We’re wrapping up our spring fund raising campaign. If you responded to my letter to subscribers appealing for support, please accept my heartfelt thanks. If you did not—or if, God forbid, you’re not a subscriber and did not receive my letter—please consider making an electronic donation today. It’s easy. There’s a nifty “click to donate” button just to the right.
We need your support. We have a great staff that puts out a fine magazine and maintains this excellent website with new material every day. We’re not spendthrifts, but our expenses outrun our subscription and advertising income, which is why we have always relied upon the generosity of readers like you who believe in the mission of First Things: to carry the cause of moral truth and religious conviction into the public square.
That mission is even more important today. We are living through a period of important religious, moral, and social conflict and change. As a governing philosophy American liberalism is failing. It’s not going to die or go away, but the liberal consensus has declined from its former position of confident predominance to a brittle outlook that is forced to fight to preserve what hold it still has on American culture and politics.
For me the decline of liberalism has been most obvious in religious life. I was raised as an Episcopalian, and my family went to an establishment church that was staffed by ministers who were active in the civil rights movement, and then in protests against the war in Vietnam. It was an era in which the liberal Protestant churches possessed social and religious vitality.
By end of the twentieth century the liberal Protestant project was much diminished. Whether it was “inclusive language”or sexual morality, the doctrine of the Trinity or biblical interpretation, liberalism in religion had become all concession and no conversion, all the mandated changes that the church and synagogue need to make, and never the reasons why men and women of faith need to stand strong and resist.
Our goal is to stand strong and resist when necessary. We’re committed to orthodoxy, broadly understood. “Thus says the Lord!” For the liberal this assertion of divine authority poses a problem, for the readers of First Things, it’s a blessing—one to be puzzled over, of course, worked out, specified, analyzed, and argued about in our pages.
Just saying it so bluntly dramatizes the need for a magazine and website like First Things. Divine authority as a blessing, as a disciplining power that ennobles us and perfects our humanity? This is not something our liberal culture prepares us to understand, much less accept. What about critical freedom? What about intellectual integrity? Which divine authority? Doesn’t this lead to sectarian fanaticism and religious conflict? Good questions, and the kind we need to answer if we’re to know what kind of churches and synagogues we want, what kind of catechesis we want for our children, what kind of faith for ourselves.
I’ve also witnessed the decline of liberalism as a social and political philosophy. Liberal anti-communism had led us into Vietnam, and students were denouncing “Amerikan” imperialism. Race riots rocked many American cities. The War of Poverty went down to defeat, and the realities of urban housing projects mocked the dreams of the liberals who had so earnestly hoped to bring the light of reason to bear upon social problems.
The savants of the day were almost uniform in their conviction that the answers lay further to the left. Like many others I assumed that we should read the radical critics of liberalism. I still have my marked up copies of Marcuse and Adorno on my shelves, along with Erich Fromm and Norman O. Brown. Challenged by the traumas and crises of the 1960s, liberalism felt that it could survive as a governing philosophy only if it was renewed and updated by radical ideas.
As a result, liberalism turned against many of its historic strengths, becoming negative and parochial. For example, liberals now tend to agree with, or at least accept, the superior moral authority of those who hold that Western culture does more harm than good, spawning racism, economic inequality, and imperialism. The liberal virtue of tolerance has given way to political correctness, and those who criticize liberalism from the right are denounced with epithets (racist, homophobic, mean-spirited, self-interested, and so forth) rather than engaged in public debate. Put in terms of political history, the center of gravity in American liberalism shifted from George Meany to George McGovern.
It was a fateful shift, one that created room at the center in America for modern conservatism to become a potent cultural and political force. From the election of Dwight Eisenhower to the end of the Carter presidency, liberalism held a monopoly on elite opinion in America. That’s not the case any longer. George W. Bush was an overtly religious and viscerally conservative president, a public figure unimaginable when the liberal consensus held sway only a few decades earlier. Of course, Bush shocked and horrified many liberals in the last decade. But their shrill reactions were a sign of their shift from governing consensus to partisan party in American public life.
Liberalism still dominates higher education and other cultural institutions. But as our political culture clearly indicates—as does the existence of First Things—a large number of well-educated, influential, and politically active Americans are no longer satisfied with liberalism. Indeed, on some issues like abortion, gay marriage, and the exclusion of religion from public life, we’re positively hostile.
We can’t play the role of critics of liberalism’s failures forever. We need a forum in which to hammer out a civic philosophy that can avoid the failures of liberalism and command the kind of broad assent necessary to form a new governing consensus.
Doubtless we’ll fail in new ways. After all, it’s not easy to understand how to nurture life-commanding moral and religious convictions in a pluralistic, democratic society energized by a capitalist system that prizes economic freedom—and that’s true even if we’ve come to recognize that our pluralistic, democratic society, as well as the capitalist economy, require the moral and religious convictions that sustain moral and civic virtues. We need to step up and need to think through what we want to take the place of the religious, cultural, and political forms of liberalism that have run their course. That’s what I want First Things to help all of us to do.
Please consider a donation. Help us as we do our best to help you participate intelligently and effectively in the renewal of our religious, moral, and civic culture.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.