As a longtime student of and occasional contributor to First Things, I am of course sympathetic to the general persuasion of R. R. Reno’s reflections: the desire to defend virtue against vice in modern culture, and to promote the good and hopeful society against narcissism, secular materialism, and anti-American despair. But there is also much here to question—and even challenge—in his analysis of religious life, world politics, and modern capitalism.
When it comes to “church and synagogue culture,” religious orthodoxy has indeed won some important intellectual and cultural battles. But Reno’s account seems too triumphalist to me, and the reality on the ground far more complex and ambiguous. Let me illustrate from the Jewish case, which I know best.
In the two largest movements by numbers, Reform and Conservative, theological liberalism has won decisively. Gay marriage and gay rabbis have been embraced. Adherence to halakha (Jewish religious law) has been abandoned or twisted beyond recognition. Judaism is essentially modern liberalism in a (sometimes) Hebraic key, with the twin gods of the self and social justice at the center. And even Jewish nationalism—pride and support for the miraculous re-founding of the modern Jewish state—has weakened, replaced by a theology of Jewish guilt, at worst, or sophisticated ambivalence, at best, over Israel’s morally imperfect yet ultimately heroic effort to survive and flourish in a region gripped by anti-Jewish and anti-Western madness. This hardly looks like victory for religious orthodoxy to me. And I think if one looked at the mainline Protestant churches, one would find a similar story.
While theological liberalism has won in the hearts and minds of the liberal Jewish seminaries, the liberal movements are in steady—or in some cases steep—decline. When religion redefines itself as liberalism, it turns out that many people are perfectly happy just being unaffiliated liberals—or Nones.
In the meantime, there is also an orthodox sub-culture, or counter-culture, which is indeed stronger and deeper than it has ever been in America. But what will be the fate of orthodoxy? Will the pressures to assimilate to liberal values re-make it—as surely seems to be happening in some of the most modern parts of the Modern Orthodox Jewish community? Will these movements grow more self-assured in their orthodoxy but more culturally isolated in the process, as seems to be happening in certain haredi communities? Or will the orthodox segments of modern Jewry continue to grow—remaining truly committed to Jewish law, attracting new followers, articulating a conservative moral vision, yet remaining a part of the general culture? And will they grow faster than Jewish assimilation to None-ness?
It is hard to know and hard to say. But again, the picture does not look to me like a decisive victory for orthodoxy—certainly not among the Jews and mainline Protestants, and probably not among the Catholic laity, even the church-going laity, who are the ultimate measure of whether an orthodox establishment is indeed winning the culture.
Reno, of course, shares this concern about the rise of religious indifference in America, combined with a newly assertive, mainstream, secular morality. Nones are politically more powerful than ever. Every age is marked by its own divisions and confusions, virtues and sins, truths and delusions. It is never easy to say what the “moral majority” truly believes. But it is surely true that the mainstream culture—the world as reflected and re-made by mainstream entertainment—is post-religious, post-moral, and post-decency. Boogie Nights has gone primetime, all the time. On this, Reno and I agree and worry together.
But his account of the relationship between religion and politics invites further reflection. He seems to be suggesting that the correlation of religious practice and political affiliation is a new trend, and that the politicization of religion is troubling. But religion is always political and politicized, and that is probably necessary and perhaps even good. Religious people have ideas about the good life and the good society, and religious communities have interests of their own in ensuring they can pursue their faiths in relative peace and stability. This means religious people have to be political, and should be. At the same time, political leaders—especially the best ones, who are generally concerned with governing toward the good—have points of view about religious communities, as both a source of civic strength and at times a source of civic strife.
Alliances will form, strengthen, weaken, and dissolve between religious movements and political movements. So it has been. So it will be. Religious people will only become taken for granted, as Reno fears, if they fail to develop, articulate, and mobilize around what they believe in, with the right mix of passion and prudence.
When it comes to the political culture in general, Reno is obviously frustrated and even demoralized, seeing American conservatism as in the grips of a “McCarthyite” and “apolcalyptic mentality,” dominated by “hard-hearted libertarianism.” Such rhetoric strikes me as both overblown and misguided: overblown, because things are surely not that bad and misguided, because one generally does not educate and elevate potential allies—in this case, conservatives gone astray—by insulting them. Say what you will about Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan—or Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and others—they are not apocalyptic, McCarthyite, or hard-hearted. And while the Tea Party is not always my cup of tea, we should see them for what they are: imperfect allies, genuinely concerned about America, seeking to mobilize opposition to American decline as they understand it.
When it comes to the global political arena, Reno seems correct in describing the secular–religious alliance against communism and Marxist ideology that defined the Cold War era. And he is also right to worry about the association of religion with radical Islam in the Western mind.
The response, it seems to me, should be a new Christian–secular alliance against radical Islam, one that fully recognizes the following two points. First, the older secularism of Hobbes and Locke has played a crucial role in civilizing the West—including the civilizing of the most radical forms of Christianity. We should not assume that the loving God alone is the answer to the God of jihad. Even God needs his allies, and the ungodly Hobbes and Locke—or their Islamic equivalents, if they could ever exist, which is a real question—are indeed allies.
Second, we also need to recognize that this older secularism of Hobbes and Locke is a problematic ally. The secularism of the wise contains in itself the secularism of the decadent en route to the secularism of the degraded and the nihilistic. And inasmuch as Locke made his alliance with Baconian science, these lesser seeds of modernity were given the chemical boost they needed to grow. Only Christianity—or Judaism, if it had numbers—provides the alternative, and the hope. In doing so, biblical religion offers, perhaps, the truest account of who we are.
Finally, I find Reno’s account of the triumph of capitalism unpersuasive, or at least imprecise. For one thing, the idea that capitalism encourages decadent materialism is an old story, and surely true. Daniel Bell knew it. Max Weber knew it. Adam Smith knew it. But decadence, if it can be contained, is better than disaster, and better than evil. Which is what communism encouraged.
I also question the way he explains this capitalist triumph. Yes, there may be a (tentative) global consensus that socialism—understood as state control of the means of production as the key to a perfect, progressing, egalitarian society—deserves to remain on the ash heap of history. There may even be a consensus that the pursuit of profit in the global marketplace is a national imperative. But this capitalist consensus, even if it exists, is surely not the same as a moral and political consensus about how to organize economic life. Do Saudis and Singaporeans and South Carolinians really agree on their economic principles and purposes? Have the rulers or leaders of those countries really organized their economic lives toward the same ends and in the same spirit?
Moreover, the free economy cannot ultimately survive if the welfare state grows indefinitely. In the most advanced democracies, we may be witnessing at once the triumph of capitalism and the suffocation of capitalism. This remains a great question and a great problem. The best defenders of capitalism—Irving Kristol, Michael Novak, Yuval Levin—were never and are never simply “pro-capitalist.” They are defenders, rather, of democratic capitalism—or, more broadly, of the free economy and free society as the best human alternatives in the modern age.
And it seems to me that the moral arguments for capitalism need to be defended, while serious people, with real expertise in economic policy, need to grapple with how these same ideas can be pursued in a world economy that has indeed changed—in how capital flows, how goods are produced, how wealth and religion intersect, how profit and nationalism relate. On these points, I believe Reno would agree. I just think he leads us astray in declaring, too easily, an economic consensus that does not really exist, and in taking for granted a functioning economy in the West that is more precarious than he seems to recognize.
So where does this leaves us—as a culture, a country, and a magazine of ideas? Let me close by simply making a few passing suggestions in answer to Reno’s excellent question: What can First Things do to shape American conservatism? To me, this is exactly the right question for us to be asking, since it is realistic and concrete. And the answer, I think, is that the magazine can contribute quite a lot in the days ahead, as indeed it has been doing all along under Reno’s capable leadership. For example:
First Things can articulate more forcefully and fully the case for a pro-family economic agenda. It should begin with our deep belief in the dignity of family life, our appreciation of the relationships of piety and fidelity across the generations, our celebration of the virtues of parents, and our recognition of the dangers of demographic decline. Building from there, it might move to a sophisticated case for what can be done, at a policy level, to strengthen family life—including a tax code that rewards procreation, encourages family responsibility for the care of young children and aging elders, and enshrines the right of parents to provide as best as possible for the rising generation. Here’s a slogan: More kids, lower taxes; no kids, higher taxes.
It can also articulate the principles of a sensible pro-immigration policy—one that significantly expands the number of skilled, working-age immigrants, while being much tougher at defending our borders. Immigration should be seen as both a source of American optimism and a test of America’s capacity to balance rule of law, self-defense, economic realism, and compassion.
The magazine is a clear and compelling voice for human dignity in the age of technology; that voice deserves to be amplified. The human condition is perhaps permanent. But the conditions of human life have been changed—and continue to change, at rapid pace—by technological innovation and technological power. Cloning now seems around the corner. Social media have transformed human relations. We are perhaps on the brink of the age of WMD proliferation, with mad men easily armed with the most destructive powers of death.
First Things should defend the best life in the technological age, and it should do so with a sophisticated understanding of the goods, the evils, the ambiguities, and the necessities of technological progress. This is work that neither romantic lovers of the past nor libertarian dreamers of the future are equipped to do.
We should also continue to lead the way in the social policy fights that define America: abortion, embryo research, marriage, religious freedom. At times, this work will seem boring because repetitive; and at times, it will seem fruitless because victories are often small and slow, and defeats are often dramatic and fast. But these social and cultural battles are never fully lost, never fully won, and always changing. The magazine can remind our political leaders why these issues matter so much, and explain to them how to think and what to do.
First Things is the place for developing and articulating theological conservatism and must remain so. (Conservatism is not exactly the same as orthodoxy, though they are—or should be—cousins and allies.) Conservative political success depends on conservative religious success. First Things should be the flagship of this success.
Finally—and more soberly—we should recognize the ever-present possibility of new disasters in history: terrible wars, diseases, disruptions. When death and misery strike, man will look again for new sources of strength, and hope, and truth. First Things’ arsenal of redemption should be ready, always, when the survivor’s cry is heard; it should be there to answer the questioner’s yearning to believe again that life makes sense, that life is worth living, that life is good.
In the face of life’s tragic possibilities, both terrible to contemplate and certain to come, this magazine’s God-seeking voice is indispensable. When dark times come, First Things can be a light. That is, and should remain, its deepest and truest purpose.
Eric Cohen, a member of First Things’ advisory council, is the executive director of the Tikvah Fund and editor-at-large of the New Atlantis.