A few months ago, after I had given a lecture on the future of Catholicism in Kennewick, Washington, a middle-aged fellow who looked to be a rancher got up and stunned me with a query. “For the past twenty-five years,” he said, “you and your colleagues have tried to create a ‘religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty.’ Do you still think you can do it?” I could only reply, “That’s a very searching question, to which I’m devoting a lot of thought these days. I’ll let you know if I figure anything out.”
My interlocutor’s definition of an important aspect of the First Things project was one that Richard John Neuhaus developed, I take it, from his own thinking (elements of that definition of The Project, or one crucial aspect of it, can be found as early as 1976, in Time Toward Home ) and his encounter with the thought of John Courtney Murray, of which I think I was the midwife. As I understood it then and understand it now, the argument for the public dimensions of The Project went like this:
The American Founders built “better than they knew” (as the U.S. bishops once put it in the late nineteenth century). That is, they created an admirable structure of democratic self-government, but the theoretical or philosophical foundation on which they built that structure was inadequate, being cannibalized from fragments of Christian patrimony tarted up in (Scottish and English) Enlightenment fancy dress.
That foundation “held” for a long time, thanks to the culture-forming capacities of a mainline Protestantism that, whatever its other faults, nevertheless inculcated a public ethic capable of sustaining American democracy. The last great moment of appeal to that mainline-informed public ethic was the civil-rights movement in its classic phase. But even then the mainline had become the oldline and was on its way to being the sideline. Murray had seen this coming in the 1950s and suggested that the Catholic community, still in possession of those religiously informed natural law truths that were the distillate at the foundation of the American experiment, might move into the vacuum created by the mainline meltdown and become the “lead” community (as RJN put it in The Catholic Moment ) in both proclaiming the Gospel and securing the moral-cultural foundations of American democracy.
Thus RJN, and many of the rest of us, implicitly accepted Francis Canavan’s defense of Murray and his criticism of the David Schindler/ Communio /“Ill-Founded Republic” critique of the American experiment. The Founders were doing politics, not theology, and in any event the job of formulating and sustaining a public philosophy (which, given American religiosity, had to be “religiously informed”) was the job of a robust civil society, not of government. (This was also, and obviously, a critique of functionalist approaches to the theory of democracy, but that need not detain us here.)
The RJN variant, if you will, on the Murray Proposal was that this new shoring up, this new delineation of a “religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty,” would be ecumenical and interreligious in character: thus the unique fellowship of the First Things community and the distinctive style and range of the magazine. Now, as my ranching friend was posing that searching query, it occurred to me, in a kind of flash, that just about every facet of the intellectual architecture of the First Things project, in its public aspects and as described just above, has been, if not falsified, then at least brought into very serious question.
The phenomenon of the religious Nones, while perhaps exaggerated by the Pew studies”how many of those Nones, at the snapshot moment in time when they were surveyed, were in fact between religious affiliations?”and the continuing decline of American Catholic practice suggest that the religious landscape of America has changed dramatically since the public dimension of the magazine’s project was first articulated. One urgent question now is whether that change is not just dramatic but decisive, and thus requires a decisive shift in our strategy and tactics.
Then there is the hard fact that the ambient public culture has become toxic in numerous ways, one of which is a newly aggressive secularism bent on using coercive state power to enforce a naked public square (another example of RJN’s foresight). That this secularism has gotten a deep hold on the American government is evident in the HHS mandate and in the actions of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that resulted in Hosanna-Tabor vs. EEOC. Moreover, the reelection of an administration that celebrates a kind of cool secularity, and the political potency of the lifestyle libertinism that has become secularism’s primary public-policy concern (the 2012 Democratic convention’s celebration of abortion as a kind of secular sacrament, for example, and the president’s appalling speech to Planned Parenthood), suggest a further erosion of the claim that there is a there there on which a “ religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty” can be constructed, and to which such a public philosophy can appeal.
Indeed, the course of the marriage debate suggests that the problem is even worse. The deeper problem is that the public culture of the United States, and of the West as a whole, has lost any grip on what “human nature” might mean. That is, our public culture has lost any grip on the notion that there are Things As They Are: that there are deep truths inscribed in the world and in us, truths that we ignore at our personal and civilizational peril.
Earlier this year, Cardinal Francis George, writing in his archdiocesan paper, put all of this very sharply: The Illinois state legislature, then considering a redefinition of marriage, “might just as well try to repeal the law of gravity.” Yet one wonders how many Chicagoans, including Catholic Chicagoans, had the faintest idea what he meant. How many of the sons and daughters of the Land of Lincoln would understand what Old Abe was talking about when he said that calling a cow’s tail a “leg” didn’t mean that the cow had five legs, because a tail wasn’t a leg and calling it a leg didn’t make it one?
As for that part of the RJN variant on the Murray Proposal that involved the Catholic Church’s becoming the “lead” Church in shaping a secure, religiously informed public philosophy for American democracy, well, we all have our own sense of what the Catholic silly season that ran from the mid-sixties to the late eighties did to that. But whether we judge the “Catholic moment” proposal ill conceived from the outset, derailed by circumstances, or still possible of achievement, the “Catholic moment””the moment when Catholic understandings of the proper moral“cultural foundations of a twenty-first-century democracy are seriously in play in our public life and can plausibly contend for a critical mass of allegiance”has not arrived, even among Dr. Ratzinger’s beloved “creative minorities.”
To be sure, the American bishops have indeed taken the lead in challenging the threats to civil society and religious freedom posed by the HHS mandate. But while the bishops may well win the legal battle here, thanks to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, there is little indication that the Catholic articulation of the public philosophy on which we have labored in the First Things community for more than two decades has successfully worked its way into the texture of Catholic life, intellectually or institutionally (which helps explain its larger lack of traction with the public).
It has made a difference, without a doubt, here and even along the banks of the Tiber. But it is still contending with the remnants of The Catholic Revolution That Never Was, on one side, and the curious congeries of forces gathered under the “Ill-Founded Republic” banner on another, even as many of us try to figure out how to “fit” the approach to public life we have taken in the First Things project into the Evangelical Catholicism of the future.
Then there is the disturbing landscape of Evangelical Protestantism today. On the one hand, an unprecedented level of serious theological dialogue between Evangelical Protestants and Evangelical Catholics (Evangelicals and Evangelicals Together, if you will) has been achieved, and that accomplishment defines the serious ecumenism of the future. On the other hand, and with respect to the magazine’s project in its public aspects, we can now see a notable shift to the left in Evangelical colleges and universities, just as the wider American left has become toxically secularist. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Evangelical Protestant higher education will now rewalk the trail of tears taken by Catholic higher education in America after Vatican II; such a sojourn into a new wilderness does not bode well for our work. Moreover, the notion that the Catholics would help Evangelical Protestants learn a genuinely public vocabulary for public life and politics has not been notably successful, either in the academy or in politics proper (e.g., the Mourdock and Akin fiascos of 2012).
Now what? A few suggestions by way of stimulating discussion rather than definitively answering my rancher-friend’s question.
First, we should recognize, without fear or exaggeration, the full gravity of our present political“cultural situation and moment, which is one in which a civil war is being conducted (often not very civilly) over the very meaning of the human person. The resolution of that profound crisis”which is Western-civilizational, not just American”is not going to come, if it does come, through the use of primarily political levers of persuasion and power. It will come only from a reformed culture in which Jerusalem is once again linked to Athens and Rome in the foundations of the West.
Second, we should continue, indeed intensify, the discussion over the future of natural law-based public moral argument that has begun in recent issues of the magazine. This discussion ought to be as wide-ranging as possible: Can there be an effective appeal to natural law-grounded moral norms absent any culturally received notion of “nature,” human or otherwise? Does the use of natural law language and categories undercut the imperative, which is both “internal” to the Church’s primary evangelical mission and demanded by the pressure on believers from a hostile and aggressive public culture, to get the people of the Church to think “within” a biblical apprehension of the world, in their public as well as personal lives? How do we explain the curious phenomenon of what seems to be, anecdotally at least, a growing-younger pro-life movement, many of whose members are on the wrong side of the marriage debate? Perhaps an exploration of the last could be a way of framing the discussion of whether there’s a there there to which our religiously informed public philosophy can appeal.
Third, we should pay less attention to politics stricte dictu and more attention to the cultural currents that shape political perceptions (“What is just?” and “What is prudent?”) and political choices. RJN had a voice in politics stricte dictu because he had been there and done that, as activist, candidate, and counselor to politicians and public officials. No one in the current mix of the magazine’s community has that kind of standing, and thus our commentary on the immediate political scene runs the risk of seeming callow, abstract, or both. To take one example: It’s not up to us, as First Things , to find a fix for the HHS mandate; it’s up to us to hammer home what is at stake in that debate and why.
This emphatically doesn’t mean downing tools in the public-policy arena. It does suggest the necessity of developing other tools, better fitted to our current gang of artisans. And it suggests deploying those artisans we have, men and women with real governmental and political experience, as the “voice” of First Things on specific public-policy choices.
On the other hand, it also means being cautious about the temptation, which strikes me as self-induced, to seize some putative “opportunity . . . to shape American conservatism.” That is not a game in which we have a lot of face cards. The one face card we do have, and should play boldly, is our ability to articulate an alternative to default libertarianism in conservative politics. So our influence in the post-Reagan conservatism debate should be indirect rather than direct.
Fourth, we should internationalize our horizon and, perhaps, our readership. With certain exceptions, RJN cared little for what happened outside the lower forty-eight, and the magazine has had, as a result, a tight focus on the United States. But the problems of public culture I’ve described above are pandemic throughout the West, and there is little out there responding to them. There is nothing like First Things anywhere in Europe or Latin America, and that’s the view of knowledgeable Europeans and Latin Americans, not simply my personal observation. Thus we should explore cooperative efforts to get our product out (and translated when necessary) to “the rest of the West,” and we should consider internationalizing the magazine in terms of what we write about (thus the “Challenges” memo’s apt call for our engaging the many questions surrounding the globalized economy), whom we write for, and how the product is distributed.
Fifth, and finally, it seems to me that, amidst the foulness that is all around us, we should try and do more to create a platform for the reconstruction of a biblically-informed culture, in the aesthetic sense of “culture.” We should be doing more with literature, film, music, the plastic arts, and architecture. Can we identify and celebrate alternatives to the prevalent drek? Can we explain why the drek perfectly mirrors the deconstruction of the human and the escape from reality into a world of gnostic plasticity that is at the root of so many of our public problems? Can we publish more articles and reviews that relate the arts to the life of religious communities? For it is there, most probably, that a resistance to foulness is going to be mounted and supported.
George Weigel, a member of the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life,is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?