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First Things & The Future Of Religious Conservatism

Reno meltdown only highlighted much deeper and broader problems on the intellectual Religious Right
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First Things editor Rusty Reno’s meltdown the other night on Twitter (he’s now deleted those tweets, by the way) occasioned a lot of messaging among fellow Christian conservatives in my circles, all of whom are worried about the magazine and its future. I heard from one young friend who is part of the broad circles of Millennial and Gen Z conservatives and trads on the East Coast — the kind of people who have either published in First Things, or who aspire to. He said that most of them have decided that given its editor’s embrace of Covid-19 crankishness (e.g., calling mask-wearers cowards), it is too risky to their reputations to publish in First Things. This is a terrible sign for the magazine, but the crisis of First Things is a symbol of the broader crisis of intellectual Christian conservatism attempting to engage modernity, and to participate in the public square — which is exactly why First Things was founded, and how it sees its mission. My point is that the First Things crisis — if you can call it a “crisis,” and I think you can — is not just a crisis for that magazine, but it symbolizes a broader and deeper crisis on the intellectual Christian Right.

First Things burst onto the world in 1990. Its editor-in-chief, Richard John Neuhaus, was a Catholic priest and a convert, but he had a broad and generous ecumenical vision. He and his co-founders wanted the magazine to become home to Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, and Jews who were interested in the intersection of religion and public life, and who wrote from a morally and theologically conservative perspective. First Things became the most important journal of its kind, a real flagship for small-o orthodox Christian thinkers. A lot of this had to do with the charisma and editorial genius of Father Neuhaus, but it also had to do with the times. This was the era when Pope John Paul II was at the height of his powers, and even many Evangelicals looked to him as a symbol of authentic Christian witness to the world — not just in terms of piety, but because of his intellectual critiques of modernity. In the US, at least, conservative Christianity offered a coherent and muscular vision — one that often dovetailed with the priorities of the Republican Party, or so many of us believed.

It surprises people to learn that First Things was not founded as a Catholic magazine. Nor was it ever intended to be the parish newsletter of the Republican Party at prayer. But by the early 2000s, it seemed that way — and this is what led to the magazine’s troubles. Neuhaus and his collaborator George Weigel united the magazine behind George W. Bush’s Iraq War, which even John Paul II opposed. When that project failed, it damaged the magazine’s credibility immensely. Moreover, First Things had strongly allied itself with theological conservatives within the institutional Catholic Church. The abuse scandal broke big out of Boston in early 2002. Neuhaus did not handle any of this well, and was eventually humiliated by a fulsome piece he had written praising the orthodoxy of Father Marcial Maciel, who later turned out to be a figure of demonic sexual corruption.

Neuhaus died in 2009. While the magazine has continued to be the most important one of its kind for intellectually engaged religious conservatism — there are no other magazines like it whose editors’ bizarre tweets would set off such alarm — its decline in influence has more to do with the decline of religious conservatism than it does with editorial decisions made by this or that editor. If Father Neuhaus were alive today, and firing on all cylinders, the magazine would still be struggling to find its way, because all of us on the Religious Right are.

I hesitate to describe us as the “Religious Right,” because that is a phrase that has become coterminous with right-wing political Christians, lately of the Trumpy Evangelical type. Chuck Colson was a friend and partner of Neuhaus, and was a robust symbol of intellectually engaged popular conservative Evangelicalism. Under Trump, popular conservative Evangelicalism has come to be symbolized by Pastor Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell, Jr., who just obliterated the philosophy faculty at Liberty University,and has established a “think tank” with the right-wing activist Charlie Kirk: the Falkirk Center.

Catholicism is also a mess. The vision that inspired Neuhaus, George Weigel, and their team of thinkers in the 1980s and 1990s crashed and sank, and not just on the shoals of the abuse scandal and the Iraq War, and not just on the rocks of the progressive Francis papacy. The loss of the gay marriage issue was a crushing blow, because so much of the traditional Christian cause has been tied up in countering the Sexual Revolution. I don’t need to go into why that has been the case. You can read my “Sex After Christianity” piece from 2013 for insights, and you can read this excellent Darel Paul essay in the current issue of First Things, who explains that “queerness has conquered America because it is the distilled essence of the country’s post-1960s therapeutic culture.” If you had to summarize the mission of intellectually serious conservative Christians since the 1980s (as distinct from mere political activists or pietists), it would be to create a robust opposition to the country’s post-1960s therapeutic culture.

We failed. Michael Hanby, in a powerful essay published in First Things in 2015, explains why. Hanby indirectly summarizes the way First Things saw its role in fighting the therapeutic culture thus:

Broadly speaking, we may characterize the civic project of American Christianity as the attempt to harmonize Christianity and liberal order and to anchor American public philosophy in the substance of Protestant morality, Catholic social teaching, or some version of natural law that might qualify as public reason.

Why did we fail at this? Hanby says that the triumph of the LGBT cause in American law, politics, and culture is a metaphysical defeat:

This rejection of nature is manifest in the now orthodox distinction between sex, which is “merely biological,” and gender, defined as a construct either of oppressive social norms or of the free, self-­defining subject—one often finds protagonists of this revolution oscillating back and forth between those polar extremes. And this sex–gender distinction, in turn, is premised upon a still more basic dualism, which bifurcates the human being into a mechanical body composed of meaningless material stuff subject to deterministic physical laws and of the free, spontaneous will that indifferently presides over it. This anthropology denies from the outset that nature and the body have any intrinsic form or finality beyond what the will gives itself in its freedom, and thus it fails to integrate human biology and sexual difference into the unity of the person. Indeed, the classical Aristotelian nature and the Christian idea of the human being as body and soul united as an indivisible and integrated whole are excluded from the outset.

Whether this is the logical outworking of the metaphysical and anthropological premises of liberalism or a radically new thing—and Hans Jonas’s analysis would suggest that these are not mutually exclusive alternatives—it marks a point of no return in American public philosophy. And it effectively brings the civic project of American Christianity to an end.

This is indisputably true. What remains to be done is to figure out how to respond, individually and collectively, as theologically conservative Christians. The truth is, nobody really knows. I have proposed the Benedict Option, which is about holding the line within our own communities, but there are other responses. One that has found its way into the pages of First Things is Catholic integralism, the idea that there should be a closer formal relationship between the Catholic Church and the State, whose governing principles should be consonant with Catholic teaching. It’s an intellectually interesting project, but it presupposes a polity in which most people recognize the authority of the Catholic Church. In the United States, that is inconceivable, in part because Catholics are a minority in this country, but more importantly because in our time, not even most Catholics accept the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

More promising are efforts by Catholics like Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, J.D. Vance and others to reconcile Christianity with the new populism on the Right, which is forcing a deep rethinking of the relationship between the faith and economics. Like it or not, Donald Trump’s election has been the catalyst for this rethinking, which was long overdue on the Right. The great challenge lies in discerning and separating what is good and necessary about this reset from the problems of Trump’s character and governing style — if that is even possible, as a matter of practical politics.

First Things has struggled with this too. In my view, all intellectually honest Christians have, whether they count themselves as Never Trumpers, or whether they identify as open supporters of the president. The idea that it is possible to return to a time of High Weigelism is daft — and Michael Hanby gets to the core reasons why. But the path to the future is not at all clear.

To restate: If First Things isn’t what it was, it’s because the civic project of conservative American Christianity isn’t what it was. None of the magazines that our tribe used to rally around mean what they once did. (It’s true on the Christian Left too; the Internet has radically changed the landscape.) What does it mean to be an intellectually engaged Christian of the Right in 2020? Twenty years ago, the answers were a lot clearer.

It should also be said that from my point of view, the Christian Left is completely bankrupt. What is its point at all? It is so besotted with LGBT activism and identity politics that it is impossible to discern anything distinctly Christian about it. I mean, if it is true that far too much of the Religious Right has subordinated itself to offering theological justifications for right-wing politics, this is, if anything, more true of the Religious Left, with progressive causes. Name one thing that any significant Religious Left figure stands for that opposes secular left-wing politics. If there were a meaningful pro-life movement on the Religious Left, that would be one. Instead, one of the most famous, and perhaps the most famous, progressive Christian leaders is a middle-aged woman with fire in her loins, who left her husband and created a sex idol that she publicly awarded to Gloria Steinem. The parody writes itself.

But that’s their problem. We on the Christian Right have our own to work out. What I regret is that First Things still has a unique position of being able to offer that leadership, but is squandering it. It was a mistake for Reno to endorse Donald Trump publicly, and to thereby tie the magazine to the Trump project. I don’t object to the magazine running piece sympathetic to Trump, but it would have been far, far more prudent to have kept the magazine uncommitted. And now, in the Covid-19 crisis, the magazine has not been a place for thoughtful, challenging theological and cultural analyses of the pandemic phenomenon, but has become known for Reno’s descent into bizarro crankishness.

For a magazine like First Things, it seems to me that the most important political question is captured in the so-called French-Ahmari debate. Simply stated, that debate asks whether or not conservative Christians should busy themselves defending the liberal democratic order within post-Christianity, and carving out a niche for themselves within it, or whether they should start building alternatives to that order. It’s a complex and nuanced debate, or should be. Personally, I believe there’s no long-term hope for Christianity within this order, so I would be happy in First Things devoted itself to being the leading forum where the question of post-Christian Christian politics worked itself out. But none of that is going to happen if First Things is best known for its editor skulking around town, defiantly spitting on the sidewalk (as he said he did in an earlier diary), going to underground masses, testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies yet denouncing as cowards people who are in most respects his theological and political allies, but who have decided, in the middle of a deadly global pandemic, to wear facemasks when they go out in public.

Can any other religious journals step in to replace the role First Things seems to be abdicating? Who will fund them? Is there any constituency among the Christian philanthropic community for giving to such a magazine? Or is it all politics, and all Trumpism from here on out?

First Things remains the most important magazine of its kind, but it is losing ground fast. Whatever happens to First Things, the future of intellectual religious conservatism in America is very much up in the air. Reno’s unfortunate public meltdown only serves to highlight much deeper and wider problems on the intellectual Religious Right — problems that will probably have to get a lot worse before they get better. In Neuhaus’s time, the way forward seemed much clearer than it really was. Now, the future does not look clear at all. Finding the way forward requires particular editorial skills, but it also requires from all of us particular spiritual and intellectual disciplines and temperaments.

I welcome your comments, but here’s what I don’t want to see: potshots by unbelievers or progressives. This is not a conversation for you. If you want to write from a secular or left/liberal point of view, make your comment a constructive one, or I won’t publish it. For that matter, if you want to write from a pro-Trump, or Never Trump point of view, I strongly urge you not to throw bombs, but to make constructive comments. Let’s make this a thread worth reading.

UPDATE: To be clear — and I guess I wasn’t, judging by what I’m hearing from some of you privately — I am not pronouncing First Things’ demise. Read what I wrote: it’s still the most important magazine of its kind. It still publishes excellent pieces that you won’t find anywhere else. All of that, though, is being overshadowed by the drama around Rusty Reno’s reactions to the virus.

And, for the record, I don’t fault him or anybody else for asking hard questions about the anti-virus strategy. This is important. I do fault the strange spitefulness towards people who are his friends and allies, but who disagree with him on the question of wearing masks, and of self-isolation.

UPDATE.2: I’ve been thinking, and I wish I hadn’t written exactly this. It feels like kicking a friend. I’ve valued First Things for a very long time, and I want it to be strong, and good. I don’t know the extent to which its troubles can be isolated to editorial decisions Rusty Reno has made, or to what extent it reflects, as I’ve written here, broader and deeper problems within intellectual religious conservatism. I am sure I reacted angrily in writing this, because I took personally Reno’s accusation that mask-wearers are cowards. It was a crazy and offensive thing for him to have said, and his admission in his most recent coronavirus diary that he has tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies — this, knowing from his past diaries that he has been walking around New York during this thing intentionally without a mask, and even in one case spitting on the ground … well, that is beyond dark and weird. I’m not prepared to be called a coward because I put on a mask when I go to the grocery store, by a Christian who takes pride in his gallivanting around the hard-hit city, Covid-positive and defiantly maskless.

I do regret casting aspersions, however indirectly, on the good work done by others on the magazine’s staff, and for that I apologize.

UPDATE.3: My new TAC colleague Helen Andrews vigorously dissents from my view.