This issue marks our twenty-fifth anniversary. Our grand adventure in intellectual journalism began in March 1990. Back then, there was reason for optimism. The Roe decision was not yet twenty years old. The Reagan victories in the 1980s demonstrated that political liberalism could be defeated, at least in the polls. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, contradicting the progressive dogma that history is a ratchet that turns only one way. In those first years, we entertained hope that our damaged culture could be repaired and restored by a religiously inspired moral consensus.
There have been lasting successes. In American foreign policy, just-war doctrine has become the operational language for moral reflection on warmaking. Welfare reform encouraged rather than stymied our natural human desire to contribute to society through work. Roe’s perverse legal reasoning remains entrenched, but we have succeeded in making abortion shameful and abortion advocates embarrassed.
But optimism is harder to sustain these days. As George Weigel put it in his response to Michael Hanby’s unflinching assessment of Christianity’s role in American public life (“The Civic Project of American Christianity,” February 2015), “Times have changedand for the worse.” The cultural revolutions of the 1960s, especially the sexual revolution, have continued. As Charles Murray documents, our leadership class now promotes a supposedly progressive moral outlook that disorients the poor and vulnerable, while the well-to-do themselves live according to neo-traditional norms they refuse to affirm.
We can’t kid ourselves. We are up against a powerful and sometimes ruthless adversary. Christian students feel intense pressure to stay in the closet. Christian groups are being regulated out of existence on college campuses in the California State University system. Law professors theorize ways to minimize the First Amendment right of religious freedom. Gay activists “out” opponents of gay marriage and destroy their careers.
Under the circumstances, it’s tempting to be defeatist and curl up into a fetal position. There is an important inward turn our moment requires. Failures demand honest self-assessment. Have the churches been squandering their moral authority by pontificating about issues beyond their competence? (Global warming!) Have we failed in the trenches? (Not alwaysthe pro-life witness has served the cause of life well.) Are we doing the week-in and week-out work of catechesis and formation in the faith? (We can hardly renew what we do not know.)
But the inward turn cannot be the final turn. We need to read the signs of the times carefully. The coming years will provide many opportunities. The Judeo-Christian culture spurned today will become more appealing as the weaknesses of the secular project become apparent.
One glaring weakness is cultural. Aside from a few courageous institutions that resist, secular progressivism dominates higher education. That dominance coincides with a crisis of the humanities caused by postmodern ideologies and the slice-and-dice mentality of multiculturalism. Today’s young progressives are often well stocked with catchwords like “micro-aggression” and “intersectionality.” Others avoid humanistic study altogether, working hard to acquire scientific and technocratic expertise. The problem is that the rising generation tutored by secular progressivism knows little about the culture they often imagine themselves ordained to reform and refashion.
The city of man always needs purification and renewal. But as the examples of Socrates and the prophets of Israel remind us, the critical task can be undertaken only by those who have achieved a mastery of their culture. Socrates was a loyal citizen of Athens. Ezekiel must swallow the Torah scroll before he can prophesy, a metaphor for its memorization. He had to become a virtuoso in the Word of God before he could speak words of judgment against the people of God.
Old-fashioned Marxists read deeply in philosophy and history. An earlier generation of progressives cared about literature. Irving Howe was wrong about political economy, but he knew things. That’s not true of today’s progressives. They’re intelligent and in many respects well trained. But they’re de-cultured. And cultural illiterates, however powerful they become, cannot lead. They can only bribe, seduce, intimidate, and coerce.
Great Books and classical education are largely Christian projects in America today. Christian colleges are the institutions most likely to encourage a sustained engagement with Western history, literature, and philosophy. To have an influential and lasting say in the living future, one must have a deep knowledge and love of what one has inherited. That’s something that can’t be transmitted through TED talks. The authority that comes with cultural literacy won’t be superseded by brain science. Which is why we’re far more likely to shape the future of the West than are de-cultured secular progressives.
An unacknowledged elitism is another profound weakness. Yale University does not have a Dignity of the Worker Week. It does not even have a Save the Planet Week. Yale is notorious for Sex Week, which tells us a great deal about its priorities.
Today’s progressivism has come a long way from Pete Seeger’s communism. It’s now almost entirely preoccupied with elite issues. Organs of the liberal establishment such as The Atlantic and the New Yorker focus on the super-subtle problems facing super-high-achieving women with super-high status. The glass ceiling is a problem that’s about as One Percent as it gets.
In Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That case concerned inheritance taxes. These taxes kick in for estates of $5 million for federal taxes, and in New York (where Edith Windsor lived) they take effect for estates of $2 million or more. Another One Percent problem. Meanwhile, the redefinition of marriage creates the impression that marriage is an infinitely malleable institution that can be modified at will. Along with no-fault divorce, this disorients lower- and middle-class Americans, contributing to a decline in marriage. If you want to see marriage inequality, compare Bronxville with the Bronx. Gay marriage is a luxury good for the rich, paid for by the poor.
A democratic society needs moral leadership that speaks to the needs of all citizens. As the middle class continues to slide toward underclass levels of illegitimacy and family dysfunction, the fundamental egalitarianism of the biblical ethic of sex, marriage, and family will become evident. The social contract frays under the pressures of economic globalization. There are important changes we need to make in economic policy to repair what is being rent. In this context, however, it’s social conservatism that often best promotes social justice. One does not need an advanced degreeeven a high-school degreeto be a good husband and father. The family provides the most reliable social safety net. Patriotic solidarity can knit us together and motivate us to make sacrifices for each other. We can say these things; progressives won’t.
Secular progressivism often encourages a condescending parochialism. Multiculturalism is a managerial ideology. It treats people as pawns and cultures as institutional ornaments. Law firms, universities, and corporations often brag about their “diversity” in the same way they market their services and products.
Moreover, the typical American liberal thinks all morally serious and intelligent people agree with him. To be a progressive isn’t to represent a particular culture. Instead, it’s an outlook that’s thought to transcend culture and take us to the commanding heights of reason. Those who dissent are dismissed as either wicked or stupidor as members of cultures and identities to be managed by multiculturalism. Our liberal establishment does not engage with those who disagree.
As radical Islam so clearly shows, the global future we face involves conflicts of conviction, not race, class, or gender. This is not a future that secular progressives are well equipped to face. For they seek to rise above all conflicts of conviction, sometimes as purveyors of rights, sometimes as proponents of tolerance, sometimes as cultural diplomats offering to manage conflicts with the give-and-take of identity politics.
As a result, we cannot count on the de-cultured elites of the West to defend Western culture. (European populists are coming to recognize this.) At the same time, non-Westerners see Western progressivism less as a rival for men’s souls than as an attack on all cultures of conviction, including their own. It is paradoxical that today’s Western imperialism denies its loyalty to the West, posing instead as a globalized benevolence and universal dispenser of justice.
We need a global culture of truth, in which conviction and loyalty have scope for their full expression. But this same culture needs to encourage peace. Here we have a great advantage. We have a humility born of our knowledge that original sin limits our grasp of truth and taints our motives for public engagement. The commandment to love our neighbor nurtures civility.
It’s not much commented upon, but, in my experience, secular progressivism encourages a spirit of condemnation that lacks mercy. This represents still another weakness. The recent fracas at the University of Virginia over what turned out to be a false story of gang rape demonstrates a typical pattern. Injustices real or imagined are thrown into the sharpest possible relief, expanded into crimes against entire classes of people, and described as systemic. Demands are issued. All must engage in public displays of prostration before the high gods of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
For an entire generation, perhaps two, we have been subjected to searching accusations of power and privilege. People work hard to show that they too are oppressed, thereby shielding themselves. But no one is safe. Recently, the Mount Holyoke College women’s-studies department reported that it will not longer stage an annual performance of The Vagina Monologues, having felt its feminism outflanked by the exclusion of “women” who lack the body part so prominently put forward by the play. The transgendered will feel oppressed! All withers before the condemning and all-destroying moralism of progressive social justice.
We should not underestimate this atmosphere of moral fear. God have mercy on the lecturer who fails to consider this or that excluded minority. Of course there is no God. So there is no mercy. The politics of progressivism is often the politics of denunciation and personal destruction. Is it any wonder that young people now steer clear of the humanities, where this sort of thinking often holds sway?
Here again we have an advantage. God searches our innermost secrets. His Word cuts deeply into our souls. But his judgment serves his love. A Christian spirit of social reform and renewal can speak the hard word of moral truth, to be sure, but that spirit knows we all sin, and it knows of God’s mercy. We are capable of promoting a politics of fraternal correction.
A metaphysical poverty is the greatest weakness of today’s secular outlook. We are hardwired with a desire to know and serve and even sacrifice for something greater than ourselves. This restless desire need not lead a person to Christ. Faith is a gift. But that desire will not be satisfied with the calculating machine of utilitarianism, the incoherent ideal of personal authenticity, or the zero-sum game of identity politics. Even for someone who does not believe, a Christian-inspired culture offers transcendent orientation. It encourages contemplation. It directs us toward truths that are not useful or politically correct, but simply true. There are people today reading Thomas Aquinas, Pascal, and Newman as living voices, speaking to them about how to live and what to live for. That perennial possibility is our greatest strength.
We can win. That’s a facile assertion, I know. Culture is not a war. It’s an ongoing conversation that often becomes a disputation. Nobody gains the final upper hand. The conversation that is culture and the disputations that are its wars end only when God gathers us to partake in the wedding feast of the Lamb. Then we will taste and see and know the goodness of the Lord.
First Things at Twenty-Five
A new magazine was announced in 1989. Establishment liberalism had been traumatized by the rise of the religious right and was doing all it could to drive religion out of the public square. Yet there was Richard John Neuhaus, saying, Excuse me, but, no, orthodoxy is not dead, it’s not irrelevant, and the truth about God and man can’t be shut up into a little box called private opinion. We will be heard!
So I subscribed. And I wasn’t disappointed. I never agreed with everything I read in our pages in those early years. (I still don’t.) But it thrilled me to read smart, relevant, and often sharp-edged essays and reviews written by men and women who think faith matters: matters for our political system, matters for our culture, matters for our souls.
Neuhaus and his colleagues penned an editorial introducing First Things, “Putting First Things First.” It is reprinted in this issue. The main body is made up of a statement of “editorial prejudices.”
The most important prejudice concerns priority: “The first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing.” We are inveterately political in the sense that we have a fundamental concern for our common life together as a community, nation, and people. This political instinct ennobles us, for it calls us to use our powers of reason and capacities for loyalty and even sacrifice to serve the common good. But we are something greater still. We are religious animals, and our final end (as the Westminster Catechism puts it) is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The sacred politics of the soul are more important than the secular politics of policies, parties, and nations.
The second prejudice is that our secular politics benefit from the priority of worship, prayer, and contemplation. Religious faith helps us keep politics in its place as something important, often very important, but not ultimate. Faith guards against ideologies that are modernity’s idolatries. Faith also awakens us from complacency, spurring us to seek a greater justice.
The third resists a narrow definition of politics and public life as the contest for power. “Politics is, in largest part, an expression of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion.” We can vote only for what we can imagine, and therefore the politics of the imagination turn out to be more important than the politics of politics. Philosophy, history, literature, and the artsthese expand the boundaries of our imaginations. Sadly, these can also contract our imaginations: for example, the tired clichés of transgressive art.
Twenty-five years ago, the founding editors of First Things described Americans as “incorrigibly religious.” We push back against the secular conceit that religion is a thing of the past and that progress necessarily means secularization. But over the past twenty-five years, Americans have shown themselves to be increasingly corrigible. Church attendance still remains the highest among Western nations, but those claiming no religious affiliation (the nones) are a growing portion of the population. As a consequence, the prominent role of Christianity in public life has been subjected to renewed pressure, which is why we’re in a season of debate about the proper nature and scope of religious liberty.
The final prejudice Neuhaus and his associates outlined is a commitment to a consequential and not procedural pluralism: “We intend to nurture a pluralism that revives and sustains the conversation about what really matters, which is the truth.” The conversation is not limitless. There has always been a center of gravity in our pages, which is something a coherent conversation must have. But it has been a real conversation, which means affirmation and dissent, argument and counterargument.
Things have changed since 1990. I mentioned the rise of the nones. It has made our public culture in some ways more hostile. But we need to recognize that some of the pressure we feel is backlash caused in part because of our successes. Religion has not retreated from the public square. That frustrates those who see faith as an obstinate obstacle to moral “progress.” So they redouble their attacks. The New Atheists are today’s Tractarians of unbelief.
Mainline Protestantism was already in steep decline in 1990. It has become even less relevant today. Neuhaus hoped Catholicism would step into the role of America’s theological conscience, but that didn’t happen. The religious right’s remarkable influence over national politics crested a decade ago, and many young Evangelicals now weary of the culture wars.
In spite of these changes, as I’ve paged through the March 1990 issue, I’m struck by the continuityand the enduring relevance. Paul Johnson and Amy Sherman wrote about capitalism and our need to put this successful system of economic development on a firm moral footing. Michael Novak reflected on the ways in which “Catholic Whigs” correct the excessive individualism of modern liberalism without courting the dangers of collectivism. Stanley Hauerwas gave a Protestant’s view of the importance of being Catholic. Russell Hittinger reviewed David Novak’s most recent book, a Jewish justification of JewishChristian dialogue. Neuhaus wrote on the Holocaust and abortion.
Twenty-five years later, the basic imperatives remain the same: provide a moral foundation for a free economy, save modern liberalism from its destructive excesses, discern our common witness as Christians and Jews, and fight for the sanctity of life. Take a look at ten issues from that first year or two and you’ll find essays on religious freedom, war and peace, marriage and family, philosophical materialism, literary figures, and theological movements. Again, the continuity is striking. Times change, but first things don’t. The prejudices that guided Neuhaus and his colleagues have shown themselves to be very sound. May they guide the next twenty-five years.
The week before Christmas, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a permanent ban on fracking in New York State. The reason he gave was concern about the health risks posed by fracking technologies that inject sand and chemicals into rock formations to extract oil and gas. But the real reason was pressure from environmental groups.
As has been the case with the Keystone pipeline, in New York the opposition comes from those concerned about global warming. Super-rich activists like Tom Steyer have adopted the cause, which today plays much the same role that fears of overpopulation played in the 1960s and ’70s. Back then the rich promoted abortion and contraception. To address global warming, Steyer and others fund groups that use whatever means available to fight any expansion of the “carbon economy.” In New York, the means happen to be the dangers of water contamination and other health hazards.
In all likelihood there are health risks associated with fracking, just as there are health risks associated with oil refineries, steel mills, and automobile factories. These risks need to be addressed by regulation. But as we deliberate about what to regulate and to what degree, we also need to think about the benefits. In the case of fracking, we need to consider the ways in which increased oil-and-gas production contributes to economic growth and thereby helps the working class.
North Dakota is in the midst of a tremendous economic boom. It’s a place where a high-school-educated man can make a very good living in the expanding oil-and-gas industry, whose expansion depends on fracking technologies. The extracted hydrocarbons need to be transported and refined as wellmore jobs. The most dramatic upside for working-class America will likely be a revitalized manufacturing economy that gains competitive advantages in the global economy as American energy costs decline.
Cuomo’s decision ignores these benefits. That does not surprise me. Environmental groups have ramped up pressure to ban fracking over the past few years. On many occasions as I’ve walked through Union Square here in New York, I’ve been asked by fresh-faced young people to sign anti-fracking petitions. They’re college students or recent college graduates eager to serve a good cause. I usually smile and say, “No.” Once I stopped and asked the volunteer why she opposed jobs for working-class men in New York. She looked at me like I was from outer space.
There’s lots of talk about making the transition to a green economy, and liberals like to sell their anti-carbon environmentalism as a winwin. I’m skeptical. The green economy turns on technological innovation. It’s a Silicon Valley project, not an Allegheny Valley project.
I don’t deny the dangers of global-climate change. It would be very odd if rapid industrialization and its current expansion throughout the world had no implications for the global ecosystem. Prudent regulation is wise. But prudence also requires political judgment. Here in the United States, the speculative dangers of climate change need to be weighed against the real and present dangers of stagnant wages and depressed rates of labor participation.
Gambling, Not Fracking
The same week Andrew Cuomo announced the ban on fracking, a New York State board recommended the approval of three sites for the development of resort casinos. Expansion of gambling has been a Cuomo priority, sold as an engine of economic development in economically depressed regions of New York. It’s also sold as a source of licensing and tax revenue. “The risk is all on the private sector,” Cuomo crowed, “and we have only the upside.”
I suppose he thinks “we” means “We, the people.” But it really means “We, the well-educated who don’t gamble.” Gambling, like fracking, is an enterprise that seeks to extract resources. In its case, the resources come out of the pockets of those who are unlikely to be winners in the global economy. The lower you are on the economic ladder, the more likely you are to be a regular gambler.
Cuomo’s push for expanded gambling fits nicely into contemporary liberalism. The same people who will benefit from an expanded green economy won’t suffer from an expanded gambling economy, because they’d rather dine at an upscale (but tastefully casual) restaurant in Brooklyn that specializes in locally sourced food and sustainable agriculture than get on a bus to go to a “Las Vegasstyle” casino in the Catskills.
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?