigned in its houses? And this without a word of concern from thousands of parents or any claim of such wrongdoing in civil, criminal, or ecclesiastical courts? It is not believable. Is it believable that men who are now accusers, who were then adult members of the order, would have testified under oath to Fr. Maciel’s uprightness, thus lying to their highest superiors in the Holy See and refusing to mention years of abuse by a drug–addicted molester who had been removed as head of the order? It is not believable. The accusations are odious, as are the actions of those who continue to peddle them.


A cardinal in whom I have unbounded confidence and who has been involved in the case tells me that the charges are “pure invention, without the slightest foundation.”

But as we discovered later, all of it was true! And worse! In that same long piece, Neuhaus used all his considerable powers of rhetoric to savage the characters of the late Gerald Renner and Jason Berry, the journalists who had done incredible work to expose Maciel. Now, I too was following the case against the Legionaries, and as incredible as the charges seemed, the evidence was far, far more substantive than Neuhaus lets on here. He was animated by his prejudices, and ended up defending a rotten cause, and trashing the names of good reporters who were not as deceived as he was.

The problem with Neuhaus’s piece wasn’t that he defended Maciel. It was still possible at that date to do so, with real effort. The problem was that Neuhaus wound himself up rhetorically to a very high pitch, dismissed all evidence against what he wanted to believe, and portrayed himself as a heroic defender of justice against a pair of hateful journalists who only wanted to tear down the Church. Neuhaus went far beyond reason into the realm of ideology and spitefulness. And it blew up in his face. He honestly could not believe that he could be wrong about this stuff. I know, because in the spring of 2002, I was on the receiving end of several angry phone calls from him, in which he lambasted me for not believing Catholic bishops when they told me there was nothing to these scandals. RJN was no cynic; he was a true believer.

He got away with it because he was Richard John Neuhaus, and had built up a massive amount of social capital. Still, you see where I’m going with this. Reno has spent the pandemic writing strong pieces denouncing those who have a more conventional view of the pandemic’s threat than he does, and trashing the character of those who don’t share his view. The unfortunate tweets from the other night do not stand alone. I don’t know why he did it, though by deleting those tweets and his entire Twitter account, he apparently regrets it. Good. He should. I expect that he will reflect long and hard over the meaning of the institution that it is his privilege to care for, and going forward, resists the siren-song of ideological passions. Giving voice to strong emotions and provocative opinions is the way one can become a player in Trump World; that this state of affairs existed prior to Trump has a lot to do with why Trump is president today. But it’s a temptation to which a magazine like First Things cannot surrender and still remain what it is supposed to be.

The question again is, what does it mean to be a magazine about religion in the public square in a time when religion doesn’t mean as much to people, and the public square is increasingly befouled? Is it even possible to play the game without getting as filthy as the players? Or is the contest really over, and ought traditional Christians, who have been largely eliminated from competition, to be spending more of their time and effort constructing “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness”? I know where I stand. By no means is First Things is obligated to stand with me, but I hope its editorial leadership will take serious the moral and reputational cost of aligning itself with the worst aspects, including temperamental aspects, of Trumpism.

Father Neuhaus amassed a Scrooge McDuck-like vault of institutional authority, in a time when his style of investing paid off. We’re in leaner times now, and we all have to be a lot more careful about where we put our treasure.

UPDATE: Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy has a really solid take. Excerpt:

Trump tempted us like never before. This has created a very difficult context for all religious conservatives.

The extremes of our moment show the challenge: If you sign up with the Trumpists, you’re going to be running with some mean, ugly people, such as the folks at the Federalist and some of the Claremont crowd, to say nothing of the Breitbart and OANN set. Choosing to align with them is a choice you can make, but it’s not one I’d encourage.

That said, those who have held the line on the importance of character are often not terribly interesting intellectually and seem determined to resurrect the worst form of Reaganism, which would both condemn the Republicans to irrelevance and leave millions of impoverished Americans left behind by an economy which knows only one index of health—the GDP, a measure which, unfortunately, seems to have very little correlation with the prosperity of most American workers. Last is correct in noting that building an intellectual version of Trumpism is impossible, but I don’t see why we would want an intellectual version of a discredited fusionism either.

In that context, any magazine editor has a very difficult task. Figuring out how to navigate such troubled waters is a challenge—Mere O is an extremely small operation relative to First Things and I have felt that challenge pretty intensely. I imagine the struggle is much greater if you’re at a magazine with the reputation of First Things.

UPDATE.2: For the sake of clarity, I want to say that I do not believe that “the folks at the Federalist” are “mean, ugly people.” I endorse Jake Meador’s take generally. A reader in the comments took from my posting Jake’s take that I endorsed all of it. I can see why. That’s why I’m clarifying. I think it’s generally true that if you sign up to be an all-in pro-Trumper, you end up in a place you don’t want to be. It’s also generally true that Never Trumpers are problematic too; Zombie Reaganism is nobody’s idea of the future. But I know some good people, and good writers, on both sides of that divide.

UPDATE.3: Jake Meador has a great follow-up post. Excerpt:

Given that, if Christians want to work toward Christianizing their culture—and they ought to want that—then there is a very obvious argument for trying to become a player in elite culture in the way that First Things was and likely still is.

Moreover, there is a form of virtue made possible by grandeur and largeness of scale that is not possible in the same way in smaller, more remote places. Tolkien understood this well. As much as his heart was in the Shire amongst the Hobbits, there would be no shire without Minas Tirith nor would there be many other things, not least the virtue of magnanimity, which by definition assumes a certain loftiness or immensity that the holder of the virtue is then able to share with their inferiors. My heart belongs to the Great Plains and to Nebraska and to Lincoln. But New York City is great, not in the sense in which we refer to greatness as a kind of elevated goodness, but in the sense of being grand and lofty and magnificent. If places like New York City ought to exist, and they ought to, then Christians ought to live in those places and aspire to shape them such that their grandeur might also be good. Christians are needed in New York so that it might become like Jerusalem rather than Babel.

The challenge, it seems to me, is in the way we pursue influence in such places. Francis Schaeffer used to talk about being ‘extruded’ into ministry—to be extruded is to be squeezed into a specific role apart from one’s conscious pursuit of the position. You might say that St. Ambrose was extruded into his role in the Milanese church. That is the right instinct, I think. You don’t go looking for power and prestige. You aspire to be faithful. If prestige finds you, then you allow yourself to be extruded into it and pray that God protect you from the spiritual dangers.