It is astonishing, really, that First Things exists at all. The first set of editors—Richard John Neuhuas and James Nuechterlein—were in their fifties when, in 1989, the Rockford Institute locked their offices and threw them out on the street (for the New York Times’ account of those days, see pages 50–51 in this issue). They might have given up, but, then, Fr. Neuhaus was not a man to give up for almost any reason. Less than a year later, they had a new journal up and running, with a first issue of articles by Michael Novak, Mary Ann Glendon, David Novak, George Weigel, and several others who would play key roles in the coming years.
Richard and Jim had been putting out, for Rockford, a newsletter called The Religion and Society Report and a quarterly journal of scholarly and public-intellectual articles called This World—and, deprived of those entities, they decided to join the two kinds of publication into a single new magazine. As anyone in publishing could testify, it was not an immediately obvious or intuitive combination: Newsletters were big business in those pre-Internet days, and public-intellectual journals held an important position in national discourse. The two swam in different ends of the great pool of American journalism, however, and their joining seemed to promise only a disjointed and discombobulated thing.
But, somehow, the combination worked—the newsletter transmogrified into The Public Square at the back of every issue, and the quarterly morphed into a monthly analysis of religion and public life. Perhaps even more astonishing than the magazine’s origin is the fact of its continued existence—twenty years, two hundred issues, of First Things since that March 1990 debut. And twenty successful years, at that: a circulation grown into the 30,000 range, a loyal readership, and a powerful influence on the American scene.
The credit overwhelmingly belongs to our contributors, over two hundred of whom appear in this anniversary issue. As Fr. Neuhaus once remarked, “Editors can encourage (and sometimes prod, provoke, and pester), but finally the journal depends on writers who have something important to say, know how to say it well, and want to say it to this audience.”
The task of the magazine, the first issue’s editorial announced, will be “making the right connections” between religion and public life. The name First Things was chosen because it implies, in one sense, “that the first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing.” And, in another sense, “that there are first things, in the sense of first principles, for the right ordering of public life.”
Indeed, this journal of religion and public life began by insisting that religion and public life “mean something like what Saint Augustine meant by the City of God and the City of Man. The twain inevitably do meet, but they must never be confused or conflated. . . . The particulars of their meeting are always ambiguous. At the deepest level the two cities are in conflict but, along the way toward history’s end, they can be mutually helpful. . . . The first city keeps the second in its place, warning it against reaching for the possibilities that do not belong to it. At the same time, it elevates the second city, calling it to the virtue and justice that it is prone to neglect. Thus awareness of the ultimate sustains the modest dignity of the penultimate.”
We have reprinted that editorial in the first pages of this anniversary issue because it is the origin of First Things—and it is, as well, the future of First Things. We live in times that are, in their way, even more perilous for culture and public life than the years in which First Things was launched. And we live in times that are, in their way, even more stressful for the religious practice and intellectual life of believers.
First Things is not a religious magazine, if by religious one means directly proselytizing or promoting what is sometimes called spirituality these days. It remains, rather, a magazine for the religious—a journal in which those with the resources of religion can look out at the world and comment on both the passing scene and the deepest things. The real things.
The first things.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.