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Setting the Agenda

(Editors’ note: In order to inaugurate our correspondence section, we asked a number of people to respond briefly to the following question: “What are the most important issues in religion and public life that First Things should address, and what advice would you give us for addressing them?” Herewith their responses.)

The most important “issue” in religion and public life is the human person. We must once again recognize that we cannot meet any other challenge of our day until we come to believe in the worth, dignity, and sacredness of every human person. Unless we do so, we will ultimately destroy ourselves with contempt.

Only a restoration of our belief in the sacredness of every human person will allow us to renew our families, to be serious and effective in addressing problems of poverty, racism, homelessness, drugs, abortion, and discrimination of every kind. The gospel of Christ demands nothing less of us.

It is the sacred human person, made in the image and likeness of Almighty God, who deserves primary consideration in all issues addressed. Whether sociological, scientific, economic, political, or otherwise, whatever issues you choose to include in your publication, I urge you to stay focused on what these issues have to do with sacred human persons.

I have great hopes that First Things will keep this “first thing” first.

John Cardinal O’Connor
Archbishop of New York

The question that I would most like to see you address is that of how we can promote a greater role for religion in public life without having the religion become a bland religion-in-general. And if we should accomplish that, how do we avoid on the other hand religion taking the form of mutually exclusive absolutist claims?

Or if it is moral stances that are the bottom line when we promote religion in public life, who decides which moral stances (whether based on scriptures, traditions, or claims about natural law or natural rights, etc.) truly represent God’s will for public life? Do we suppose that if all religious views are fairly represented in public debate some sort of consensus will emerge? Or, if not, are we in effect promoting more religiously based conflicts between opposed, non-negotiable positions? Or is there something in between?

George Marsden
Professor of the History of Christianity in America
Divinity School
Duke University

Among the issues I would hope you will address are these two:

First, because of the way we finance political campaigns in the United States, we are increasingly listening to the voices of those who are the most articulate financially. That is not only a danger for the body politic, that is also a danger for the church. How do religious organizations, in a practical way, continue to be a voice for the voiceless?

Second, the tradition of having some division between church and state in the United States is healthy. No one knows precisely where we draw the line because faith must be applied to life and because the state must defend freedom and opportunity for the church. But there is one major difference between political beliefs and religious dogma. In the world of politics, I know that I have to make compromises. It is essential to effect change. On a minor piece of legislation, I may not have to compromise anything, but on anything of significance, compromise is essential. However, compromise is a bad word in the field of theology; dogma does not recognize it as a virtue. But when the rigidities of dogma are applied to political life, sometimes the essential political compromises that have to be made cannot be made. Then we get into troubled waters.

Paul Simon
United States Senate

I hope you can accomplish at least two things. First, Godspeed in educating this society’s secular intelligentsia about the fact not only that the society bas, is, and will be overwhelmingly religious but also that it intends to insist on relating religious belief to public policy.

Second, given the fact that a pluralistic society needs some common language to articulate, critique, and defend its public policy, you need to help us all understand how individual faith traditions within the larger pluralism can both maintain the integrity of their own particular beliefs (and their application to public policy) as well as dialogue with others using the broader common language necessary for public policy debate.

I take for granted that you will try hard to get the facts straight and state the views of people you critique in such a way that they not only recognize themselves but agree that their strongest case bas been articulated before it is refuted. Of course we live in this vale of tears, where, as the Blessed Martin said, we are simul Justus et peccator. But the effort is important.

Finally, I wish First Things would include, alongside its own analysis, one regular feature where a wide variety of people who disagree sharply would be invited to articulate a divergent perspective.

Ronald J. Sider
Professor of Theology and Culture
Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Executive Director, Evangelicals for Social Action and Just/Life

The intellectually shallow relativism that pervades our society shapes not only beliefs but policies. Into the relativistic vacuum of our society have surged laws, regulations, and court-mandated “solutions,” many of which show how our political life bas become divorced from our religious and ethical tradition. It is essential, in my view, that those who take that tradition seriously accept the task of demonstrating that it is still intellectually and morally compelling, and that its fundamental teachings are a prerequisite for the existence of civilized society. Paradoxically, only when contemporary religious life is “depoliticized” can it fulfill its appropriate “political” function.

Congratulations on First Things : you’ve chosen to labor in a vineyard that needs a lot of pruning.

John Silber
Boston University

There is in my opinion no more important subject regarding the relation of religion and public life in the contemporary world than the issue of religious and ideological discrimination and persecution. The efforts at nation-building among developing countries are typically defined in religious terms. One communion gains political advantage over another and the predictable result is intercommunal strife.

The subject also has the deepest relevance to developments in the Communist world. The connection between religion and nationalism apparent within the Soviet Union and among Eastern Bloc countries puts considerable pressure on traditional Communist attitudes toward organized religion.

Finally, “first-world” inhabitants are compelled to reflect on their own history and experience in the light of this problem. Are the various patterns of separating religion and public life arrived at in the modern democracies normative for the world community? Or do these patterns themselves subtly discriminate against certain forms of religion, as is frequently claimed?

David Little
Department of Religion
University of Virginia

The aim of throwing light on “first things” in matters of religion and public life is worthy of note, precisely because we take these things so much for granted in formulaic and partisan terms that do not prove true to the complexity of tradition or the demands of the present moment. So the formula of “separation of church and state” as institutional bodies, each governed by its own members, fails to reveal the moral dialogue between religion and politics which shapes the soul of public life. We need to deepen this dialogue not only in relation to the state, but in the practice of our self-governance as a people within a polity which extends beyond the state it underlies. For such reasons I look forward to First Things , particularly when I have the pleasure of arguing with its contributors.

Steven Tipton
Candler School of Theology
Emory University

I like the sound of the title of this new journal First Things. It reminds me of Origen of Alexandria, the mighty Christian intellectual who lived in the third century. His most important book was called First Principles and in it be addressed the great questions that arose out of the encounter between the young Christian movement and the collective wisdom of Greece and Rome. The discussion ranged over many topics—the moral life, cosmology, history, providence, anthropology, the interpretation of the Bible, in short questions that were prompted by the interaction of religion and Greco-Roman culture. In First Things I expect to see a continuation of this discussion within the context of American life and culture.

Robert L. Wilken
Commonwealth Professor of the
History of Christianity
University of Virginia

We are nowadays being forced to speak in the language of public life—indeed, to conduct political debate—about things that people who live in a proper relation to the universe once took for granted, such as, what is human, what is life, and what are our “rights” over it? We are, you might say, a society in the throes of a nervous breakdown. The most important thing a magazine in religion and public life can do, then, is guide people—as gently or as sternly as the occasion requires—to see the implications of using the language of Caesar on that which belongs to God.

Midge Decter
Executive Director
Committee for the Free World

I hope that First Things will address, in depth, the educational failure of the church. There is now no one biblical story that church members know or to which they look for the norm of their faith and practice. Instead, church bureaucrats try to give authoritative guidance to the church through their pronouncements and programs, or individuals consider themselves laws unto themselves. The church wanes and fragments, without influence in society; ideologies rule the day; preachers often proclaim merely psychological therapy; ethics becomes a matter of personal opinion; and the church’s “light to the world” goes out. We need to investigate the cause of this failure and to seek its correction.

Elizabeth Achtemeier

First Things would be of greatest help if it could pursue conceptual clarity instead of partisan one-up-manship, if it could promote Christian insight about America instead of “American Christianity,” if it could encourage a longing for reality instead of a satisfaction with the image. No religiously inspired commentator on public affairs has ever found it easy to be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove. Few who move back and forth between the pulpit and the political marketplace have done well at sorting out allegiances between God and Caesar. Only an occasional reformer has paused to think what it means for the Bible to contain both the thirteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans and the thirteenth chapter of the Apocalypse of St. John. If you can produce a journal that advances faith by a judicious explanation of its public importance while strengthening public life by a realistic assessment of its traditional religious foundations, First Things will be read with appreciation well beyond the precincts usually defined by partisanship, nationalistic filiopietism, and the anesthetizing image.

Mark A. Noll
Professor of History
Wheaton College

There is such a long list of issues and concerns that needs to be addressed that it’s hard to know which first things to put first.

Personally, I am eager to read some thoughtful commentary on how believers can turn the tide of secularization in America while remaining faithful to traditional American concepts of religious freedom on how the church can influence the political process and help set America’s national agenda without getting so mixed up in political things that it is corrupted or, even worse, that the mantle of Christ is thrown over secular issues . . . about how Christians can help to heal the deep and painful wounds resulting from the abortion battle. These are a few of the issues that need serious attention and careful analysis.

William L. Armstrong
United States Senate

The most important issue in religion-and-public-life, in my view, has to do with keeping the republic itself alive and healthy. This means assuring that the conversation about the common weal be lively, that the faith-dimension and the voice of religious institutions and people be assured and respected, that the diversity foreseen in The Federalist Paper Ten be guaranteed its place even as editors and writers look for the “cohesive settlement” which, a Supreme Court justice once said, was the ultimate foundation of a free society. Religion exists not just for a republic: its civic role does not include making sad hearts glad, saving souls, or offering final meaning in life. But religious communities exist also for the republic, and they need encouragement in assessing the terms for that contribution.

Martin E. Marty
The Divinity School
University of Chicago

The most important issue that I think we have to face in American civil life is the viability of democracy in a society in which there is less and less consensus and less and less memory of the history that produced our democratic institutions. The most serious question in the life of the church is now, as always, the question of faith, “Who do you say that I am?” Those who have gathered, built, and sent forth churches have always answered with Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The most important question in the life of the church is the identification and integrity of the church’s faith.

John H. Leith
Mary Elizabeth Pemberton Professor of Theology
Union Theological Seminary in Virginia

I can think of a series of questions which could be addressed in First Things:

  • What do the great religions say about the responsibility of communities to help the needy and, conversely, the responsibility of the needy to minimize their dependence on others?
  • Under what circumstances is it just to use, or threaten to use, military force?
  • How important are the private lives of public figures in assessing their fitness for office?
  • What do the great religions say about proper business behavior?
  • What do the great religions say about man’s stewardship of the earth?

Edwin J. Feulner Jr.
The Heritage Foundation

Not long ago, I addressed a national organization of criminal trial lawyers. During the question and answer period, one of the leading criminal trial lawyers in the country said, “I get so tired of you people in Washington because your only answer to the drug problem is more jail cells. We have to get back to the core values and create more social programs to solve this problem.”

I pointed out to him that the President’s anti-drug program centered on far more than law enforcement and was, in fact, quite comprehensive. Then I said, “More social programs are necessary but they are not the ‘core values.’ We have to get back to the family, including the teaching of basic moral and ethical values in our society.” He agreed, as did most of the lawyers in attendance.

Therefore, I suggest that First Things spend some time addressing this problem of “core values” and how we can bolster the family.

Orrin G. Hatch
United States Senate