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Paul Ryan will not seek another term in Congress. No doubt the personal reasons he gave for bowing out are important. But it’s likely he’s also frustrated that the market-oriented and freedom-focused conservatism he took for granted has lost traction. He’s not alone. The ideas and priorities that dominated the American right only a few short years ago are being swept aside. So are the pundits, politicians, and operatives who represent those views. If a Republican primary were held tomorrow, Mitt Romney would do poorly. It wouldn’t matter that he had the backing of the big donors and endorsements from Republican grandees.

I admire Ryan and Romney. They are good men and true public servants. But I’m glad they’ve been sidelined. I’ve generally voted Republican over the last thirty years. But as a Christian, I’ve become disgruntled. After Romney’s loss in 2012, the report commissioned by the Republican National Committee revealed that party leaders were planning to sideline the issues I cared most about: the sanctity of life, the integrity of marriage, and the moral ecology and civic unity of our society. The game plan was to live within the moral and cultural rules set by the secular, progressive elite—multiculturalism lite. Those running the conservative movement in Washington didn’t want to toss First Things readers overboard. They need our votes. But they wanted us to shut up and stop spoiling things with our moralizing concerns. “It’s the economy, stupid.”

It was a profound misdiagnosis, as Trump brutally exposed. We’re experiencing a crisis of solidarity in America, not a crisis of prosperity. It has an economic dimension, though not the one so many conservative leaders imagined. The problem was not that taxes on the “makers” are too high. Trump went on to victory in the Republican primaries, and then the general election, because high school–educated Americans find it difficult to attain the financial security of middle-class life. Even the college-educated are on edge.

Cultural inequalities are more important, however. As Charles Murray has documented, the winners in today’s America seem to thrive reasonably well in our deregulated moral culture. The problem is that folks on the lower rungs of society are increasingly victims of dysfunction. Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have reported on the shocking rise in “deaths of despair” among white working-class Americans. The consequences of demoralization reverberate throughout our society. A generation ago, a married couple with steady jobs assumed their kids would be OK. Now they fear their families will be overcome by the social dysfunction that creeps up the income ladder.

Amid this crisis of solidarity, conservative leaders have been worse than oblivious. We are living in a time of unprecedented erosion of marital fidelity and family stability—while the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page inveighs against even the most modest policy proposals to counter these trends, labeling them “conservative social engineering.” A libertarian sentiment underwrites a broad retreat from the defense of moral decency. The political strategy? Wink at social conservatives like me through coded words such as “federalism.” The political principle is sound, but in truth it was used to signal opposition to gay marriage without the inconvenience of taking a stand. Religious freedom can be used in this way, too. Instead of confronting transgender ideology, Republican leaders are likely to pledge to defend our “right to be wrong.”

Recently, former Speaker of the House and Republican John Boehner went into the pay of the marijuana industry, accepting a position on the board of a weed-growing company. In all likelihood, he will use his political connections to promote drug legalization. This epitomizes our circumstances. The Democratic party leads the charge for ever more cultural deregulation, and when Republicans aren’t joining in, they’re not spending any political capital resisting. At most, they’ll promise to protect our freedom not to embrace license. But that won’t work. The culture of permission is obligatory, not optional. Our failure to affirm transgression becomes an implicit denigration of the choices of others.

Given these circumstances, I welcome the crisis in the Republican party. Republicans caved on gay marriage, at least at the national level. The party leaders ran (and still run) for cover as soon as incoming mortar fire from the Human Rights Campaign hits anywhere in their neighborhoods. Republican bigwigs worked to block protections of religious freedom in Arizona in 2014. They put their tails between their legs in 2015 when corporate America launched its shock and awe campaign against a similar effort in Indiana. By 2016, after another retreat in Georgia, I was convinced that establishment Republicans would not spend political capital to protect our religious liberty. Even the supposed leaders of the conservative movement continue to wring their hands, preaching judicial restraint (another coded way to signal they’re on our side without actually taking the risk of being on our side)—ready to reconcile themselves to the next wave of progressive victories. As I said, multiculturalism lite.

But I worry. Getting rid of the leaders taking us in the wrong direction is no guarantee we’re heading in the right one. Donald Trump is an enema for our political system. He removes the blockage of a failed leadership. But he lacks the credibility, and perhaps the desire, to frame a program of renewal that addresses the profound moral and cultural decay that fuels the crisis of solidarity. Other Republican leaders are less stained by moral decadence than Trump. Some are exemplary and honorable. But politicians such as Mike Pence have been socialized into the failing Republican consensus. Their message remains freedom, not unity; opportunity rather than solidarity; deregulation, not reconsolidation. They are unlikely to lead us forward.

In the Republican primary, Trump gave the back of his hand to free-market purists, and he lambasted neoconservative internationalists. He loudly and crudely denounced illegal immigrants, defying the tacit bipartisan agreement to pretend there is nothing we can do about it. All of this won him votes. Meanwhile, he kissed the ring of social conservatives. Whatever his motives, that judgment about whom to offend and whose favor to curry worked, showing with extraordinary clarity who actually matters in the real world of Republican electoral politics.

In the general election, Trump did not tack toward moderation on social issues. During one of the debates, he spoke about the evil of abortion in visceral, graphic terms. He promised anti-abortion judges rather than judges committed to “faithfully interpreting the Constitution,” a Bush-era euphemism. He waged a rhetorical war against the pieties of political correctness and continued his coarse attacks on illegal immigration. He insisted that the nation would say “Merry Christmas” again. Trump was everything the 2012 election postmortem said would lead to electoral disaster—and he won. Whether you are pro-Trump, anti-Trump, or Trump-questioning, the realities of American public life have become clearer to all of us in the last two years. Paul Ryan’s announcement makes them clearer still. It’s time for religious and social conservatives like us to lead rather than be led.

A First Things Agenda for Public Life

We’re not in the business of formulating policy proposals or writing party platforms. Our job is to return the public debate to first principles. Russell Hittinger does exactly that. He identifies the three anchors of social existence: church, political community, and family (“The Three Necessary Societies,” June/July 2017). In this issue, Timothy Reichert and Francis Maier describe these domains of life as hierarchical or “folding” institutions (“Origami of the Soul”). Such institutions socialize and orient us toward shared loyalties. The three necessary societies are covenantal. They provide us with primary experiences of “belonging,” something we all crave. In Catholic social doctrine, covenantal belonging is called “solidarity.”

Today’s political challenges do not stem from low productivity growth or inadequate incentives for investment. They arise because of the weakening of the three necessary societies and the resulting decline in solidarity. To address this problem at its most fundamental level, we need to renew the covenantal dimensions of society, especially religious communities, civic life, and the family.

Church. Our political tradition of non-establishment limits political support for religious communities. We need to use those limited means. We ought to promote interior life and piety as a counterweight to modernity’s ersatz political religions. School prayer is worth reviving. Perhaps this can be done with a moment of silence, which isn’t theologically circumscribed but encourages young people to take seriously their natural inclination toward reverence and interior openness to the divine. At a curricular level, we should propose mandatory philosophy courses for high school seniors, as well as standards for biblical knowledge. Both are warranted on the grounds of cultural literacy; both open up secondary education to something higher.

We need to reverse the anti-establishment extremism of the post–World War II Supreme Court. The First Amendment does not forestall the legal encouragement of a broad, open-ended consensus that man is made for something more than utility-maximization. All of us have a natural desire for God. If we wish to serve the common good, defending religious freedom is not enough. We need to promote a general atmosphere of religiosity. This can be done in ways that respect our tradition of theological pluralism and religious freedom.

Not everyone will be religiously observant, or needs to be. And evangelization is not the government’s job. But no society can flourish if citizens remain ignorant of higher things. Good government requires laws and policies that work against that ignorance.

Political community. Hittinger uses the word “polity” to describe our shared political life. The machinery of government is only one aspect. The civic consensus is more fundamental. It is a shared world of memories, sentiments, convictions, and loyalties. These covenantal bonds need to be renewed in every generation. Multicultural ideology impedes that process. Mass immigration does as well, especially when accompanied by a refusal to promote assimilation. Political correctness wars against the transmission of our shared heritage. This undermines solidarity and sours our public culture.

The rise in “deaths of despair” is linked to the multicultural derogation of America’s heritage. For most people, concentric circles of belonging—San Antonio, the Republic of Texas, and the United States of America—are profound sources of pride and solidarity. This is especially true for citizenship, which undergirds self-esteem. Most do not have impressive degrees and achievements; nor do they have accumulated wealth. Those sources of self-worth are available to the fortunate top 10 percent. Take away the nobility of our civic inheritance—as multicultural ideology does—and most of our fellow citizens are left with little to be proud of. This is especially true at a time when family bonds and religious loyalties—the other sources of ennobling loyalties—have weakened.

We need to reject the ideology of open borders and support immigration policies that respect the natural human desire for cultural continuity. We need to reform primary and secondary education to restore positive civic pedagogies. This approach need not descend into simple-minded national cheerleading, but it must provide ordinary people with a sense of pride in our shared culture. We are social animals with a profound desire to honor and serve a common heritage. This human need must be addressed if we’re to restore health to the body politic.

Marriage. The decline in the harmony, stability, and fruitfulness of male-female relations affects our private lives, true; but it also debilitates public culture. One of the most profound lies of our time—a lie encoded into current constitutional law—is that sex is a purely private matter. Regulating the male-female dance has always been one of society’s primary concerns, and rightly so. No polity can be at peace unless men and women are in solidarity. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that intimate life, especially sex, has been the site of political contestation for decades.

The institution of marriage stabilizes male-female relations. But the divine power of eros requires “folding” by soul-shaping norms. Attacks on these norms over the last three generations have deformed the intimate lives of our fellow citizens. This has a great deal to do with our political crises, far more than we realize. It’s not just that rich girls face a chaotic sexual culture at expensive universities, or that more and more working-class women have illegitimate children. Grandparents are raising their grandchildren. Thirty-year-old men live like adolescents. Women wonder if they’ll ever get married. These unanticipated responsibilities—and unprecedented possibilities of life without responsibilities—erode the most fundamental and intimate forms of solidarity.

Our obscene pro-pornography legal regime needs to be attacked. No-fault divorce can’t be rolled back all at once, but we can limit and deter divorce on the margins. We have done so with abortion, achieving modest successes. We can make incremental progress defending marriage as well. I’ve proposed a tax on divorce in the past. No doubt there are other, indirect ways to encourage marital fidelity.

We also need creative thinking about how to repair the delicate (and always imperfect) choreography of men and women. Required ballroom dancing in high schools will help. Learning to play complementary roles prepares the imagination of the young for the difficult covenantal project of sharing the most intimate facets of one’s life with another.

Some of these off-the-cuff proposals should be tossed. My goal is not to provide a political platform. It is to point us in the right direction. The leadership of both political parties is disoriented. They fail to see that our crisis is one of solidarity and institutional disintegration. They continue with the deregulatory projects of the past. Republicans emphasize still more economic fluidity. Boehner wants to open up markets for marijuana. Democrats propound still more moral and cultural fluidity. Hillary Clinton continues to barnstorm for more opportunities for women, and not just for women, but for the “gender fluid” as well.

These deregulatory projects are decadent. Our problem is a loss of solidarity, a loss caused by the weakening of the three necessary societies. In present circumstances, religious and social conservatives like us need to put aside the defensive strategies we’ve adopted in the last two decades. We should not try to create zones of protected existence based on rights. We need to formulate a positive agenda to promote the common good. This is especially true in the Republican party, where the once-powerful grandees are unmanned. Readers of First Things don’t have all the answers. But we can see what’s needed: the renewal of religiosity and civic unity, and the restoration of the choreography of men and women.

To pray, to savor the Word of God, to venture the solution to a mathematical puzzle, to put your children to bed at night, to do your job with integrity, to offer a kind word to a stranger—these are far more important than our involvement in politics. As the prophet Jeremiah reminds us, however, we have a duty to seek the good of the city where God has placed us in this time of exile, before the return of his Son in glory. Today, that means some of us need to reorient political debate, especially in the conservative movement. We do not lack freedom, if by freedom one means mere choice and being left alone. We don’t need to deregulate our economy and culture still further. The administrative state, political correctness, careerist conformity, and other threats to freedom grow because the necessary societies have weakened. Renewing these institutions of solidarity is how we will best serve the common good.

Mary, Seat of Wisdom

The angel of the Lord came to Mary, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her. The virgin girl became, in a literal sense, the unique custodian of divine truth: She carried the Logos in her womb. In her vocation as Mother of God, Mary opens herself to truth’s fruitful power. And in the stable in Bethlehem, she conveys that truth to others. She is, therefore, the perfect exemplar and model of the intellectual life. Paul Griffiths’s recent essay, “Letter to an Aspiring Intellectual” (May 2018), inspired me to think again about the Virgin Mary, for in her we can identify the dispositions, qualities, and virtues we need to be truth-receivers and truth-givers, which is to say, genuine intellectuals.

“Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” In the popular imagination, Mary is first and foremost a virgin. That word’s primary meaning is sexual, but the connotations are broader. To be virginal means to be unspoiled, untainted, pristine, and immaculate. The Virgin Mary, therefore, is not simply a woman who has not had sexual intercourse. She is without blemish or fault. She fulfills the sixth beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” In the moral life, purity of heart means clarity or transparency of intention, to do what is right without mixed motives or hesitation. In the intellectual life, we should seek a similar clarity.

Clarity of vision is difficult to attain. As St. Paul wrote, “Now we see through a glass darkly.” The burdens of a fallen world weigh upon us; our vision is obscured by worldly cares.

Distraction, gossip, and entertainment: These and other temptations cause us to fail to attend to our studies with constancy and settled purpose. We need the discipline of concentration. That means devoting a season of our lives to nothing but intellectual work, usually in an institutional setting and among peers whose good example can challenge and chastise us. We need to focus our passions, creating a hierarchy of desires so that our attention falls primarily on our intellectual work. It’s a simple fact that sustained study wipes away some of the grime that clouds our vision.

This does not mean we’re to shun recreation and become grinds. Just as fields need to go fallow to attain their full fruitfulness, so also our minds need occasions to wander and muse. Truth’s visitations are sometimes serendipitous. Moreover, we have moral obligations to our families and friends, and to God. There’s no purity of heart in seeking wisdom by neglecting those who rely on us—or by forgoing prayer to read another book or write a paper. Nevertheless, the intellectual life requires focused attention, which means a significant chunk of time and, more important, the priority of our affections. As the allegory of Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs teaches, truth seeks our hearts, not just our minds.

Another impediment is false narrowness. It’s quite possible to be an academic expert without being an intellectual. In fact, the cult of expertise can become positively anti-intellectual. It fixates on slivers of truth rather than aspiring to knowledge of the whole. In my experience, many professors, perhaps most, are anti-intellectual in this way. They openly disdain those who risk larger thoughts, enforcing disciplinary boundaries and deeming “unqualified” those who overstep them.

What’s needed is a proper but not exaggerated dedication to one’s area of expertise. The academic disciplines focus our attention and train us to be rigorous, precise, and thorough. This is for the best. But we need to engage larger questions, too, as well as cultivate diverse, even eccentric interests. Illumination often comes from sources far removed from our primary course of study.

Incorruptibility characterizes Mary’s purity. The pure in heart resist conquest by worldly powers. This requires moral discipline, which can be distinguished from academic discipline but never separated from it. We are too often under the dominion of our reality-swallowing egos, which desire convenient, self-serving, and self-complimenting truths. Our worldly concerns gain the upper hand, corrupting our intellectual judgment.

This lack of purity is obvious to anyone who spends time at a university. There one sees how often vanity makes us incorrigibly loyal to our interpretations, ideas, and theories—not truth. Greed desires appointments, prizes, and fellowships, not clarity of vision. Today’s universities can be ruthlessly politically correct. In order to remain safe, many don’t say what they believe, or they endorse what they know to be false. These habits corrupt the life of the mind.

Innocence is still another manifestation of Mary’s virginal purity that illuminates the intellectual life. To be sure, we need to use the critical tools of analysis. In our work, it’s helpful to be challenged and subjected to rigorous critique. The true intellectual needs to cultivate his agility in the parry and thrust of argument. But these critical and dialectical modes can too easily lead to cold skepticism, worldly-wise knowingness, and a combative spirit that confuses debating skills with wisdom. These dangers are especially evident today. Too often we prize critical suspicion over settled conviction, and we cherish flashy critical skills rather than seeking sound judgment. Against these dangers we need to cultivate intellectual innocence. Yes, we live in a fallen world, and yes, our vision is obscured by sin. But reality remains radiant with truths that strike us with wonderful immediacy.

My advice, therefore, is to return again and again to the books or experiences that first sparked your intellectual desire and inspired you to commit yourself to a life of the mind. Some years ago, I reread Karl Barth’s little book Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. For a moment, I was again a college student rejoicing in the discovery of a discipline of reflection that boldly speaks of God. Academic sophistication is often an enemy of intellectual innocence. We need to beware the culpable innocence that blunders into ill-considered conclusions. But there’s also a naive zeal that can renew the heart of any soul wearied by pedantry. Find books that are bold in an almost childlike way, giving off the aroma of innocence. G. K. Chesterton wrote in that way. Seek out conversation partners with similar qualities.

Jesus tells us: “Be wise as serpents, but innocent as doves.” Someone with intellectual virtue knows when to be serpent-like. There’s a place for strategic thinking, discerning which questions to ask—and when and to whom. Yet there’s also a need for us to be dove-like. Do not always take care in seminar interventions, limiting what you say to qualified statements well supported by evidence. Don’t always choose safe topics and noncontroversial themes. There are times to set aside worldly-wise efforts to navigate toward professional success. The Virgin Mary is the Mother of God—there are times to give innocent voice to something grand and transcendent, something that outstrips your capacities and outruns your reason. And that can be done in seemingly inauspicious circumstances, such as in stables.

Virginal purity is as difficult to attain in the intellectual life as it is in the moral life. It is more important to have an incorruptible professor than a careerist who happens to hold congenial views. Find friends who relish the pre-professional innocence of seeking again and again the original inspirations of their vocations rather than focusing on the next internship, application, or appointment. As Jesus teaches, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”

Purity is not the only important intellectual disposition the Virgin Mary teaches. She is also the model of humility, courage, and joy. I’ll return to those dimensions of the life of the mind in the coming months.

while we’re at it

♦ George Weigel and Michael Sean Winters are in agreement, which is not something that happens every day. They have both laid into College of the Holy Cross. Tat-siong Benny Liew, a New Testament scholar, was hired there in 2013 and given an endowed chair. A student journalist, Elinor Reilly, recently wrote a story about his published articles, one of which fits into the academic genre of queer theory. In his 2009 piece, Liew offers a lurid, sexualized retelling of episodes in the Gospels. Christ is “quintessentially queer.” On the cross, he imagines himself “being penetrated” by the Father. John 14:6 serves as an opportunity to reflect on ejaculation as Liew interposes “cum” for “come” in “No one comes to the Father except through me.” As Winters observes, “In an academic context, there is something worse than offensive or kooky: There is stupid.”

It causes one to wonder what Holy Cross was thinking when it hired an academic who traffics in the clichéd genre of “transgressive scholarship.” One guess: The college’s leadership long ago translated “Catholicism” into “social justice,” which means progressive politics. Liew’s approach may seem blasphemous, but actually it advances the college’s Catholic mission! Another guess: Leadership wasn’t thinking, and the faculty is simply allowed to drift in the unhappy currents of academic postmodernism. Claptrap from the Holy Cross administration about “academic freedom” suggests the latter. Nobody disputes Liew’s freedom to publish his po-mo musings about Jesus and sodomy. But that freedom does not entitle him to a teaching job at a Catholic university.

You might consider writing Holy Cross president, Fr. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J. I’m sure he’d be delighted to hear from those who worry about rudderless Catholic institutions.

President, College of the Holy Cross
Fenwick Hall 119
Worcester, MA 01610

♦ Roger Severino heads up the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services. He has set as a task for that office the protection of healthcare workers from being compelled to participate in abortions, doctor-assisted suicide, and other procedures that violate religiously formed consciences. He told reporters, “We are institutionalizing a change in the culture of government, beginning at HHS, to never forget that religious freedom is a primary freedom, that it is a civil right.”

♦ Assistant editor Connor Grubaugh reminded me of the “corporate cosmology” tirade in the 1976 movie Network. Newscaster Howard Beale is stirring things up with populist rhetoric. His supreme boss, telecommunications mogul Arthur Jenson, berates him. “You are an old man,” says Jenson to Beale, “who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are not nations. There are no peoples. . . . There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars.” This is not a bad fate, insists the mogul. “Our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality—one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.” Subtract the world-swallowing corporate dystopia, turn down the volume, add human rights and the “rule-based international system,” and this amusing scene could be a present-day globalist sermon.

♦ A devoted First Things reader put his house up for sale. The realtor insisted upon rearranging the décor and de-cluttering the rooms—“staging,” as they say in the trade. Knickknacks and family mementos were banished to closets and storage boxes. On the coffee table, only a discrete, tasteful display was permitted: three recent issues of First Things. There you have it. We’ve always known that discerning minds need to be reading First Things. Now it’s been established that good taste requires a subscription.

♦ A good friend wrote recently to praise the magazine. He added one caveat: “I do miss the humorous entries in ‘While We’re At It.’” I can only reply, “Me, too.” Richard John Neuhaus had a wonderful appreciation for the comedy of life, especially the comedy of church life. And he could turn a clever phrase like nobody’s business. I’m reminded yet again of the impossibility of imitating the inimitable.

♦ James Burns and Alisia Chase would like to form a ROFTERS group in Rochester, New York. You can join by getting in touch at or 585-794-2721.

Joe Bowen in Lincoln, Nebraska, wants to form a ROFTERS group in that fine city where I once happily lived while my wife clerked for the Nebraska Supreme Court. You can get in touch with him at or 402-541-4365.

David Baer of Medellín, Colombia, wants to test interest among First Things readers in that beautiful country. Would you like to meet quarterly or semi-annually to discuss this fine publication in Bogotá, or more regularly in Medellín? You can contact him at That’s .co, for Colombia, not .com

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