First things remain first things. The dignity of the human person, the joys and duties of the religious life, the harmony of faith and reason, the profound, indispensible contributions that theologically serious citizens can make to a democratic, pluralistic society: All these and more remain unchanging truths. But the context in which we bear witness to these things has changed since Richard John Neuhaus began First Things nearly twenty-five years ago.
Changing church and synagogue culture. In the 1980s and 1990s, theological liberalism seemed a powerful, or at least recently powerful, force. First Things consistently fought against its influence. The journal accepted modernity and argued that the achievements of modernity—democracy, respect for the dignity of the human person, the central role of freedom—are an integral part of the Christian message and sustained and renewed by loyalty to religious authority. We rarely let pass an opportunity to criticize theological liberals and point out the decline of mainline Protestantism.
Today theological liberalism is no longer a force in the churches. We have in that sense won, and won decisively. In the Catholic Church, most theological liberals argue for their right to exist rather than assume they will determine the future direction of Christianity. Circumstances differ in Protestantism and Judaism, but for the most part there as well theological liberalism is in decline.
The consequences? First, it’s important to resist the temptation to fight old battles. Our motto should be magnanimity in victory. Second, there is an opportunity for a broader coalition of those willing to stand against secular liberalism as a cultural phenomenon, even though they will not always agree about secular politics. Third, theological liberalism sadly dominates Catholic colleges and universities. Elsewhere academic theology has morphed into religious studies with little or no relation to actual communities of faith. We must promote changes that help these schools return to their founding commitments.
Changing religious culture in America. When First Things was founded, Richard John Neuhaus could presume a broad range of religiously engaged people who had diverse political commitments. The journal’s inaugural editorial announced: “If the American experiment in representative democracy is not in conversation with biblical religion, it is not in conversation with what the overwhelming majority of Americans profess to believe is the source of morality. To the extent that our public discourse is perceived as indifferent or hostile to the language of Jerusalem, our social and political order faces an ever-deepening crisis of legitimacy.” We saw ourselves speaking on behalf of the majority and against a narrow secular elite.
This is no longer true. Over the last twenty years, the percentage of Americans declaring themselves religiously unaffiliated (the Nones) has grown dramatically, now having reached 20 percent. Moreover, this group has become politically powerful and is now a large and favored constituency in the Democratic party. The Obama campaign calculated that it could energize this base of support (remember the “war on women”) without damaging its electoral chances. For the first time in American politics, a winning party took a tacitly anti-religious stance.
The consequences? First, religiosity now strongly correlates with partisan loyalty. Nones are overwhelmingly Democrat. Regular churchgoers, especially but not exclusively Evangelicals, trend Republican. This politicizes religion. Second, religious people are becoming more and more dependent on the Republican party to protect their interests (religious liberty, for example). We could easily become a taken-for-granted base largely irrelevant to the party’s larger policy debate, as African-Americans often are in the Democratic party. Third, religion, especially orthodox Christianity, may end up implicated in the inevitable failures and corruptions of the Republican party. We may be in danger of recapitulating in some ways the disastrous alliances of the Catholic Church with the European right in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Changing political culture. First Things is associated with an optimistic phase of American conservatism. The Reagan coalition affirmed American exceptionalism, sought to unleash the creative potential of capitalism, and was influenced by a can-do, problem-solving neoconservatism.
The Reagan coalition has run its course. Today, American conservatism is often angry or despondent rather than optimistic. A McCarthyite mentality has emerged that insists the progressive tradition is alien and un-American. A hard-hearted libertarianism is replacing the warmth of Reagan-era patriotism and its affirmations of national solidarity. An apocalyptic mentality (national bankruptcy, demographic decline) promotes policies less as opportunities for renewal than as bitter necessities that follow from this or that collapse. More broadly, as the Reagan coalition has unraveled, the Republican party has become undisciplined and its political culture exotic, often to the point of embarrassment.
The consequences? First, a new conservative consensus will form to replace the superannuated Reagan coalition. This represents an opportunity for First Things and the movement it represents to shape American conservatism. Second, American conservatism has always had an ambivalent relation to the Catholic hierarchy, which has a native sympathy for social democracy. While the current secular challenges may bring the two closer together, the current trends in the conservative movement may make that relation even more troubled. Indeed, if libertarian themes become increasingly prominent, religious people in general may find themselves at once more dependent on and alienated from American conservatism.
Changing global context. Founded as the Soviet Union was coming to an end, First Things inherited the triumphant Cold War consensus. To a great extent, secular liberals and religious believers of the First Things sort united to construct a global system under American leadership, with capitalism as the engine of economic development and human rights as its moral basis.
Today, the success of global capitalism has encouraged a secular materialism all around the world. The definition of human rights is almost entirely controlled by secular elites who are antagonistic to the role and influence of religion in public life, and who increasingly think in terms of “reproductive rights” and sexual diversity, a trend already evident at the 1994 U.N. Cairo Conference on Population and Development. Today, religiosity is associated most visibly with Islamic extremism, and its more powerful adversary is a secularized vision of the modern West. It’s telling that in conflict zones in Africa, one finds al-Qaeda affiliates and Médecins Sans Frontières.
The consequences? First, we no longer have a clear vision for dealing with global affairs. John Paul II was able to join the modern emphasis on rights to the Christian message. Today, the secular human rights project is increasingly antagonistic to us. The internationalization of gay rights and an ideological interpretation of women’s rights will intensify this trend. We may need to find an alternative to human rights as a way to express our vision of our spiritual mission in a globalized world. Second, we don’t want to be allied with radical Islam, but the secular image of the “religious zealot” presumes a commonality. We need to engage Islam without tacitly endorsing secular liberalism’s view that ardent religious faith committed to the authority of God’s revelation is inherently dangerous.
Third, global capitalism, or at least market-based economic thinking, is triumphant. This reduces the need to defend the market economy, a clear priority in the past, and raises the question of what First Things should say in a global system dominated by capitalism. Fourth, global ideologies, whether focused on economic development or human rights, are entirely secular. We need to reflect more deeply on the possibility of a Christian or religious globalism. First Things must become a more effective voice for religious people beyond America and bring their voices into the discussion.
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. I am grateful to Ephraim Radner, George Weigel, and Eric Cohen for applying themselves to the necessary task of taking up—and taking issue with—my formulations. We need to make our way forward together.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.